Another day at the store. You’re in the basement, tying apron strings behind your back before heading upstairs to clock in. The pre-work anticipation this time of day is a little dreadful: no barista can predict how the shift will go, whether there’ll be some crazy story about some crazy customer by the end of it or not. You check your pockets to make sure you have a Sharpie, just in case. All good. Time for war.
Upstairs, you hear the steady rumble of chatter and an industrial coffee grinder. The calling of names punctuates every minute. A barista calls one of those names for a mobile order, and a girl — Yale student— grabs her drink, inspects it and doubles back.
“Does this have the foam in it?”
You read it from here: Grande Cold Brew, Vanilla, Caramel, Sweet Cream. The word “foam” is absent from the sticker. This is important because at Starbucks, there is sweet cream and there is sweet cream cold foam. With distinct options for the two, the order-ahead system on the app makes this choice belong completely to the customer.
“It’s not on the sticker, so it’s not on the drink. Just the cream,” the barista replies.
She puts the cup down. “So you made my drink wrong.”
Baristas don’t like being made to feel incompetent when they’re right, but that doesn’t change the fact that the customer is always right. He shrugs and takes the cup back to fix his mistake. The girl is on the phone now.
“Sorry, I’m gonna be late. I’m at Starbucks and the guy made my drink wrong, like I’ve been waiting, and I ordered ahead with the cold foam in it, but he didn’t even put it on the drink.”
Another battle lost.
There’s something about working in coffee that reveals a lot about the people you serve. The New Haven crowd is pretty friendly, with most of their orders being simple drip coffees. There’s the sweet elderly woman who gets a decaf black coffee every morning, then the lady who tipped me because it was my birthday and it happened to be hers too. And it’s always nice to see the look of relief on people’s faces when I tell them they don’t have to buy anything to receive the bathroom code.
Still, it’s easy to ruminate on how people take advantage of these expected kindnesses. There are the “regulars” who have condescendingly expected me to know what their version of a “regular” is. And the guy who yelled at some of us for being “disrespectful foreigners.” In fact, Starbucks has a reputation for encouraging entitled behavior with its endless drink customizations, not to mention the app’s reward system, which is filled with ambushes of freebies that employees aren’t actually trained to navigate.
All this is to say that working at a massive coffee chain tends to put you on the short end of a very imbalanced power dynamic, where your emotional stability — and maybe even your job — is at the mercy of what exactly someone wants and how picky they are. But when you bring Yale students into the question, as a Yale student myself, this dynamic feels a lot worse.
Another afternoon rush. Yale graduate student. Tall Irish Cream Cold Brew and an Impossible Breakfast Sandwich. “Can I get a name?”
“..ee..” Muffled speech, one of the great obstacles of taking orders. The blenders are blending, masks hide mouths and the sneeze guard between you blocks both germs and intelligible human speech. The guy’s items are safe at least because recognizing names of products is no issue after hearing them day after day.
“Sorry, can you say that one more time?”
“Would you mind speaking up? I’m having a little trouble hearing you.”
“K..ee..on..” Okay, he will be ‘Keaton’ today.
You take more orders. They go smoothly. Your stress has mostly leveled out, and you feel friendly and wonderful. Until your co-worker at the ovens approaches.
“We’re out of Impossible, you wanna tell Keaton while I watch register?”
Great. Thankfully, you see him standing near the counter when you walk over.
You yell intentionally in his direction, “Hi, did you order the Impossible Sandwich and the Irish Cold Brew?”
He looks up from his phone. “No.”
Okay. If you correct him, would you sound like a know-it-all, start some stupid random argument? Would you cross that subjective line of impoliteness in customer service? You don’t have the energy. It’ll probably sort itself out anyway.
Eventually, the cold brew is on the counter, the only one of its kind. The minutes go by. You keep going back to call out his exact order, looking directly at him, but you’re mostly ignored now. He gets fed up, thinking he’s been forgotten. By then, you’re prepping pitchers of lemonade but look up to see him talking to your associate. He’s pointing at you.
“She took my name wrong as Keaton, so someone stole my drink and I’ve been waiting for like thirty minutes.”
You look at the counter to see “Keaton’s” things still on the counter. It doesn’t matter when you tell him they’re here; you must give this man a refund. He stares at me like he’s using telepathy to say “you’re stupid.” And okay, you kind of are, but it’s a two way street.
His drink is remade,the original thrown away.
To this day, the sight of a heather-gray pullover from a Yale graduate school puts my guard up. My co-workers have told me before about the entitlement of some Yale students, and from similarly recurring scenarios like “Keaton’s” I can see why. On evening shifts, I’ve seen students stay in the store as long as possible, even after our 20-minute, 10-minute, and five minute announcements leading up to closing. When I end their Starbucks hangout, it’s not that I’m being hateful – it’s that I just want to go home and crank out my last minute assignment.
I expected some level of understanding from people my age, people studying in the same libraries and living in the same spaces. But, as the barista in the shop, I am still humbled at the end of the day, picking up my classmates’ trash and sweeping their crumbs before close. From this, I’ve also experienced a tunnel version where I’m admittedly quick to make generalizations about others depending on my mood or from impressions at the store. I don’t want to overlook what should be an eye-opening diversity of student backgrounds – from the financial to academic to geographic – but despite the University’s reported 53 percent of students receiving financial aid, it is from working shifts saturated with that “I want it, and I want it now” air of entitlement and financial privilege that I’ve seen this diversity fall short.
What’s interesting, though, is I have yet to see something like this from Yalies in the rest of New Haven. I people-watch at coffee shops — at more local spots like Jitter Bus, Koffee, Willoughby’s and the Acorn. It’s rare for me to observe these little spats near their counters. My suspicion is that this pattern of pettiness at Starbucks could be a matter of external perception, from both sides of the bar.
During my time at Yale, I’ve heard a lot about supporting local businesses, especially since the University, and we as its students, take up a lot of New Haven’s spaces. Perhaps Starbucks is seen as another occupier, pitted against the local shops. In fact, a student-wide email from the Office of Student Affairs suggests that for Phase 2 of our arrival quarantine, students “avoid local businesses, restaurants, and bars” to keep both students and New Haveners safe. However, this also suggests the idea that bigger chains and their workers are of lesser concern. Even if this may not have been the intention, the subtle dismissal in the phrasing still holds.
As a corporate chain, meanwhile, Starbucks’ appeal is its quick convenience and a nationally consistent menu. Nothing really goes wrong if it doesn’t get the same support as its local counterparts. If our store shuts down, you can get the same caramel macchiato at about 15,000 others. From this conformed anonymity, then, it’s easy to get the impression that the baristas here might not care as much about the people paying them, especially as we bark our policies about masks and not reaching over the counter for straws and drinks.
But I question whether more privileged students know what it’s like to toil in customer service, if they see baristas as more than the product they serve. Maybe the uniformity of a national chain exacerbates this idea, the lack of store personality making it easier to overlook its baristas’ individual personalities.
There’s a shift supervisor I work with on weeknights. Alongside Starbucks, she works two other jobs, one of them being her own business as a hairstylist. Evenwith the heavy workload, I’ve yet to see her slack off. Instead, she’s mastered efficiency to an art, teaching me how to speedily make drinks and prep for close. In fact, closes with her and my other supervisor are usually ten minutes early — a world of difference when we’re pressed for time. It’s not a surprise, considering she’s been with the company for years. If it weren’t for the pandemic, she’d told me once, she would’ve had enough money to focus on her own business.
Some days, she will show me pictures on her phone of skilled, careful braids. I’ll disgust her with my espresso lemonades, and we’ll joke about the lady that tried to tempt me into a cult when business was slow. Then, there are the times I’ll see her be firm with customers, and I question if it’s too firm or if I’m just being sensitive. I’ve had friends tell me about the snappy barista from when they’ve gone to the store, and I’ll wonder if it was her. I get torn between wanting to sympathize with one or the other, understanding both the circumstances that push her to impatience as well as what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that impatience, something like a sheepish teen and her mom.
On my end, I’ve started to indirectly suck up to baristas at other coffee shops when I don’t have to and maybe even shouldn’t. I fuss to my friends about leaving cafes about an hour to thirty minutes before close. I try to visit stores rather than order ahead so I can see what the staff is dealing with. When it’s busy, I get a drip coffee or a cold brew — iced coffee if there’s trouble with the cold brew keg. If my order’s wrong, I accept defeat.
Still, the strange experience of being a student barista leaves me with a lot of questions. Exactly how much do we owe the people we pay to serve us, if we should owe anything at all? When I assume the barista identity and force that customer-friendly facade over how I really feel, do I come off as a mere extension of Starbucks’ products? Am I teaching myself to act the same when the apron comes off? Am I forgetting how to be earnest in the right ways?
The closest thing to an answer that I can come up with is this: These jobs are selling their workers short, and there are people a little too comfortable with taking advantage of that. It’s annoying to deal with insulting behavior from the typical Starbucks customer, but when I see this behavior from another Yale student, the insult feels more personal. Especially in the way it causes my job to follow me beyond the store. I’m far less likely to run into the Uber Eats drivers that fight over mask mandates with me than I am to the students that might go to the same pregame as me. When you see these students on what should be the equal grounds of our campus, you already feel that lingering sense of hierarchy between barista and customer. You remember the frustration from when you had to cater to them, regardless of who was right or wrong.
To all this I offer a treaty, just so we can try to make the experience better for all of us. The conditions: have patience. Forget going through the motions more often, and treat people like people. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and it isn’t as hard as you think to move on. A latte with too much foam and a cold brew with not enough foam and a cappuccino with the perfect amount of foam will be mostly forgotten in a few hours anyway.
Because as the company motto goes, it’s just coffee.