Thursday, August 09, 2012

What we ask in return

I have both worked as a barista and purchased coffee drinks. The following is a response, from the other side, to the latest list (via) of coffee-shop patron infractions:

-Do not fault customers for ordering things that are on the menu. If you work at a place that offers soy milk and cappuccinos, do not roll your eyes when someone orders something that isn't a black coffee. Fault the stingy management if you're put alone on the shift, at an hour when the line's always out the door, and a board above you is encouraging customers to get a half-decaf extra-foam 1% (which will mean mixing 2% and skim, which is a pain) vanilla latte.

-Remember that different places do things differently, so new customers won't know intuitively where to pay, where to pick up the drink, where to get a top for it, or whether milk/sugar is something you need to order or can add separately. Let's say there's a water cooler with serve-yourself cups, but in a not-obvious spot. If someone asks you for a cup of water, by all means direct them to the cooler, but no need to act like they've intentionally flouted the convention of how one gets water in this kind of establishment.

-Often, we the customers who know this is expected (and not all do) will try to bus our own tables, only to find that the tub is already overfull. We may see you juggling ten things, infer that this is why the tub got that way, and not think this is the moment to tell you about what is not, after all, an emergency. We may instead leave our dishes on the table, or bring them up to the bar. Once again, fault the management for not hiring enough people to clear out the tub (or - imagine - bus tables), not the slovenly customers who didn't arrive bearing their own dish detergent and sink.

-There are no established tipping norms when it comes to tip-jar, staff-gets-at-least-minimum-wage establishments. Those tipping less than you'd prefer (the change for $3 on a drink that was $2.95, say), or not at all, might well be people who do tip 15-20% in restaurants. To give an n-of-1 example, I've worked in a coffee shop and have patronized many. I grew up in New York. And I have no idea what (or if) one is expected to tip in New York coffee shops. So how on earth are new arrivals to whichever locale - from abroad, but also domestic - supposed to know?

-You don't know which customers have how much money. There are college students and recent grads carrying around a Louis Vuitton bag they got as a gift at age 16, but whose parents haven't offered them a cent since 18. There are, well, hipsters, so thrifted garb and unwashed hair doesn't mean J.Crew and a shower didn't fit the budget. Therefore you can't assume that the customers you imagine could easily toss in a dollar with each beverage could do so, or could do so and continue to regularly patronize the establishment. Personally, part of what motivates me to tip in coffee shops is that doing so reminds me I'm indulging in a luxury, one I can afford only occasionally, and this prevents me from going more often.

-Nor do you know which customers might have jobs at least as stressful as yours. The well-dressed guy you imagine is off to his douche office somewhere might be on his way to teach middle school, where the only way he gets respect is if he wears a suit.

-Admit that part of the appeal of the the barista job - there are, after all, myriad other, easier-to-snag food-service positions - is that you get to complain (at least with your body language) about the audacity of the snooty, square customers while on the job. There's an established dynamic whereby the customer wants to be liked by the barista, and only those polite and cool enough will make the cut. Normally, with food service, if the staff is rude, it's held against them. With coffee shops, this is part of the show, along with all the signs posted ordering you to play by their rules, to bus your own damn table but don't forget to tip. Because this dynamic is understood, on the one hand, we the customers care more what you think of us than what the supermarket cashier does. (You contend with entitlement and rudeness, yes, but it's at least partially cancelled out by those who wish to get on your good side. Not so for whoever's folding your clothing at the Gap.) On the other, we have trouble seeing the fact that you must contend with women double-checking that their lattes really are skim as the tragedy you make it out to be.

1 comment:

t said...

Thank you for this. This is a much more well-reasoned comment than I almost left on the Billfold.

I've never been a barista, but I did work in an ice cream shop, so made my fair share of milkshakes, banana splits, and various frozen specialities, so I feel like it's akin, if not as cool, as making coffee. And NOBODY ever tipped. And somehow I managed to be pleasant and serve customers what they ordered without snark. And I knew the menu, and knew my regulars' orders, etc etc., all without tips, because, well, it was my job. I was paid poorly, but well, food service? Always kind of sucks, right? That's why I got a PhD? Oh, wait....