I always drop change in the tip jar at Starbucks even when I’m just picking up the Post or a small (tall) drip brew, even if the service isn’t particularly good. I don’t do this because I’m generous or because I have vast amounts of money to spend. I tip because I have a never-ending sense of camaraderie with all people in the food service industry because I have been there. Not just for one summer when I was saving for spring break, but during high school, during college, after college and again during graduate school. Now, 7 years after I excitedly interviewed for my first job at a Caribou Coffee, I have finally found a food service job that still makes me dirty, but doesn’t make me feel quite as sub-human as the others have.
At first, I was hesitant to think about scooping ice cream as a part time job at the age of 24, but I quickly realized that working for a local, privately owned ice cream shop would be a whole different world from the nightmare that was working at Caribou and Starbucks for so many years. It’s not these companies in particular, it’s the experience of working low-wage, thankless jobs for companies that neglect to celebrate any “Employee Appreciation” days. I’m not asking for a pointy, company-branded party hat either, maybe a “Hey, Employee #4325-g, you did a terrific job cleaning the espresso machine, but let’s make sure we remember to use the toothbrush for those hard-to-clean steaming wands next time.” Anything really. Because the truth is, behind the friendly, yet forced, smiles of these perky employees lurks a deep, dark disdain for all things food-service. I’ve outlined some of the frustrations I’ve had with these corporate giants for all folks who are past, current or future part-timers.
Chapter 1: "Wearing the Hat and the Apron: What I Use My College Degree For"
Ok. So this one isn’t just Starbucks. But it still sucks. Unfortunately there are some downsides to all service jobs. Wearing an ill-fitting baseball cap and a logo imprinted apron is mandatory for food service jobs. I have a theory that this is to demean all food service employees into subordination, but admittedly, I didn't mind the hat and apron combination until after I graduated college and returned to the work force as a full time barista. I spent hours complaining about the direction my life had taken, and my total inability to feel any pride in my job because of the Hat and Apron. Wearing an Apron to your job implies you are going to get dirty, or spill all over yourself. That in general, one should completely disregard any sort of vanity---it ain’t worth it. I spoke with one of my “colleagues” at Gifford’s Ice Cream about the issue at hand. Catherine McPhaul surprised me with her reaction to my loaded question about having pride in the Gifford’s uniform.
“You know, it’s not that bad.” I was suddenly afraid that I had created this stigma. But I thought again.
“Is that because you are in college and this is just a ‘part-time’ job?”
“Ohhhhh, definitely.” She laughed.
After this interaction, I was left feeling bad for myself, again. If I had more time I could explicate on these feelings on other aptly named chapters such as: "Mopping the Floor: Good Thing I Wasted 100,000 Dollars To Go To A Private College" and "Cleaning the Bathrooms: I Should Have Gone To A State School."
Chapter 2: "The Complexity of the Caramel Macchiato"
Let’s be honest. It’s hard to screw up a cup of ice cream, even if it does require hot fudge or sprinkles. Customer’s eyes light up with child-like joy when the scoop is bigger than expected or they see you carry their favorite flavor, but this is not so for coffee drinkers. I have experienced every complaint in the book: "It's too hot. It's not hot enough. I wanted skim milk. I can't taste the vanilla. This cappuccino isn't sweet. It tasted different last time." Oh, the complaints go on and on. I blame Starbucks for this trend to complicate simple things like coffee. The complex recipes are basically setting one up for failure. Whatever happened to a good ole cuppa joe? This need to complicate extends from drinks themselves to other areas, such as job titles, which I’ve detailed in the following chapter.
Chapter 3: “You’ve Been Promoted to Espresso Temperature Monitor!: Job Titles That Mean Nothing and Not Surprisingly, Fool No One.”
At my first job working for the Man, at a Caribou Coffee, there were three roles for the staff to fill during an average shift. The Barista, Register and Superglue. That’s right. The person who wasn’t making drinks or ringing drinks up was in charge of “holding the store together”. The “Superglue”?? Who came up with this term? The creation of the “Superglue” staff member is just one of the many ways giant corporate companies exaggerate the importance of the work of its employees without actually providing any benefits. Can one interview to be the Superglue? Can I put that on my résumé? Does the Superglue make more money than the other team members? It seems that the responsibility of “holding the whole store together” is greater than that of the Barista, or the person ringing up sales. When I was “promoted” to this position I expected a ceremony. I was once told, when I was in one of these fake positions, that if I “put in a little more effort” I would be ready for my ten-cent raise. (Corporate jobs do this to you). No----you keep your ten cents and I’ll keep my dignity, thanks. Caribou has this pseudo position, and Starbuck has “Partners” instead of “Low Level Employees.” At Gifford’s Ice Cream the title of the lowest level employees is “Scooper”. No frills there.
Chapter 4: "Junkies Don't Make Pleasant Customers: The Caffeine Addiction"
The cold hard truth of working in a coffee shop is that a good portion of your clientele is addicted to the product you are providing. These customers are just "not themselves" before they've ingested their daily morning caffeine and tend to be snappy and curt with their friendly coffee-shop-employees. The service provided is a "need" for some people, and they are entirely displeased with having to pay $2-$5 for their fix, especially when they are in a hurry to catch a train or get to work. When the typical commuter wearing a skirt and tennis shoes knocked down the door and rushed up to the counter, clutching desperately her Am-Ex, blowing her bangs out of her eyes, I fought back the automatic eye-roll as she barked her order at me. It made me wonder how she became this way—frustrated and irritable before she inhales caffeine in her blood. Does my green hat and stained apron automatically make caffeine-deprived people angry? Shouldn’t we caffeine dealers be treated as nobles? As the only people who are able to deliver to her the yummy tall-skim-vanilla-latte goodness? I’m just sayin’.
Part time work in the food service industry can be quite headache-inducing—but there are jobs out there that aren’t that bad. Here are a few helpful tips for surviving the inevitable food-service job.
Tip 1: Avoid working for the Man. Period.
Tip 2: Try to serve a food product that isn’t somehow connected to someone’s addictive personality, liquor and chili-cheese fries included.
Tip 3: Even if you are over the age of 16, the hat and apron can work for you—you just need to own it.
Just remember, you can always repay those ungrateful customers. (They’ll never know what’s in that half-caf-single-shot-not-so-hot-mocha-latte, as long as you hand it over with a smile.)