Confessions of a Starbucks Barista

By Alex Frankel '93 / September / October 2007
September 26th, 2007
Travis Lampe
When I walked into Starbucks on my first day of work, I caught the eye of Marty, the store manager, who was behind the counter pouring hot water over coffee grounds in an eight-cup stainless steel French press. He motioned for me to find a seat. Marty was in his mid-twenties and had buzzed blond hair and the traces of a slim beard lining his jaw. He wore khakis and a white linen shirt. We sat together in the middle of the café among the afternoon customers. Marty decanted a cup of coffee for each of us and said that the brew was made from Ethiopian Sidamo beans. Marty coached me through the right way to sip coffee. He asked me what flavors I tasted and what scents I smelled. I had few words besides the obvious: hot, aromatic, earthy.

Marty detected hints of lemon, he told me, and explained the practice of planting lemon trees in Ethiopian coffee fields to shape aroma. This first day at Starbucks, an experience shared by all employees, is called “First Impressions.” The format of our meeting encouraged me to step back a few steps and think about coffee and its flavor differently. I breathed in the smells with new vigor and let the coffee careen hotly through my mouth and down my throat. Marty produced a slice of lemon pound cake; the lemon flavors in the coffee, he said, accentuated the cake and made a good match. We were sharing a cup of coffee and reflecting on international coffee-harvesting techniques and food and beverage pairings.

Marty asked me what the phrase fair trade meant to me; I told him that it had something to do with coffee grown in a labor-friendly way. Marty asked me what the name Howard Schultz meant to me; I told him that he was the chairman of Starbucks. He told me about Howard’s growing up in the projects in New York and his father’s getting hurt while his mother was pregnant with her fourth child. He told me that Schultz’s father worked for a company that did not have workers’ compensation, so the family had trouble paying its bills. “This is why,” Marty said, “Howard Schultz cares so much about us, the partners.”

Marty said I would hear a lot about Starbucks as a third place. “The first place is home, the second place is the office, and for many people, Starbucks is the third place: not home and not the office.”

To most people, Starbucks represents something. For many it’s simply a place to get a cup of coffee on the way to work; for others the chain’s rapid global spread is indicative of a dark side of capitalism, the homogenization of cityscapes, and the spreading sameness of neighborhoods. Since the early 1990s, more than 500 Starbucks outlets had opened within a half-hour drive from my house. The year I applied, the company had 130,000 employees and received 584,000 applications. I was excited to find out what Starbucks felt like from the other side of the counter, what it would be like to, in my mind, become a part of the problem, not the solution.

Our store looked like most Starbucks stores: two overstuffed chairs, a long counter with baked goods displayed in a refrigerated pastry case, an under-the-counter cooler filled with cold drinks, two cash registers, and two substantial silver Verismo 801 espresso machines. The large picture windows of our store looked on to San Francisco’s Union Street. In operation for thirteen years, the store was showing its age, and its pockmarked hardwood floors were encrusted with dirt and dried coffee.

Starbucks advertises its entry-level barista position as one for which no experience is required, so training is geared to teaching new employees everything they will need to do the job. The training manual is imposing, and there is much to learn. The first two days on the job I sat in the middle of the store and made my way through the thick spiral-bound Learning Journey Guide. At first I got a sense that the training would be productive. But training at Starbucks is set up around having a “learning coach,” and I had been assigned no coach. The store’s computer crashed halfway through my simulation cash register training. When I had a question, I badgered other partners. An assistant manager named Erika dropped by my table and very clearly explained many important things, such as the difference between mild and bold coffees (mild coffees are roasted less and have more caffeine). She would have been a great coach, but she had no time for me. One of my coworkers, Gonzalez, also stopped by: “Man, I never learned nothing from that book,” he said. “I learned it all hands-on!” I asked another coworker, Nina, for help, but she blew me off, and then quit the next week. There were a lot of training materials, but my store was too fast-paced for me to properly digest the information. There seemed to be an understanding that we would each figure it out, and I was mostly on my own.

On my third day I wore a green apron and served my first shift behind the register. I felt underprepared to be in front of customers, but I was fortunate to work during an afternoon, when we usually saw fewer of them than in the morning. And my coworkers were there to help me. Starbucks has crafted a culture of teamwork so that any individual partner can’t fail alone but will instead be a weak link in a connected chain. The most unsettling thing about the position “on register”—traditionally the first stop for new and inexperienced Starbucks employees—was that customers knew more about doing my job than I did. Many were regulars, people who worked nearby. Some helpfully pointed me to certain buttons on the cash register when I searched for them, and others showed me how to extract funds from their Starbucks debit cards. Still, many were simply impatient at my slowness. Long lines grew in front of my register as I hemmed and hawed. Though I was a brand-new employee, I was wearing no sign that identified me as such, and found myself apologizing for taking twenty to thirty seconds longer than I should.

I had a pretty good handle on the basics. I knew the unique Starbucks sizing system: a very small drink is a “short,” a small is a “tall,” a medium is a “grande,” and a large is a “venti.” This is the lingo that Starbucks has trained its customers to use. Some customers use none of the Starbucks terms; others use them in the wrong order. I had to mark orders on cups correctly to get customers the right drink, and I had to ring up their orders for the right amount; customers who misuse the Starbucks jargon could wreak havoc on a new employee like me.

When the drink orders came flying in fast, I had to listen carefully:

Yeah, I’ll have a double nonfat soy vanilla latte. . . . Give me a soy macchiato. No, make that a soy caramel macchiato. . . . A triple long extra pump white mocha, please. . . . I’ll have my regular—a double tall sugar-free hazelnut latte. . . . Can I have an iced venti Americano? A tall Tazo chai tea latte? . . . A grande double espresso Frappuccino. . . . A cappuccino with caramel drizzle. . . . A triple no-foam latte.

On and on it went. The language is a sophisticated and successful method of building customer loyalty: If a customer feels ownership of a drink, he or she will be inclined to come back and order it day after day. It was a rare customer who ordered just a plain cup of coffee. Starbucks is all about “mass customization,” about meeting customers’ many individual preferences while maintaining low costs. To study the names for the many beverages, I was sent home with a set of dice stamped with different drinks and modifiers. One throw might yield “Tall/Mocha/Add Syrup / 1/2 Caf,” and another, “Single/Decaf/Extra Whip/Coffee.” I had to make sense of the pieces and how they fit together in the proper hierarchy.

It surprised me how taxing the job could be.

Our customers were as different as their drink orders. An emergency-room doctor dressed in scrubs and a white lab coat stopped by at dawn every day on the way to the hospital and always requested ice in his extra-large coffee. A man in his late seventies asked me if he could put on one of our disposable clear plastic pastry gloves to feel the springiness of the chocolate-chip cookies. “I can’t hear too well. I can’t see too well,” said a very old woman, who had scraggly white hair bound with a chrome barrette. She said she liked our coffee very much. “Please tell me the name of the coffee today.” I told her it was Yukon. One woman wanted me to fill two baby bottles with warm milk, for which I did not charge her. One regular customer cut through the lingo and ordered a small black coffee with “no room, no lid, no sleeve.” A mother sent up her eight-year-old daughter to order her special drink, a “no whip, extra-hot, one pump of caramel, one pump of chocolate mocha.” The young girl glanced back at her mom to make sure she was saying it right and putting the dollar tip in the right place.

In addition to the comprehensive employee manual that explained how to make beverages, on my first day I was also given a slim book about the size of a passport. Its cover bore a close-up photograph of a worker’s green apron with the embroidered Starbucks mermaid logo. Characteristic of the schism between wanting to be big and small at the same time was this artifact. “At first, you might think this is nonsense,” Marty had said. “When I first saw it a few months ago, I thought it was pretty silly. ‘I mean, what do they think, that we are in kindergarten?’ was what I was thinking. It’s simple, but it’s also a great little book. Check it out. Let me know what you think.”

The book outlined five very specific points about our conduct as employees. The points were subtle but profound and spoke to the heart of the Starbucks mission: Be welcoming. Be genuine. Be knowledgeable. Be considerate. Be involved. The book instantly made me a bit more cynical about the working culture at Starbucks. But the Green Apron Book was more than just a corporate handout to inspire us: It was the basis for an employee reward system and a way of gauging employee participation in culture-building. It was a qualitative system to judge how well you met those five commands. If your supervisor recognized you for “being welcoming,” you were one-fifth of the way to receiving a special award pin. If you were recognized in all five areas, you received a Green Apron pin. Marty told me he had given the pin to only one employee in our store, Aaron, the shift supervisor.

Soon I had moved from working afternoons to chiefly working mornings. Start times were at 5 and 6:30 a.m. and—least ideally—at 4:15 to open for the day. When we met at 4:15, there was no time for hanging out or even having a cup of coffee. Two or three of us met in front of the locked store. Once we opened the door and turned off the alarm, we were immediately on task. Overnight deliveries had arrived, including stacks of milk crates and a towering eight-foot stack of baked goods in plastic flats that all needed to be sorted out and put on plates in our pastry case: Asiago bagels, oatmeal cookies, blueberry muffins, peach galettes.

By 5:50 we were open for business, and I was working the register, butterflies building into some form of retail stage fright as I anticipated the commuter crowd. I plowed through our morning rush with a fair amount of finesse. I was getting faster at writing out the drink orders on the paper cups and at punching orders into the register. At 9 a.m. Marty asked me if I wanted a break from the register, to work downstairs in the basement. “Don’t get discouraged. You won’t always have to work on register,” he said. “You are doing a great job.” His compliment, as small as it was, was a tonic to my tired body and mind.

One day a couple of weeks into my time at Starbucks, I came into the store and saw our assistant manager, Erika, wearing a black apron, not the traditional green that the rest of us wore. After months of study and a daylong final exam, Erika had been awarded the prized black apron of the “Coffee Master.” Arriving back from testing, Erika was more fired up than I had ever seen her. Her face glowed with a new sense of purpose that came with on-the-job accomplishment.

She also seemed bent on pushing us into more advanced on-the-job learning. Her new level pushed her to push us more.

“Alex, what have you tasted this week?” Erika asked between the rhythmic pulses of customers. “We all need to be tasting coffee, and tasting it every shift. We need to fill out a coffee passport every ninety days.”

The coffee passport was another small booklet in which we were meant to take down notes and observations about the coffee we sampled on the job. It told us that it was a guide to our “coffee learning journey” and a place to put down notes on the “wonderful beverage in all its forms.” The book listed twenty-five coffees and left room for seasonal and new offerings.

When Erika ran a shift, we were encouraged to dig into a drawer of coffee bags or open a fresh bag and brew a French press of coffee to taste. Erika took the initiative and pressed an eight-cup metal cylinder of coffee. After the prescribed eight minutes, she decanted the steaming brown fluid into double-walled Dixie cups for those of us working. Coffee tastings unfolded formally or casually. Sometimes a group of us circled up, each clutching a cup filled with fresh coffee. The proper way to taste, we were taught, involved three steps: First you were to cup the steaming coffee under your nose and with your palm deflect the vapor into your nostrils while you took a strong whiff and registered the aroma. Second, you took the cup to your lips and sucked and slurped in the liquid and sprayed it all over your palate. Third, you drank the coffee.

My own notes were limited by my undeveloped palate. My coffee passport had the most basic of entries, largely parroted terms that I heard my superiors tossing around or that I read on the back of labels. I had little real sense of these things myself: “Smells sweet. Hint of blackberry. Nutty—like Guatemala. Tastes smoky? Telltale African fruitiness and acidity. Earthy/dirty/almost burned. Lemon comes out with lemon scone. Little chunks of dirt. North Tanzania = volcanic soil.”

It was hard not to feel a bit humbled in the face of all this arcane coffee knowledge.

I spent almost all of my time on the register, and even after a month I had worked at the bar only a little. I didn’t know what I was doing. Being a barista means multitasking, and it’s hard to multitask when you barely know the tasks. I learned in fits and starts. My coworker Nora was my chief tutor when it came to learning how to make espresso drinks. Informal training started with me standing alongside her at the bar and decoding the cups that came to her. Then I started to prepare those drinks I could easily execute. By the time I was with Nora, I had studied the drink menu and memorized drinks and notations for them, which we translated from customers’ verbal requests into Starbucks shorthand.

After making drinks all afternoon with Nora one day, I asked her if I could crank out a double cappuccino for myself right before break. She very seriously explained that I could not and reminded me that I had to go around to the other side of the register to place my order. “We’ll never get to know the customer’s perspective if we don’t order it from that side, you know?” she said. This policy meant that sometimes you had to get in line and wait for half of your fifteen-minute break to order a drink. But it was interesting: When I ordered from a few of my female colleagues, they presented a completely different face: a sort of come-hither, how-may-I-help you look. And when I waited on my superiors, such as Marty and Erika, I felt nervous and suspected that they were grading me, testing me, and timing me. Just about everyone working in the store had a drink they called their own. More than a few coworkers asked me what mine was, and I felt the need to choose something more exotic than a double espresso.

One especially hot day when I arrived at 9 a.m., I could tell that we were under fire, yet the team was holding tight. I cut through the lines outside and the people bunched at the end of our counter, expectant, waiting for drinks to come off the end of our liquid assembly line. I waved hello to Miles, Gonzalez, and Celia, who were all working hard. My first duty was to clock in and then take a drawer, or till, from the register, and count it in back using an incredibly precise scale that could sense the weight of a single dollar bill. Miles was the shift supervisor. He was also working as our expediter, and he was handling it like a pro, taking orders and writing them on the cups and passing those to Gonzalez at the bar, while also filling white bags with baked goods. Once I was on the floor and on the register, all I would have to do was ring people up as fast as I could. At peak, we moved through 150 customers an hour and upward of 1,000 transactions per day.

“Help me look good,” said Miles. “I only started last week.” He had moved from St. Louis and was being tested as a shift supervisor by our in-store leaders. I had every intention of helping him look good. It was a blistering hot day out, one of the few we saw in San Francisco, and people were coming in droves to hydrate on our sugary beverages.

Operating at full throttle, we were like a submarine crew plunging steadfastly under icy Arctic waters as torpedoes whizzed past our sleek craft. We plowed through gallons of milk and had to haul out both ice and milk regularly from the back room to the front. We clipped small timers onto coffee urns so that they would alert us to rebrew every hour. We poured unused coffee down the drain. Every ten minutes another buzzer went off (usually clipped to the shift supervisor’s apron), and one of us was dispatched into the café to wipe down tables, check (and clean) the restrooms, restock the refrigerated cases, resupply packets of sugar, check milk thermos levels, and organize our condiment bar. There were precise orbits, and like planets in a perfect Starbucks solar system, we spun elliptically and never made contact. Midway through this shift, Miles handed me a list of items needed from our supply room: three venti cups, three grande flat lids, one vanilla, one peppermint, two white mocha, three lemonade, one box honey, pastry bags, four tall lids (hot), one hazelnut, two mocha mix. I made my way through the back of the store and then downstairs to the vast, dimly lit basement given over to metal shelves stocked with coffee cups, piles of cardboard to be recycled, lockers we could use on our break, and a table and chairs.

I could hear the shuffling and motion of the place on the hardwood floors above. It was strange to step out midshift, to be “off the floor.” I felt like an actor who had left the stage or a soccer player gone to the locker room while the team played on. Downstairs was the rare place in the store where you were working but not directly tied to other partners.


To the average customer, things were probably looking fine, if busy, in the store. But I had just been shown the most recent “Customer Snapshot,” a quarterly review of the store conducted anonymously and secretly by a visiting patroller. As our lines grew and the café’s cleanliness fell away, I thought to myself: What if a guy comes in right now to do a Snapshot Audit? We’d get creamed. To the trained employee, such as I was becoming, things were getting worse by the minute.

The Snapshot is a systematic catalogue of the store and its ability to please the customer. There are four objective categories noted in a Snapshot: service, product quality, cleanliness, and speed of service. A fifth subjective category rates the store, awarding one to five stars for its presentation of “legendary service.” As the printed Snapshot notes: “Customer Snapshot is a performance measure designed to evaluate the service experience we deliver to customers … [and] supports our … Mission Statement by measuring those items that create enthusiastically satisfied customers.”

Feeding into the Snapshot score are things such as whether the register partner and barista greet you verbally, make eye contact, thank you, are neat and clean, and display knowledge of products. To evaluate the product quality, the visitor measures whether the drink temperature falls into a designated zone of 135 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit (for most drinks) and whether the drink weighs in at an appropriate range within 50 grams (a tall decaf mocha, for example, is supposed to weigh between 334 and 384 grams). Each Starbucks store is essentially a remote factory, and the Snapshot taker is the roving quality-control inspector.

The visitor also evaluates the cleanliness of the store and the speed of service. Customers are supposed to wait a maximum of three minutes from the time they step into line to the time they receive their drink from the barista. In the most recent Snapshot, taken at 10:13 one Wednesday morning, Nora had been the partner evaluated, our manager told me, and she had done all the right things. The Snapshot included comments such as “the barista initiated conversation with customers by asking how their day was going,” “the floor was free of debris,” and “the back service counter was organized.” Most customers didn’t know that we had to wipe down the condiment bars every ten minutes, and the fact that customers have probably been to dozens of other Starbucks in the course of their lives and generally had positive experiences buoyed us. Feedback loops like Starbucks’s Snapshots are crucial when your way of judging employee productivity is gauged not only in sales and dollars but also in happy customers.

In just the couple of months that I was at Starbucks, about half of the twenty partners on staff left. Faces and names changed: Out went Nina, then Aaron (to become assistant manager of a nearby store), then Whitney (back home to Seattle to work at another store), then Lucy (to Boston, where she was to keep working at a Starbucks while in graduate school). And in came Doug, Maurice, Chris, Dan, and Miles.

And Tim. Within a couple of days of Tim’s arrival, I found myself training him and showing him how to count the money in the till and restock essential items such as coffee lids. As I did so, I recognized that I was, for the first time, training someone else and passing on what I had learned. I made an effort to be more friendly to him than the people who had been training me had been. As I worked with him, I also realized that I was no longer the glaringly new guy, that whether I was ready for it or not, I was moving up in the ranks.

Starbucks infiltrated my subconscious. My dreams became stress-filled and work-related. Certainly, starting work at predawn hours and having easy access to strong coffee didn’t help. Often my dreams involved oversleeping on those nights when I had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning. On the first night of a rock-climbing trip with three friends, camped at 11, 000 feet, I tossed and turned all night, plagued by Starbucks dreams. I went in and out of awareness, thinking that my tent-mate Scott was a customer. First he wanted a Frappuccino, then a cappuccino, a latte, a house drip, a pound of Sumatra beans ground for a Mr. Coffee. Confused and tired, at 4 a.m. I finally got to sleep.

Soon I knew it was time to leave Starbucks. I knew that one day long ago, Starbucks had been a truly authentic, interesting, and one-of-a-kind café. But in the intervening years, that authenticity had been imitated and copied to a point where it was sadly lost and replaced with a new faux version. So at the end of one Sunday-morning shift, I rolled up my two green aprons and inserted them into a manila envelope, jotted down a brief goodbye note to Marty and Erika on a Post-it, and did my part to boost the monthly turnover rate before going off in search of my true, authentic self.

Alex Frankel is a writer living in San Francisco. This article is excerpted with permission from Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, which will be published by HarperCollins in November.

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September / October 2007