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Barista! Tales From the Coffee Front

Almost exactly two years ago, I hung up my apron for what I assumed was good, and left behind the caffeinated world I'd come to know. I bid adieu to nearly three years working for a worldwide corporate coffee chain. My departure was bitter and hostile - not toward the company as much as my manager, whose job I did for a year while he was out schtupping some hussy from another store on his three-hour lunch breaks.

I was also pretty angry at my district manager - the guy who had never worked a single day slaving to the foaming, un-caffeinated consumers of America, but still got paid way more than we did to hang around in our back pocket all day, and who, in the middle of the goddamn morning rush, liked to say the pastry case was looking "a little weak - maybe we should do something about it." But of course he doesn't actually want to contribute his half of the "we," he just wants your half to do it (this has been a common trait among all my district managers so far). I think they teach them how to say stuff like that, in the same way they teach us to suggest a pastry or a credit card account with your coffee - through the use of soft-focus coffee porn instructional videos starring baristas who don't look anything like most of the frumps I've worked with.

But aside from those guys and the aforementioned foaming consumers, I really didn't have much of a problem with the job. It was easy enough, and I was damn good at whipping up a beverage and a smile. I worked there through more than half of my college years, before leaving to explore the world of interior architecture design - a world that literally overflows with colors, yet still manages to be dreary and dark. It's unnerving, and I don't recommend it.

Which brings me to now - the first autumn in at least 15 years in which I am not returning to school. For a myriad of reasons (health insurance and a slimy now-former boss being two of the most motivating ones), I have decided to dust off my aprons, which I recently found out I was supposed to return to the company when I left two years ago; my manager was probably on one of his illustrious lunch breaks when I walked out with them. Fun Fact: I hear they make us return the aprons so we can't profit from them on eBay. Think about it.

Anyway, I began my re-training today and I'm already feeling the excitement of serving the public once again!!! I salivate when I think of all the character-building scenarios certain to ensue, in which I am berated by people as they have emotional breakdowns over lattes and scones. Luckily for me, I can spot the irony in these special occasions and I find them rather uplifting. The way I see it, I am constantly forced to appreciate my own sanity. How often in life do you get the opportunity to appreciate your sanity?

* * *

Part of my training involves a 15-pound workbook that takes me step-by-step through everything from cleaning supplies to bean regions to clever acronyms that spell out ways to help me deal with irate assholes. Of course they don't call them that in the workbook. They're "customers." And they are, according to the workbook, usually right. I'd hate to tell the workbook that my own pragmatic research has led me to believe otherwise; and that its writer, along with my former district manager, has never worked a single shift in the glistening world of customer service that it, the workbook, so falsely portrays.

There are also quizzes and short-answer questions in the summary of each workbook section, just to make sure you were paying attention to details such as the proper aisle width for walking paths in the store (36"). These questions also seem structured to demoralize you from the get-go.

An actual question from the workbook: Why is it important to keep spoons out of the blender?

I sensed that my new manager was playful enough (and believed enough in my aptness) to let that question slide.

spoons1.jpg

Then there's another section of the workbook that compares two photos. The first picture is a raggedy pastry case, apparently taken right after the Storming of the Lemon Loaf. The second picture is a sparkling, impossibly-immaculate pastry case, scone and donut soldiers all in a row. My job in the workbook was basically to try and figure out which one wasn't right, and then waste additional minutes of my life writing down what was wrong with the wrong one. To minimize my time, I just wrote that the one pastry case looked like hell and left it at that.

Overall, I'd say it was a pretty productive first day back. Not even an hour onto the floor with the public, I already had my first customer complaint. A woman started whining about how burnt the coffee tasted her last couple visits.

Are you not washing your coffee machines? she speculated.

Wouldn't she like to know, I thought.

I assured her the machines were cleaned daily - not that I'd know, it being my first day back and all. Even if they weren't clean, she's the horse's ass that keeps coming back for dirty burnt coffee and stuffing dollars into our tip jars (much appreciated, by the way), possibly in her mind as a special incentive for us to better clean the urns. Doesn't she know that burnt coffee is our shtick anyway?

Ahhh, it's already starting - and my fingernails aren't even dirty with espresso yet.

Maude Perkins is the Beachwood's pseudononymous service industry affairs editor currently serving time as a store supervisor for a large, publicly-held corporate coffee chain.



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Posted on October 9, 2006


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Trailer: Swing District.
SPORTS - Ryan Pace's Narratives Are Killing Us.

BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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