The Truth About What Happens To Your Coffee

Off and on for a few years, I was a barista. I did it in a few different coffee shops, in two different cities, and they ranged in size and scope from “tiny artisan labor of love where making a cup of drip coffee took nearly 4 minutes” to “just push the espresso button, there’s a line of people on cellphones and screaming children waiting.” And invariably, no matter how charming or soul-sucking the establishment, there was the constant influx of customers who were clearly not psyched beyond belief to be out and about at 7:45 AM, and were going to take their pains out on you. (Never mind the fact, of course, that we had been there since 5:00. We chose this life, after all.)

In any case, one of the hazards of the job was clearly having do deal with people who “just can’t even until they get their coffee.” Which, okay, you have an addiction — fine. Take it out on the poor sap in the apron. Whatever. And I didn’t even really expect tips. Sure, they were nice, but I wasn’t going to be one of those baristas who dresses the tip jar up like a venus fly trap with a sign on it that says “Feed me, Seymour!” and essentially glares at every customer’s hand until they turn over their quarters. I wasn’t gonna dance for your money — and besides, I was technically being paid a living wage. It wasn’t your job to supplement my income. But I did get plenty of tips, and plenty of wonderful customers who were a real treat to see every day and became a ritual that made the job feel warm, secure, and almost familial. So not everyone, not even the majority, were deserving of the wrath they got.

But there were those who were horrible — and I mean horrible; I’ve never experienced more directly condescending, rude, and outright cruel customers than at coffee shops. The mothers who won’t even momentarily get off their cell phones to bark an order of 6 Frappucinos for their screaming toddlers, the intern who will drop an office floor’s worth of drink orders on you when it’s 6:45 and you are the only person working with a full line of customers and then impatiently snap at you about how he “really needs to go,” the twenty-something who will order a scone and then sit in the back of the shop the entire afternoon, filing his taxes, knitting a scarf, and roasting a turkey. At the risk of never being hired as a barista again, I believe I am finally ready to lay out the price that each of these transgressions came at amongst my coworkers.

Without exception, the coffee shops I worked at had their own special brands of ass hats that came in and out, and their own ways of handling it. First and foremost, the quality of your drink is inversely proportional to how much you berate us while ordering. That’s a given. The espresso will be burned, the milk will be scalded, and the syrup will be negligible. You can expect that. But some of the punishments for bad behavior were much more insidious, and though they never really crossed the line into the disgusting, they certainly wouldn’t have been appreciated. Aside from being charged too much for drinks whenever possible, there was a solution to every problem. The rude, impatient, condescending mothers who ordered the extra-hot lattes while still in their yoga clothes with their screaming, rude children? Yeah, they were getting made out of half-and-half. Their children’s Frappucinos? Extra shot of espresso. The businessman who talks down to you while simultaneously hitting on you? Decaf, decaf, decaf. Day-old baked goods, extra fat, extra sugar, no sugar at all, too hot, ice cold, whatever could be done to f-ck up your experience and ensure you wouldn’t want to come back (though it rarely worked), it was done. And yes, I occasionally saw a particularly bogus coworker go a little too far and actually do something really mean or gross, but that was exceedingly rare. Usually the retribution was diabolical, but it wasn’t stomach-turning. We kept it classy.

I know that it’s common for people in food service to punish customers for being complete tools, but there is something particularly wrathful about doing it right in front of the customers themselves, all while smiling in their faces and participating in their subtle hints that it’s taking too long. But I never really became a grizzled veteran at a coffee shop, so I didn’t even fully grasp the depths to which people would hold this ire. Sure, there was the errant barista who took coffee extremely seriously and would never dream of messing up an order, even for someone stabbing them in the neck with an ice pick at the very moment of ordering. But for every one of them, there were 10 people who didn’t really like the job, certainly hated getting up early, resented the lack of frequent tips, and were by-and-large overqualified for the job (debatable, I suppose, when most of them held arts degrees). Regardless of education level, though, there was a certain feeling that they (rightfully) didn’t deserve to be spat on and barked at by so many people, day in, day out. And yet, there they were, hip, young, in the big city, and having to make blended coffee drinks for an endless line of screaming children and their cruel parents.

Though I participated sometimes in the evil sabotaging of people’s drinks, and the hyena-like verbal ripping-apart of some of the more egregious regulars, I never fully enjoyed it as much as I think some of my coworkers did. I was still funding school, and still had a lot of hopes about what would happen when I moved onto the “real world.” For me, it wasn’t the “real world,” it was simply a means to an end. But I worked with no less than three people who graduated from Ivy League schools, and were talked to like a knuckle-dragging chimp by some overzealous, balding accountant. People who had to bite their tongue and find their place in this economy, in this hierarchy of worth. And yeah, sometimes they ruined your drink or made it more delicious at the price of 1,000 extra calories. But you, maybe without even realizing it, treated them like the gum that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe while walking down the sidewalk to better things (when there was a decent chance that they were significantly smarter than you). Sure, it’s not right when people in food service mess with your food, but it’s going to happen. Until we start treating each other with full respect — regardless of whether they’re charged with remembering it’s a half-caf, no-foam drink — you can expect to get none of what you asked for. TC mark

image – Hallbadorn

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

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  • Catherine

    Reading this while drinking my coffee, trying to remember if I was pleasant to the barista

  • Severn

    i read this while sipping my decaf nescafe.

  • http://mason-jar-memories.blogspot.com/ Grace Elizabeth

    Oh man, this makes me all too aware of the way I’ve treated baristas in the past. My problem is I’m just really awkward which comes off as un-friendly :(. I swear, I really am a nice person when I’m not trying to read off of a huge menu in a crowd full of people under bright lights and talking to a stranger.  And I do tend to sit in coffee places for hours reading and folding origami and attempting to write. I tip nicely though, does that make up for it? :) I really enjoyed reading this article!

  • grace

    im always nice, but i do always refuse to use proper terms for some reason. 

    ex. “may i please have a vanilla latte, except made with skim milk and sugar free syrup? no whip cream please.” as opposed to “i’ll have a tall skinny non-fat no-whip vanilla latte please.” not happening SRY. 

  • Maybeemily

    I understand why you do the things you do given the way you’re treated. MAKES SENSE.  But is really caffeinating someone’s child the answer?  I mean it sucks when people are not nice, but you watch Mad Men. THAT IS WHAT THE MONEY’S FOR

  • http://www.facebook.com/jade.orlich Jade Mitchell

    Classless that you would alter anyone’s order because of the way they treated you. Everyone is put under some pressure in the workplace – it’s about how you choose to handle it. Integrity vs. passive aggression.

    You gave kids caffeine because their Mom has multiple children?  Classy.

    • Mila Jaroniec

       Clearly you have never been a barista.

    • Andrew Rowland

      Rudeness is an epidemic though, and workplace pressue is no excuse.  

    • Heartprnts

      Have you ever worked with the public in a customer service type job? One can only take so many times of being treated as less than human before they snap. I can certainly understand this having worked with the public but I’ve never done food service and imagine it would really take a lot of strength to keep from pouring half n half into the drink of that mother who refuses to put down her cell phone for 30 seconds while her children tear the place up…

    • Guest

      clearly you haven’t worked ANY type of service job, not just a barista job.  you think you live in a civilized society, you think people have moral codes that they live by, and then you get a service job and then you see the worst scum that society has to offer and the fact that you make it out of each shift without crying or yelling at someone is a miracle.

    • Kristenhanmer

      i’m only responding because of all the “clearly you’ve never been a barista or worked in food service” comments. well, i have. i’ve worked as a barista in a high-end tea shop that also sold merchandise, meaning i would have to hop back and forth between the tea bar and sales floor, helping a customer with questions while also preparing their drink. (and i’ve also worked in food service)  oh and this was after i earned by bachelor’s and was working another full-time job at the same time.  at times i was yelled at, berated in front of a store of customers, told to get a real job, etc.  all that being said – i never messed with an order. and i was never rude to a customer. don’t get me wrong, i really really wanted to most of the time, but being rude or mean back to someone who has wronged you doesn’t do anything but perpetuate the problem.

      • GUEST

         .

  • Andrew Rowland

    hahaha love the thought of putting extra caffeine in the kids drinks! Do people seriously buy coffee for children? Aren’t they hyper enough?! I thought the thing most parents look forward to is having their kids pass out.

    • Mick

       Sigh, they love to buy their kids “babycinos” to make sure they’re already pretentious before adolescence. It’s just frothed milk and chocolate powder, though spiking their drinks with caffeine would yield some interesting results haha

  • http://spoutfire.com/ Contact

    I don’t understand how the twenty-something sitting in the corner nursing a scone affects a barista? The shop owner maybe, but not someone serving the drinks?

  • Me

    I was fine with this until the espresso in the kid’s drink thing. I mean, hilarious in theory because FU mom, but poor kid.

  • Barista

    Three years in starbucks servitude, whilst attending the ivy-league university across the city, where I eventually graduated with honours, and went on to law school. I HATED being talked down to like I was retarded. When things got really bad, I would literally recite my school name, gpa, and lsat scores whilst making coffee, so I kept a sense of self-worth.

    I had an extra-hot latte thrown at me once by a customer because it was 175 degrees, not 200. (It hurt.) I made 24 hot chocolates for a group of asian tourists in the middle of morning rush. I was screamed at by a customer because we didn’t have a public restroom and HOW DARE WE NOT. 
    One day, Sarah Palin was in town, and I don’t know where these conservatives assholes came from in my liberal haven, but tons showed up post-rally, with their hats and signs and doucheyness. Every.single.one of them got decaf. You don’t get to bash gay rights in front of us and expect caffeine.Some of the regulars were really great, though. On my last day of work, several brought me presents. One of them baked me a pie. These customers had treated me well over the years, and I had made damn sure they were treated right in return. It was nice in the end.Oh, and if anyone’s wondering, Mitt Romney’s beverage of choice as governor was a grande no-whip vanilla steamer.

  • http://www.nicholeexplainsitall.com EarthToNichole

    I don’t understand how/why people can be so mean to service industry workers. I always overcompensate and come off as creepily friendly.

    • Kelly Burgess

      People need to vent their frustration/anger/wrath/hatred with their lives out on someone and us service people are readily available and generally have to sit, take it, and smile.
      Others just feel entitled.

      I work as a cell center rep in a financial aid office at a college, so as far as customer service jobs go it is pretty cushy… but god damn, some people are real jerks.

  • http://summerslowrunner.wordpress.com/ Summer

    I also used to work as a barista and would do the same things to people’s drinks as I saw fit. If you were a complete bitch who couldn’t be bothered to hang up the cell phone to order and now you’re going to rush me despite the fact you can see there’s a line of people both before and after you? Sorry I’m not sorry your triple-shot “skim” latte was made with whole milk and decaf espresso.

  • Jen

    Aaahh life as a barista. On a shift at Starbucks, I once gave a free drink to everyone who said ‘please’ without prompting; I gave away 17 drinks in a 6 hour shift which prompted me to leave as it was so depressing. Not the hardest job I have had but definitely the most soul destroying.

  • barista

    Thanks for writing this.

    I’ve been a (college educated) barista for about a year now, but I don’t sabotage drinks. This is only due to the fact that I’ve had far too many middle aged women ask me to remake drinks over and over again, even when there’s a line. I’m sort of a coffee snob who knows how to make a drink, but they place terrible orders – like a rice milk latte – and expect it to taste good.

  • Guest

    Wow, I have worked part-time (full time in holidays) in coffee shops and pubs for 6 years throughout my education. There are times where I want to throw their drinks order at them in anger because of their condescending tone, and times where I’ve snapped back at rude customers putting them in their place, but I would never mess about with orders. There are a lot of people struggling to fund their education who would do that job properly. I generally find if you’re smiling at a customer and friendly, they’re friendly back. You get the odd ****head but you just got to let it go and get over it.

  • Christine

    This is funny. I’ve been a barista too and know how awful people can be though I never messed up orders out of fear I would get called out on it and just have to remake it. 
    One thing though – seems a lot of people are correlating “too smart to be treated like an idiot” with the fact they went to college. There are certainly people who don’t go to college, work as baristas, and despite being treated terribly day in day out would never intentionally mess up someones order and instead choose to be great and happy at their job. I wouldn’t use going to college as an excuse to feel like you should never be treated poorly – everyone gets talked down to undeservedly at at some point or another, educated or not.  

  • cc

    This made me LOL. I (fortunately) haven’t worked in food services or whatever, but I have in retail, and I oh so wish that was something similar that I could do to the rude, nasty, ignorant members of the public. 

    And I hate how some of them have the audacity to tell you to get a “real job”. Um mate does this job pay me a wage so I can support myself and ergo the economy? Yes, yes it does. And if I got a “real job” who would be here to lie and tell you that you look awesome in that dress thats a size to small and causing your back fat to emerge from places it has no right to be. No you’re right madam, I’m going to quit straightaway, go on benefits and do some soul searching until I can get myself a “real job”.

  • Kelly

    Watch the Parking Lot Movie.

  • Vide Cor Tuum

    I love this article and it’s very funny because I was just reminiscing (ie. complaining about the ridiculous things customers used to do) about my days as a barista yesterday. People can be absolutely terrible and I do agree that customers in cafes seem to be the worst. I once had a guy scream at me and equate me to a demon from hell because it took too long to make his smoothie. I then held it together long enough for him to finish his tirade and walked into the kitchen and balled my eyes out. I was good at my job and I never intentionally messed up anyone’s drink unless it was something absurd like a latte with whole milk but skim milk foam- sorry, but I just not going to waste extra milk so you can have 2 milks in your latte. Other than that I never messed with drinks because I had enough people send drinks back when they were perfect the first time around. It’s not my fault people order things that they’ve never tried and then don’t like them. 

    • Grammar Nietzsche

      I really hope that you only bawled your eyes out. 

  • Waicool

    this article makes me want to go to the bitchiest coffeehouse i can find near the university and abuse a self described barista and  simply sniff and then discard my drink on the way out the door taking delight knowing it leaks thru the trashbag, lol.  that would be worth 5 bucks to me after reading this.  right now i am going to watch “stranger than fiction” and get away from the hate here.

    • Chelsea Fagan

      haha whoah cool. enjoy yr film weird dumbass

      • Anonymous

        WHY ARE YOU USING MY NAME ANONYMOUS COMMENTER

      • Chelsea Fagan

        I AM YOU

    • Chelsea Fagan

      woah settle down turbo

  • Think about it

    being smart does not make you above the mundane rudeness human interaction and it probably shouldnt. why is intelligence-based discrimination the only kind people are still down to partake in? dummies cant help being dumb, they deserve pity, not derision!

  • Michaelwgolluscio

    I simply cannot be mean to baristas. They are the purveyors of deliciousness, and as such I would take a bullet for all of them. All the baristas. Globally.

  • Twenty-Something In The Corner

    I second Contact’s question. As someone who has both been a barista and is at this very moment the twenty-something sitting in the corner nursing a scone (and a small coffee), what’s the problem?

  • Laissez Faire

    I may be the type believing “customers are like gods” but I also totally agree with your frustration with the nasty customers.

    I think important word in this analysis is “respect”.  No business works without mutual respect.

    Nasty customers often act as if their service providers are their slaves just because they pay money.  But we know that the payment is only to the service, not to acquire someone’s body and mind as a slave.  Business is not a unilateral contract between a suzerain and its slaves.   Such a culture is poor at bringing out trust among people.  Respect generates trust.  Trust is a foundation of economic growth.

    BTW, what kind of species is the “knuckle-dragging chimp”?  My cheap dictionary doesn’t have it!!  Well, it may be a fun part for me to contact a different culture.

  • Laissez Faire

    If the nasty customers get nastier and regress to their infantile state, I recommend businesses to charge them “behavior premium” on top of the price of goods and services.  The baristas will judge the premium over the counter.  It’s like a reverse-tip.

    • http://twitter.com/jensaiden Jens Astrup

      Spoken like a true economist :P

      • Laissez Faire

        I’m not pretending to be an economist because I’m not.  I’m only trying to think like the peasants during the Mexican economic crisis.  They were literally illiterate but much wiser and more brilliant than any economist in the U.S./Mexican governments because the peasants inherently understood what fairness was.

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