The Secret Lives of Willoughby’s Baristas

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// Henry Ehrenberg

While most Yale students snoozed through the typically sleepy Saturday morning of Sept. 21, Loria was abuzz with Manet mania. The center was in the midst of a conference — the aptly named “Olympiad” — commemorating the 150th anniversary of the painting of Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” and “Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” During this particular weekend, art historical luminaries from the Musée d’Orsay and a host of French universities descended on the Elm City to give lectures on topics inspired by the two tableaux in question — and dropped by Willoughby’s Coffee and Tea.

As a proudly stereotypical history of art major, it’s worth admitting that I spend more than my fair share of time in Willoughby’s — the weekend of the 21st being no exception. After a marathon of Manet-centric lectures, I stopped by the coffee shop to refuel with an iced latte and found myself chatting with one of the professors whose talk I had just attended. Several weeks later, I ventured once again to Willoughby’s for a chat, though this time heading behind the counter to interview Sharrard Wells and Kwanjay Fortes. The pair of ink-free baristas shared with WEEKEND the real scoop on what it’s like to interact with caffeine-addicted Yalies on a daily basis. Sporting “serious coffee drinker” staff tees, they revealed what really goes down in the coffee shop — a spot populated by local-brew devotees, Euro-chic architecture students, and Loria-frequenting undergrads. According to Wells and Fortes, Yale students are partial to flax seed bars, broccoli-cheddar croissants and day drinking on St. Patty’s. (And — spoiler alert — not everyone thinks the now-ubiquitous Y sweater is pretentious.) Read on for more of the down-and-dirty on the daily grind (pun intended).

Q: How many years have you been at Willoughby’s?

Wells: Well, I worked here a couple years ago too, so in total, about three years.
Fortes: About a year and a half.

Q: What’s the most interesting encounter you’ve had with a Yalie? Crazy things you’ve overheard?

Wells: There’s a lot of interesting encounters. One time these kids came in on St. Patrick’s Day, maybe around 4–5 p.m., and caused such a ruckus. They asked to use the bathroom, and then puked in the sink. It was pretty gross but also kind of funny. Another time — I don’t know if she was associated with Yale — this woman stormed out when we didn’t have what she wanted in stock. Except you’re supposed to push the door and she pulled it, which probably added about 10 seconds to her exit.
Fortes: Definitely at certain times weird stuff will happen. Somebody came in and asked if we sold like toothpaste or deodorant or some kind of hygiene product, something weird like that.

Q: How are Yalies? Annoying? Elitist? Polite?

Wells: “There’s all kinds of people. You get a couple snobs every now and then, but you just learn to ignore them after a while. For the most part, everyone’s nice.”
Fortes: “Friendly and polite, I would say.”

Q: Yalies’ most popular drink order? Snack of choice?

Wells: “A lot of Yalies come in and order Americanos. That’s a popular order. Food-wise, it varies a lot, but I guess mostly chocolate or broccoli-cheddar croissants.”
Fortes: “Definitely flax seed bars. And like, regular coffee.”

Q: What do you think of the “Y” sweaters everyone’s wearing now?

Wells: “They’re just sweaters in my opinion … they seem cool for the winter. I’d wear one if I had one, but I’m not a Yale student.”
Fortes: “I like them. I have a Yale jacket at home. I like the Yale gear.”

Q: Any other comments on working at Willoughby’s?

Wells: “The staff here definitely isn’t normal — they’re definitely funny and welcoming, you don’t get that very often anymore.”
Fortes: “Well, it gets busy weekday mornings and during the day like, late noon I would say.”

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