OPINION COLUMNS

Thank you for choosing Starbucks. How may I help you today?

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, October 10, 2015
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In the not too distant past, I was a barista. This job offered me an opportunity to observe people. It amazed me how invisible I was. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I would say “Good morning” or “How are you?” and receive something like the following in reply: “I want a venti no-foam soy latte.”

Now, in my past incarnation as a mindless consumer, I know I did the same thing thousands of times. And yet knowing it wasn’t personal never really freed me from the soul-sucking vortex that being disregarded dozens of times per day accomplished.

There are various types of Starbucks customers. There are those who tip and those who don’t. Tipping is highly recommended. Tippers had a lot more leeway for being a pain. Throwing a buck in the tip jar went a long way toward placating me while I dealt with a customer’s difficult order.

There are high-maintenance and low-maintenance customers. Low-maintenance customers were generally preferred, but it was possible to be a picky customer and still be favored.

I had two regulars that come to mind as examples of picky customers – one who I enjoyed and one who I did not. What was the difference?

The beloved customer was nice to me.

She wanted something highly specific and was very polite about it. Also, she complimented me when she liked her drink. She knew my name and engaged with me. This positive reinforcement motivated me to take special care for her. It was a pleasure to please her.

Then there was the other guy, who grumped in, ordered his irritating drink, and either ended his order with “and can please you get it right this time?”, complained that I took too long or said nothing. I didn’t know his name. He didn’t know mine. He didn’t seem to ever be happy, without regard to how hard I tried to please him. So, what was the point?

There was more than one way to be a difficult customer besides having a complicated drink order and being rude about it. There were also the chiselers.

“I want an Americano with as much steamed half-and-half as you will give me without charging me for it.” If I tried to charge her for milk, she threw a fit and ranted about how much trouble it was to just get the baristas to give her what she wanted without charging her for it. She put herself (and me) through a great deal of emotional turmoil to avoid a 60-cent addition to her drink. I guess everyone has the mountain they are willing to die on. She obviously valued getting what she wanted over having a pleasant interchange.

There were the chiselers who waited until they were almost done with their drinks before claiming the order was wrong and demanding another drink, or a voucher, or both. They were annoying, but the chiselers who challenged me the most were the “free-refill” cheaters. Starbucks offers refills for 50 cents for brewed coffee and brewed tea if you consume it there and get the refill before you leave. If you are a Gold Member, the refill is free.

Patrons abused this endlessly. There were those who claimed to have been at the store the whole time and wanted a refill, then there were those who walked into the store and blatantly requested a refill. Or even more brash were the ones who ordered a refill in the drive-through.

The one who absolutely bothered me the most was a woman who came in for her “refill” and was always extremely friendly. Whenever I served her, I was reminded of that line from Hamlet: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain …” I may have given her her “refill,” but no matter how nice she acted, I never warmed to her.

The chiselers didn’t go undetected. Ever.

Customers who wanted to complain but didn’t want the drink fixed also frustrated me. “My drink is wrong but I’ll just drink it anyway.” Didn’t they know that true martyrs don’t actually complain about their situation? I guess they just wanted me to know I did it wrong. Thanks.

There is so much more I could say, but the final type of Starbucks customer I cannot leave out is the customer who ordered what I called the Curmudgeon Special: “I want a small coffee.”

The Curmudgeon Special is all about attitude. These patrons wanted no funny business. They were people who, despite their loathing for all things Starbuckian, came in every day and ordered their coffee in a way that announced that they were “just plain folks,” and we with our “grandes” and “ventis” were just a bunch of frivolous citified knuckleheads. They seemed to think they were too down-to-earth to order in the fancy Starbucks way, and they proceeded to be bigger pains than the most persnickity Starbucks patron. I even had some who would tell me straight out that Starbucks was the devil. I always wondered what it said about them that they willingly walked into the devil’s house.

Curmudgeon specials were always a good opportunity to go super-Starbucks on someone. I could have cooperated with them and handed them a tall black Pike, but where was the fun in that?

The patron’s degree of impatience and irritability determined just how specific I needed him (usually a him, not always) to be about what he wanted. There were, after all, at least three different kinds of coffee being brewed. I needed to know if they wanted room for cream, and I could endlessly explore their options around sweeteners, syrups, types of milk, etc.

I had one Curmudgeon Special regular who was wise to my tricks and started ordering a “tall Pike with room” while handing over his card, thus bypassing all my questions and getting right to it. He wanted no time wasted on fancy coffee terminology. Many of the Curmudgeon Special customers seemed to really value efficiency in the ordering process. In and out. That’s what they wanted, with no fancy words.

Anyway, this particular curmudgeon got to where he would say very little. Finally one day I saw him coming and before he got to me, I had his coffee on the counter, held out my hand to take his payment and said, “I don’t even want to talk to you.”

He looked confused, then burst out laughing and was a friendly, chatty guy after that. I guess I won him over by out-curmudgeoning him.

Of course, there were many delightful customers that I interacted with regularly (and I’m sure you would have fallen into that category). I even had some who started out as troublesome and turned into favored regulars.

I learned a lot as a barista. I now strive to take the time to notice people behind counters. I listen to them, greet them, answer their questions and ask them how they are in return. If they’re grumpy, I know they have a good reason: the person right before me, and I stay friendly and keep going. I know from experience that it’s hard to switch gears after dealing with a jerk and recover my good humor so I can give my best to the next customer.

My dear javaholics, if you take nothing else from this article, remember this: the barista has the power to hit the decaf button on that espresso machine.

Be nice and tip. Baristas work hard for you to have your coffee exactly how you want it. They are complicated and interesting people, just like you.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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