August 5, 2012

A Truce

So this is a thing, and I'm entirely too late in responding to it. That I'm choosing to do so does not imply any illusions of grandeur on my part, nor does it attempt to refute or preempt the litany of other responses out there.

In case you're unaware, the thing I'm referring to is the personal blog of Ben Leventhal, on which he penned his "Coffee Shop Rules of Engagement". As Ben is a fairly big deal in the online foody world, and his blog is duly trafficked, the whole thing blew up pretty quick. In short, a lot of people in coffee decided that he was being a bitchy rich guy, dismissed his gripes out of hand, and returned to their convictions, more steadfast than ever.

But I think we're missing the point here, if only by just a little, and that's why I want to write something.

Ben's title is instructive: "Coffee Shop Rules of Engagement". This is confrontational language, and though tongue in cheek, the tone pervades everything that follows. We, the coffee people, have a thing Ben wants. The task is to get it as easily as possible, with as little personal interaction as possible. We are, in short, the thing standing between him and his coffee.

Baristas, it needs to be said, are often as likely to view customers in an adversarial light. We like work, sure, but we don't always like to work. The customers are the thing foisting this load upon us, taxing and stressing us. We want it to end, and so we want them to go away, and to be done with the whole thing.

Now, looking past the title, Ben's post seeks to find how we might alleviate some of these obstacles. Maybe we don't always love each other, but we can work together to make it somewhat less painful. You get your coffee, I get to lean against this counter like so, and oh my god, did you hear how he pronounced Yirgacheffe?

Allow me insert my own opinion now: If this is really the best we can aim for, well, I need to find something else to do. An assembly line is not my ideal, and I don't think it is for my customers either. 

This isn't to say that I or any other barista should "be annoying", or that we shouldn't bust our asses during a rush. That is our job, after all, the job we choose to do. We're not doing this for the money, clearly, so if we are choosing a life in the service industry, we should strive for quality service. That means making good drinks, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

What I am saying is that, perhaps, we need to rethink the relationship here. Customers, on behalf of baristas everywhere, we like you. Because of you, we get genuine social interaction, and an occupation that we genuinely enjoy. We never have to hate going to work, so thanks for that.

And you, I think, like your baristas. We make the coffee for you, making your morning easier, tastier, and we hope, more pleasant. Maybe you even like us as people, but if not, that's cool too. We're happy to move you along efficiently, coffee in hand.

We are not the thing in between you and your coffee; we are the facilitators. We make it possible. And you are not the thing in between us and enjoying our day. We really do like making drinks, and getting to do so for a living. It's pretty awesome.

I hope this doesn't sound too much like a call for us all to hold hands around the campfire and sing. People have bad days, and I get that. Shit happens, and every once in a while, genuinely shitty people happen too, on both sides of the counter. But in the end, we're sharing an experience, and it's up to us whether it's a pleasant one or not. I think we can choose better.


  1. As a coffee-addicted customer, I would say he has a point. I would also say, as a coffee-addicted customer, it is also up to me to choose my coffee shop accordingly. In the mornings, when I don't care what my coffee tastes like so much as getting to work and getting there quickly, I settle for the coffee cart where the employees may be grumpy and hate their jobs but I don't have to go out of my way and their only concern is getting it to me as quickly as possible. When I have time and want coffee that actually tastes like, you know, coffee, I choose a place where the people take the time to make it well and treat me like a human being. It's a bit of a trade off. And, frankly, there are many, MANY places where the baristas give great customer service, are friendly, AND make great coffee. It's like any industry anywhere: some places will be gems, and some will be awful.

    1. I don't disagree with him on much in any specific sense, so I'd easily grant that he has several points. My point is just, if I can manage to be succinct about it, that great coffee needn't take forever, and really, we should all play nice. I realize that's impossible, on some level, but it's a nice target.