Friday, February 28, 2014

How to Be a Better Coffee Customer

I recently started a totally new job, which means I am 99% sure that I will never, ever again in my life get paid to make espresso. A part of me will miss my awesome customers, the grounding feeling of being part of the rhythm of some one's day, and serving up delicious, artfully poured caffeinated beverages. But I will not miss doing customer service, especially the moments when customers are less-than-ideal.

I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt and assume that they just don't know when they are being rude... and then I thought, "Hey, I should write a blog post about that!" Lo and behold, some one else already did. How to Piss Off Your Barista from the Huffington Post is pretty spot on, and mentions a lot of what I wanted to say. But, in laying down my barista hatchet (tamper?), I still must say my piece, my way.

1. When you order your drink, place your WHOLE order then. It actually matters.

It's really frustrating to have a customer tell you when you're halfway through steaming a pitcher of milk that they actually wanted nonfat milk. Or soy. Guess what? All that half-steamed, lukewarm milk gets dumped out, wasted. Also, even adding, "Can you make that extra hot?" while the drink is in progress is annoying, because I have timed your drink down to the SECOND to make sure that the milk is already done steaming before your shot finishes pulling. A shot that has to sit starts to taste bad. So sure, I CAN make your milk extra hot, but that extra 15 seconds of steaming is 15 seconds your shot is sitting, getting gross. Am I supposed to serve bad shots? Or do I pull new ones, giving you free product AND making you and every one else wait longer? It's a lose-lose situation.

One more example: It takes more cold milk at the start to make a dry cappuccino than a wet cappuccino. More milk yields more foam. Also, good, silky foam can only be made while the milk is cold/cool (below body temperature) so asking a barista to make your cappuccino bone dry when she's already halfway through steaming the milk is physically impossible. But she will just smile and nod.

2. Take out your earbuds/Look up from your smartphone when ordering.

I remember when I moved to South Korea in 2010 and was riding the subway in Seoul for the first time. Almost every one was on their smartphone. It struck me, because it wasn't yet like that in the U.S. When I came back to Seattle over a year later, I noticed far more smartphone use in public, and it permeates not just our alone time, but our time when we would previously have been interacting with humans. Family dinners? Smartphone. At the bar with friends? Smartphone. Ordering your vanilla latte? Smartphone. I understand that for a customer, it might be their few minutes of downtime between work or classes or driving. But for a barista, it's her full-time job, and even though you are just one customer with a three-minute interaction, a whole day of that is incredibly dehumanizing. If some one wants coffee from a machine, I recommend making it at home or going to a gas station or coffee vending machine.

You may have already seen these videos, but while we are on the topic of the pervasiveness of smartphones, here is comedian Louis CK on Conan O'Brien talking about kids and phones, and here's MIT professor Sherry Turkle giving a fabulous TED talk Connected, But Alone. Also, I wanted to share this poem (recorded on KUOW) called Analog Love by Elissa Ball. Elissa is an acquaintance I met in college, and is a powerful poet now living here in Seattle. I love this poem and how in explosive reverence it reminds us of the visceral, tangible qualities of life and love that have gotten lost in this digital age.

3. Order whatever you want, but don't justify your choices to the barista.

Baristas ask follow-up questions about your drink just to be sure they are making what you want, not because they care one way or the other. So if you order a soy mocha, she might ask if you want whipped cream just because that's standard. For every customer who rolls their eyes and says, "Uh... of course not, it's a soy mocha!" there are just as many customers who say, "Uh, of course! Who would pass up whipped cream on a mocha?" There are people who order nonfat lattes with whipped cream. Any drink that seems strange or unlikely has probably been ordered. It starts to feel really inauthentic to smile and chuckle and agree with all the customers and their widely varying preferences.

4. Don't act like spare change is a major catastrophe.

This mostly applies at places that don't allow baristas to accept tips, such as state institutions. Once I rang up a guy's coffee, and it was $2.03. He balked then glared at me, "Are you serious? Two oh three?" he repeated. I assumed he thought it was too expensive and that's what he was mad about. After repeating the price a few more times, he finally said, "What am I supposed to do with 97 cents?" He stared at me expectantly. Surprisingly, this kind of thing happened often- customers being almost offended that they had to take any change.

Also, don't try to pay less for a drink than the full price. It's just tacky. That same guy probably wanted to pay a flat $2 to avoid getting change back, and I understand it's only three cents. But unless you see a penny jar with pennies to use, it is putting the barista in an awkward position. If she is not the business owner, it's not really up to her to undercharge you, and her till needs to be correct at the end of the shift.

5. Try to talk to your barista while waiting for your drink.

Remember, this is what she does full-time, or a good chunk of her working hours. And guess what? Making coffee all day can get kind of tedious. A little genuine connection or sense of humor goes a long way. If she seems busy or not able to talk right then, that's fine. But a huge part of what makes working in the service industry enjoyable is relating to people. And what is going to be more enjoyable to you as the customer, checking your Facebook newsfeed for the billionth time, or a barista who knows you? I got really close to some of my coffee customers, and still hang out with a few of them even six months after leaving that job.

It was actually a customer who inspired me to apply for the job I have now. In our quick exchange at the drive-through window, I told her I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next in my life. "Well, how would you spend your days if money was no object?" she asked. "Writing and gardening!" I said. She nodded pointedly as she drove away, and that was the first time it had ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer. I am now a writer at a job I love, thanks in part to one customer who was willing to really engage for a few minutes.

6. Don't assume your barista knows everything about the surrounding area.

If you do want to ask a logistical question, at least preface it with a "By any chance do you know..." and if they don't know then don't stare at them like they are an idiot. It may be shocking, but being a barista at a cafe does not preclude that we know directions to every part of the city, all the bus routes, what time they come, where the closest post office is, why the automatic door opener on the building next door isn't working, how to get to your biochemistry lab in the J wing, etc. Most baristas are barely trained enough in coffee, let alone the whole city.

That's all I got. I don't usually rant, but I wanted to just get that off my chest. And I'm going to enjoy not making any one coffee for a looooong time. I already have a policy of only dating men who make coffee for me, so I'm off to a good start!


You Don't Know Me. said...

LOVE this, Amber! Good for you for your next awesome step in life.

Joshua said...

Congrats on your new job.

Morgan Catha said...

Good God. These types of reports make me lose faith in humanity. I don't know HOW you guys work customer service jobs. Kudos for putting up with it. And congrats on your new job, Amber!

ElizaBeth said...

So true! It's been a long time since I was a barista but I remember all these points (plus those from the Huffington Post article) very keenly. I also remember being annoyed by people who would pocket 25 or 50 cents rather than throw it into the tip jar, and this one woman in particular who came in every day yet would tell me three or four times as I made her drink that it was decaf. She also never tipped. But as long as there are enough of us who are friendly and chatty and tip every now and then, I think being a barista can still be a fun job! (p.s. so glad you've joined us professional writers; you have always belonged here.)