Saturday, September 5 2020

looking back on starbucks

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Dear Journal,

It was the Fall of 2006, and I was looking for my first job. The day after turning sixteen years old, I jumped in my tiny Saturn Sedan sporting a crisp pair of khakis and a collared shirt. A single printed sheet of paper lay on the seat beside me. My "resume" boasted a respectable year long tenure of stocking vending machines at my church after school. I even had references.

I left my information with anyone who would talk to me. Dunkin' Donuts. Domino's Pizza. Taco Bell. I had a promising interaction with the surly owner of the family run breakfast diner by our neighborhood. But as much as I liked the idea of forging my own way into a job, I took a glamorous position at Target on the coat tails of my sister Kelly.

Kelly, who had also held down a job since the day she turned sixteen, was practically the queen of Target. After school, she could be seen in her sharp red polo and neatly tied apron running the humble Pizza Hut express counter like a well oiled machine. And even though the Pizza Hut counter was her usual beat, she was often asked to fill in on register, and stocking shelves. She was a well known, well liked face of the Schaumburg Target.

"So you're Kelly's brother," said the store manager. Kelly's brother was promptly hired the following weekend on a recommendation from Kelly.

As a general Target employee, I was a big stinking failure. Despite living next to the store all my life, I didn't know where anything was. I could barely count money. I didn't know how to fold clothes. For the first month, my frequent changes in responsibility gave me the feeling that Target was just sort of putting up with me, "Kelly's brother".

One week they moved me to the tiny Starbucks counter. I didn't know how to make anything, but I thrived for the sole reason the dark corner of the store was mostly unknown and untrafficked. The idea of putting a Starbucks in our Target was still kind of an experiment, and they were still trying to warm people up to the idea with free samples and lots of advertisements.

The store was kitty corner to Kelly's Pizza Hut express. We even shared the same kitchen. In between actually learning how to make the drinks on the Starbucks menu, Kelly and I would hang out in our shared kitchen. She'd wash my dishes while I covered for her at the pizza hut counter. On really slow nights, we would even play cards in the back room.

As I got more comfortable with my identity as a barista, I started to kick around the idea of changing jobs. I grew tired of the dark lonely corner in the back of our Target. I wanted to work for a real Starbucks.

After a year at Target, I was hired at the closest Starbucks to my house - the Streets of Woodfield store. A far cry from the my lonely Target corner, the Streets of Woodfield was large, exposed, and populated. The giant Starbucks logo could be seen from over the highway. The store sat in the middle of the heartbeat of our over crowded Chicago suburb. It was a real scene.

The store was quite a culture shock for me. My coworkers were older. They had piercings and tattoos. They cussed, made crass jokes, and smoked pot in their car on break, but they were also more professional than me. They were faster at making drinks than I was. They knew more about coffee than I did. They could sweep, mop, wipe down, and stock the giant, sprawling cafe in the same amount of time it took me to find a pack of straws in the back room. They were courteous and unshakably patient with even the most difficult of customers.

Painfully, I ramped up to meeting the challenges of being a real barista. It's a more challenging job than you'd think. Unlike my last job, there was no "downtime". At any hour of the day, there was always a long queue of people waiting at the register spilling out into the cafe.

There was one evening where I was placed on the frappucino bar with a guy we borrowed from the smaller Arlington Heights store. He was a grown man who greeted me confidently. His chiseled jaw, deep voice, and friendly eyes made me wonder why he wasn't working as a doctor, a lawyer, or a male model.

The evening rush hit, and the two of us were soon slammed with a slew of pre teens trying to buy frappucinos before the premier of the new Harry Potter movie. I arranged a neat queue of plastic cups, furiously scribbling the appropriate codes on the cups - "XWC" for extra whip, "+1" for an extra shot of espresso, "1/2" for half-caf, and a single question mark for "ask me", meaning this one is confusing, just "ask me" to explain it.

My new friend was like a scared deer in the middle of the highway. His mocha splattered hands were trembling. His eyes were glassy and unfocused. His face was flushed. With a dozen frappucinos waiting to be made, he completely froze up.

"Take over Alex," said the shift manager, escorting him to the back room to ease his nerves with a glass of ice water.

I hung in there. I learned the trade, practiced my techniques, and adapted to the hectic, late night lifestyle. Over time, my Starbucks didn't feel like a war zone anymore. Even when the line was out the door, it just felt like work.

A little known fact - there's two sides to every Starbucks. Most people are familiar with the morning crew. They're chipper, clean cut, and very professional - even to each other. They wear nice clothes, and like to read books and drink tea on their break. And since their work day probably began at 4AM, they'll likely be in bed by 8PM on even a Friday night so they can do it all again in the morning.

Then there's the evening crew. Scrappier. Less friendly. Disheveled and wrinkled. Cigarettes, ear buds, and untucked shirts. We closed the store at midnight, and we couldn't go home until everything was cleaned and packed away, which sometimes wasn't until 2 or 3 in the morning. We were more familiar with the true filth of the store. Each night I scrubbed questionable material off our toilets and urinals with bleach. I battled swarms of fruit flies to scrape dried sugar and caramel off the floor drains. We dealt with rotting food and expired milk. Every Saturday, Tommy and I would hose off the unspeakable horrors in our garbage room. And on top of everything, we still had to act like we had a culinary interest in the Starbucks menu.

"I'm a Komodo Dragon drinker myself - do you think I would enjoy the Sumatra?"

My snippy internal monologue was my private sanctuary. I don't know sir. I exclusively drink black espresso over ice to stay awake at work. But since both those blends tasted like dirt and rain water, I think you'll love it.

Ironically, my favorite night to work was on "honey wagon" night. Once a year, a red truck would park in front of the store, and a friendly guy in a pair of dickies made his way to our back room to pump our grease trap empty. The smell was so bad that customers would voluntarily clear the dining room. The smell was so foul, that some of the baristas would tape Tazo tea bags to their face to mask it. But a bad smell was a small price to pay for the rarity of not needing to service a giant line of customers.

One "honey wagon night", I was washing dishes while they guy was at work on our grease trapped. Fascinated, I watched him pop the metal lid and snake the thick pipe into the hole, slipping beneath the glossy sludge.

"So that's all just food grease?" I shouted over the motor.

"OH YEAH," he yelled. "And this isn't even that bad. You should see what they're dealin' with over at that that burger joint. WOAH NELLY!"

The motor lurched to a stop. "AH we got a CLOG!" he shouted at the same volume, rolling up his sleeve. He reached his arm down into the hole.

"Hey, if you see a watch down there, lemme know," I said, smirking. The man turned sharply, and after a moment broke out into wild maniacal laughter.

"OH I'LL GET YOU YOUR WATCH," he cackled. "WHAT IS IT A ROLEX? HA HA HA HA WHAT IS YOUR ROLEX DOING DOWN THERE BUDDY." It was clear from his reaction that he didn't get to chat with a lot of people on the job.

But when it comes to working evenings at Starbucks, the amount of free food you had access to was unmatched. Each night as part of our duties, we'd have to rotate all the expired food out of the pastry case and fridge. Once the items were tallied up, they were off unsellable. But Starbucks management never gave us a convincing reason why we weren't supposed to eat it and take it home, and for that reason, we treated it like it was ours.

Trays of soft blueberry muffins. Towering stacks of chocolate chip cookies. Sandwiches, wraps, and appetizers. For a ravenous sleep deprived college kid, the Starbucks closing shift was paradise.

starbucks feast

Bacon wrapped dates and artichoke flat bread: a typical late night snack while closing.

After my closing shift on Sunday nights, I'd leave right from work and make the long, quiet drive back to college. Before climbing into bed at 4 in the morning, I'd leave a plastic garbage bag full of day old Starbucks treats in our dorm room lobby. By the time I'd wake up for early morning lab, the bag of treats would be picked clean. Some referred to me as the late night Starbucks Santa Clause.

There was one year where Starbucks was launching their new lime ice refreshers. "It's a unroasted coffee extract," went the sales pitch. "All the same caffeine, but pairs better with fruit. It's a refreshing and energizing summer drink."

The drink was made from a concentrate - a thick viscous green liquid we'd pour from little plastic bottles. It looked like anti freeze, or something out of a science fiction novel, but as you could imagine the concentrated version of the icy summer drink packed a wild caffeine punch.

One night, I returned to college with a trunk full of expired lime refresher concentrate. The drink wasn't as popular as predicted, and as a result we had a whole shelf of concentrate expire. Heading into finals week, it was perfect timing, and I had no trouble finding tired college students in search of something stronger than coffee. The expired concentrate made its rounds around campus. Students would help themselves to the green stuff right out of the trunk of my car.

starbucks green

The green stuff, AKA "mean green"

Over the years, I reported to many different evening shift managers. Some pressed us to clean the store as quickly as possible so we could go home. Others were going to be up late anyway and were in no hurry. Most of them had a high tolerance for screwing around on the job.

There was one night where Rachel sculpted my likeness into a munged pile of expired blueberry muffins and apple turnovers.

starbucks portrait

Perfection, isn't it?

Here's me sporting a temporary tattoo on my forehead. Most customers laughed, but one tough looking biker I served that night just smiled and said hey, that's a bitchin' tattoo, brother.

starbucks tattoo

Sometimes I'd have to throw away big boxes of unused chocolate syrup. I don't know if I can adequately explain why, but it's tough throwing out a giant bucket of chocolate without first dunking your arm into it. It was a childish impulse. We called these mocha parties.

starbucks mocha party
starbucks mocha party 2

Some weeks in the summer, I'd work fifty hour weeks, twelve hour shifts. I saw my coworkers a lot. We were bored and overworked. In searching for things to quench the mundane moments, we sometimes got a little weird. In some of my pictures, I can't even remember what we were doing.

starbucks hiding

Hide and seek?

starbucks yoga

I think we were inventing a new kind of yoga.

I grew close to many customers too. There was Vicki, probably one of the sweetest ladies I've ever met, who would ask her venti skinny vanilla latte be made at legally the hottest temperature we were allowed to serve a bar drink. The second her cup hit the table, she would take a big gulp to test it was hot enough. If it wasn't hot enough, she would scowl and shake her head, handing the cup back to me. "Sorry, honey. Remake this, it needs to be hotter."

There was Tony, a seemingly average looking guy who would post up at the bar and ask for a the very Christmassy peppermint mocha, even in the hot summer months. Through small talk, I learned that he was the CEO of an international company, and the owner of the towering Zurich building that overlooked the mall. Suddenly it made sense how he could confidently help himself to such a drink that was really meant for teen girls.

One quiet night while sweeping the cafe, I was chatting with my friend Hemant. He was sharply dressed and carried a leather briefcase, and I would frequently ask Hemant for carreer advice.

"I have an interview, Hemant," I said.

"This is great news, Alex. Great news. Tell me, what is the position?" he said, leaning in.

"A software engineer. It's a little different than what I went to school for, but I think I'll really like it," I replied.

"Ah, that's good work," said Hemant. "That' a good industry to go into."

"I was wondering if I should get a haircut before the interview?" I asked, motioning to my long blond hair that I had let grow out all of college.

"I wouldn't do that," he said quickly. "Leave it long."

"Really," I replied, shocked. "Why is that?"

"Guys who deal with the money, they want them to look like me," he said. "I'm clean cut. I iron my shirts. I stay on the phone all the time to look available. Investors like that. But they guy who is in charge of the code and the software and all the technical details? They want somebody like you, who is laid back. They want someone who is not easily stressed out. They want a young kid who can stay up late. They want... you know, cool skater kids like you."

Hemant leaned in to emphasize his point. "Alex, don't cut your hair. Just be cool - they'll like that."

Hemant gave good advice. I went to the interview without cutting my hair. I was offered the job. With a heavy heart, I put in my two weeks at Starbucks.

I worked at Starbucks for three years during high school. I took a short year off my Freshmen year of college, then worked through the rest of my time in school until the summer I graduated. In total, that's six years working as a Starbucks barista. Sometimes I forget that technically, I've never held down a job for as long as I did at Starbucks. I've only been a software engineer for, in total, one year longer. One could argue that even now, I'm still more tenured as a barista than what I'm doing now.

starbucks selfie

Finishing up my final shift at the store, I penned a quick letter with a sharpie, leaving it pinned to our bulletin board in the back room. In my overly flowerly letter, I sign off with a quote from the mighty ducks movie.

"No matter how far you fly, never forget the pond you came from."

I don't remember the bad things about Starbucks anymore - long hours, difficult customers, and mentally clawing at the walls out of boredom. With the more painful day to day memories behind me, I only remember the good things now. I only remember the friendships, the free food, and the delirious late night laughter. Most surprising of all, I feel grateful. The Streets of Woodfield Starbucks was my first pond, and I couldn't forget it, even if I tried.