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Monday, March 17, 2014

Tales from Behind the Espresso Machine

Posted by on Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 6:00 AM

By Molly Osberg, at The Awl:

Actually working at Starbucks wasn’t cool by any stretch of the imagination. It was my first and only corporate job, with its corresponding dress code (khakis, collared shirts, no tattoos) and business practices standardized to a point well past common sense (the temperature, I was told, was controlled remotely, from an office at HQ in the Midwest).

I worked with a number of rosy-cheeked middle-aged women who could quote the company’s binders of promotional materials verbatim. They anticipated Pumpkin Spice Latte season with a terrifying, giddy excitement. One had a "How to Make a Mocha" poster hung in her home, above her living room couch. On the weekends, they got together with their boyfriends—many of whom worked at a Starbucks across town—and made cocktails out of Starbucks-branded coffee liqueur. The motivational posters and the mandatory lunch breaks and the incremental raises every six months or so, practices ripped straight from a corporate (albeit paper-pushing) culture increasingly on the downswing, created an effusive sense of brand identification among its employees I hadn’t imagined before and haven't seen since.

I transferred stores twice, and though I wouldn’t recognize it until later, there was already something uniquely banal about my interactions with the customers at Starbucks.

She later moves on to independent coffee shops, including one in Greenpoint where the application asks her to list her five favorite bands and answer the question, "New York Magazine or The New Yorker?" She experiences the "solidarity economy" as well as "the practice of exploiting a vulnerable service class to build a playground for the wealthy." And... Well, you just need to read the whole thing.


Comments (29) RSS

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There is a 100% chance that approximately 90% of her story is invented.
Posted by fetish on March 17, 2014 at 6:33 AM · Report this
Mandatory lunch breaks are due to state labor laws, not "corporate practices".
Posted by Solk512 on March 17, 2014 at 6:40 AM · Report this
Parts were interesting. The sections scornful of Starbucks employees who seemed to enjoy their jobs and like the company struck me as pretty condescending. Shorter: "Those poors are too dumb to know what they like. My hipper class of semi-exploited worker is far more enlightened; we read the New Yorker."
Posted by ohthetrees on March 17, 2014 at 6:41 AM · Report this
almost all interactions with servers are too much these days Actually I don't want to tell you how my evening or morning is. Sorry, don't wish to tell my name, why tell me yours? at a newly opened place recently, formerly cowboy bar turned southern, the food was so good but the service was too much. constant interruptions, about every five minutes for an hour and a half, for (a) upselling, (b) checking in (c) announcing things tritely like "these are the beignets!" (d) is everthing delicious/awesome, etc -- each course. (e) are you finished with that as to each diner separately, as to each glass and plate not waiting till all or done or the utensil signal is given (f) constant refilling of glasses 1/4 inch depleted of water (g) invasion of space reaching over plate, or leaning in while firmly gripping table with hands, etc. No thank you -- I don't want a drink I said "just water" do you know what "just" means? no thank you -- I don't want chicken on that salad, I saw it on the menu and didn't order it. no thank you I don't want desert we already said "thanks, can we have the check." It's getting to be too much work this interacting with servers which is probably all coming from the profit seeking handbook -- drive up the bill, and keep you moving while pretending to care.
I'd love a place where they would just shut up and do much less.
Posted by Faux service ubiquitous on March 17, 2014 at 7:06 AM · Report this
I'm having trouble getting past the air of hipster-snobbishness, and I didn't really take anything from that. So if you say that its good, then good on you.
Posted by ultrasuedecushion on March 17, 2014 at 7:08 AM · Report this
I read this yesterday and found the bit about communicating with customers funny, because I am really uncomfortable with small talk with strangers especially when it is so obviously forced. I had to stop going to one place because I was such an ass about engaging in a human way (I do love me a good americano though)
Posted by Foonken2 on March 17, 2014 at 7:35 AM · Report this
Well luckily this poor little suburban white girl with a liberal farts college degree got some inheritance and was able to move onto a career as a editor at a hip magazine in NYC. For a moment there I was terrified she'd be stuck working in a coal mine in Appalachia or something.
Posted by I bet she hates white male privilege though on March 17, 2014 at 7:57 AM · Report this
Mandatory lunch breaks and incremental raises!? The horror!
Snotty little hipster.
Posted by tacomagirl on March 17, 2014 at 8:15 AM · Report this
I'm so confused ... which side wears the black hats in this melodrama???
Posted by RonK, Seattle on March 17, 2014 at 8:29 AM · Report this
DOUG. 10
She knows lots of words.
Posted by DOUG. on March 17, 2014 at 8:47 AM · Report this
No tattoos? The best barista at the Starbucks I'm a regular at in Northeast Seattle has beautiful work on her arms that is always visible. Another location up north featured a young male employee for several years who was a well-known member of a band and sported multiple facial piercings as well as ink, again visible to customers. Both are excellent with all manner of customers and never condescend, maybe that was her problem. I agree with @1, seems largely invented.
Posted by norge86 on March 17, 2014 at 8:49 AM · Report this
fletc3her 12
I thought it was interesting. I know people who are very excited to work at Starbucks and people who are very embarrassed to be working at Starbucks. The idea she enjoyed working at a hip independent coffee shop more than Starbucks hardly seems earth shattering.

I personally dislike the forced friendliness of baristas. I don't want to have my drink remembered. I don't want to be asked about my weekend. I do avoid a few shops because the baristas seem just a bit too friendly and it starts to be uncomfortable.

I'm at a dehumanizing end of the spectrum I suppose. Waiting for self checkout era at Starbucks when they finally let me punch the buttons on the espresso vending machine myself.

When I worked in food service I found the server side of the forced friendliness equally odious. Though I did enjoy working at the coffee house at MIT where at least I got to listen to my own music. And we just served coffee damn it.
Posted by fletc3her on March 17, 2014 at 8:56 AM · Report this
Barbara Eirenreich wrote this book in a less condescending and more interesting way over a decade ago. It's called Nickeled and Dimed. Good read, still true.
Posted by nullbull on March 17, 2014 at 8:57 AM · Report this
" rosy-cheeked middle-aged women"

They were probably 31.
Posted by jt on March 17, 2014 at 9:39 AM · Report this
@12 thanks for letting us know u went to MIT. It's vitally important.
Posted by PistolAnnie on March 17, 2014 at 10:01 AM · Report this
I agree with her completely.
Posted by PistolAnnie on March 17, 2014 at 10:18 AM · Report this
Starbucks HQ is in the midwest? Mmmhmm. I agree with #1.
Posted by meeps on March 17, 2014 at 10:22 AM · Report this
@14 I thought the same thing and almost stopped reading. But it got better as it went along.
Posted by David from Chicago on March 17, 2014 at 10:33 AM · Report this
keshmeshi 19

She's basically admitting that big corporations follow labor laws while small businesses do not.


I can't say I have high regard for people who insist on fake friendliness from service workers. It strikes me as a petty dictator thing: I have some pathetically small degree of power over you, so you better fucking perform. Assuming someone in food service or retail isn't intentionally rude to me, my only requirements are competent, fast service.
Posted by keshmeshi on March 17, 2014 at 10:38 AM · Report this
keshmeshi 20
Starbucks is the Microsoft of the coffee shop world. The employees are all nerds because corporate requires it. If you were expecting a fun, "hip" job, that's on you.
Posted by keshmeshi on March 17, 2014 at 10:43 AM · Report this
Isn't this article about 20 years late? Or, I guess, a decade, as @13 points out.
Posted by genevieve on March 17, 2014 at 11:01 AM · Report this
@11: One of the guys at the Starbucks next to the trader joes I worked at got forced out because of his tattoos. It's a rule, and enforcement varies by regional and district managers.
Posted by Hanoumatoi on March 17, 2014 at 11:12 AM · Report this
I really want to know where young people are getting this bizarre idea that the experience of working in a low-level food service job is in any way different from the situation described in this article and thousands of others just like it.
Posted by Sean P. on March 17, 2014 at 11:31 AM · Report this
@21 - It is late, but you get the added value of eye-rolls and exasperated sighs. Whatever the written version of those are, the author has them mastered.
Posted by nullbull on March 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM · Report this
I recall the rule being no *visible* tattoos. If you had any on your forearms, you could not wear short-sleeved shirts to work. A co-worker (a dozen years ago) had a vine tat on her wrist, so she couldn't even roll her cuffs.

I got frustrated because occasionally, the mandated promos had typos in them, and the manager wouldn't let me correct the errors on the chalkboard.
Posted by clashfan on March 17, 2014 at 11:55 AM · Report this
venomlash 26
My dad's a bit of a coffee snob and he worked part-time at Starbucks for a while to get insurance coverage. By his account, they're pretty good to their employees.
Posted by venomlash on March 17, 2014 at 1:24 PM · Report this
MacCrocodile 27
@25 - I worked at a grocery store once that had a rule against visible tattoos. The legend around the store was that they had once hired someone who had interviewed wearing long sleeves, and showed up on his first day with arms full of swastikas. They found some other excuse to fire him and immediately put the new policy in the employee handbook so they could fire anyone for it if they needed to, but several people working there had very visible tattoos, so it was rarely enforced.

Also, regarding typos.
Posted by MacCrocodile on March 17, 2014 at 1:45 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 28

Why would they even need an excuse to fire swastika man? Did their handbook not forbid employees tacitly treating non-white customers like shit?
Posted by keshmeshi on March 17, 2014 at 2:04 PM · Report this
I couldn't even read half of the story. What a self-important twit!
Posted by crone on March 17, 2014 at 10:31 PM · Report this

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