Monday, May 29, 2006

Coffee and Me: Part I The Independent

Maybe I'll try to scan in a photograph of teenage Cupcake from her coffee days. If only I had such a photograph. And a scanner.

Recent postings and comments leads me to believe that many of my readers, like myself, have spent some quality time behind a coffee bar. LaHipster was surprised to hear this, so I think it's time to talk about coffee and me and invite you to share your stories as past and current mudslingers, sorry "baristas".

My first job in coffee was at an independent coffee bar in Newport, RI a busy resort town. I was 17 years old and I worked there for two years, full time in the summer, part time during the school year. Everyday I wore khaki shorts, a t-shirt with the logo of our cafe and sneakers. Open-toed shoes were prohibited because the changes of spilling something hot and burning your toes were high. I also wore an ugly brown apron with three big pockets, which I loved. If I stopped to run some errands before or after my shift, I usually wore the apron only because I couldn't imagine wearing my uniform without it.

When I started, the business was owned by a wonderful woman named Katy, who once fired an employee with words to the effect, "Erin, you're like the cow who pissed in the bucket. You give good milk but no one wants to drink it." Katy sold the business to a pair of lesbians named Sparky and Pat (I am not making this up) but we called them "Parky and Spat" because all they did was bicker and try to involve the employees in their domestic disputes. Good times. Each of them also had a slightly insane family situation that came to be the burden of the cafe. And, they were cheap.

We were a staff of all young women. I think at one point they tried to hire a guy, but he just didn't work out. Perhaps the cafe is still around today and perhaps it's staffed with all dudes now. I don't know. But we were the Espresso Yourself girls. Some of us were smart, some were dumb, some were very smart. We looked out for each other and became friends and then the cafe also became our social life.

One of the girls I worked with was very cute and was always being hit on by college guys who worked at the Yacht Club. Or the fudge shop. One one of the sail boats or engineering firms in town. Unfortunately for them, this girl was also 15 years old. I remember threatening one dude with a large stick we used to prop open the window when he didn't get the message. No one ever hit on me, but people did like for me to make their bagels and lattes; I was good at my job. Story of my fucking life.

We had a giant espresso machine with a large brass Eagle on top that was truly a bitch to service. We worked behind a huge bar, one that had come out of an old time drug store. Sometimes there would be three or four of us behind the bar, we barely had enough room to turn around. We had to move in precise, coordinated movements, pivoting, ducking, stretching to serve the line of customers that often stretched out the door. When we were on, and truly working as a team, it was as if we moved of one mind. We helped each other out, calling, "Can you hand me the skinny?" "Do you have any foam left?" "Has someone checked the oaties?" It was like a beautifully executed triple play; trying to explain this also explains why I love baseball and why, when I'm in a coffee bar today, I sometimes feel envious of the staff behind the counter.

These were the days when coffee culture was spreading east from the West Coast, but before Starbucks made a certain kind of coffee culture totally ubiquitous. It was not uncommon for a skeptic to come in and demand "I just want a coffee, black. Don't give me nothin' fancy." However I spent most of my day reciting our list of coffees (the seven roasts/flavors never changed, but I had to pretend that they did) and patiently explaining the difference between a Cafe Mocha and a Mochacinno. Our products were better than Starbucks, mostly, because we used real ingredients. Instead of chocolate syrup, all of our mocha drinks were first made by steaming milk with a mixture of chocolate pieces that were two parts milk chocolate to one part dark chocolate. I called the one Starbucks in town "That S Place" or "The Evil Place". However, if a customer was really pissing me off, I would cheerfully suggest they try Starbucks and give them directions.

Mostly, I gave great customer service, not because I was so in love with our clientele, but because I believed that's what a job was: being nice to people you would otherwise tell to go screw for money. There were a few exceptions. One day a woman came into the store as we were getting ready to close. It was a night early in the season, we hadn't yet changed to summer hours and we had been slow for a long time. "Just so you know ma'am, I can make you anything you like, but you'll have to take it to go. We're closing the cafe."

"You're closing?" the woman asked.

"Yes ma'am, we close at 6:00pm". It was 5:50pm.

"Well then," she said, "I guess the coffee is not very fresh then."

"Luckily ma'am, we don't spit in the coffee until 6:05."

Another time a dour looking woman, most likely a Yachtie came in and asked me, "Is your fruit smoothie made with fresh fruit?"

"Our fruit smoothie is made with frozen strawberries, frozen blueberries, banana, honey and orange juice," I said.

"Is your frozen lemonade made with fresh lemons?"

"Actually, ma'am, I'm not going to lie to you. Our frozen lemonade is made with a frozen lemon concentrate."

"Fine," said the woman, totally annoyed, "I'll have an iced cappucinno."

"Excellent choice, ma'am," I said with a smile. "And I can assure you the cappucinno is fresh. I just picked it off the cappucinno tree out back this very morning."

I don't remember how much money I made. Not much. I think I started at $5.25 an hour. Is that possible? We lived for tips, which was another reason to be nice to the customers. We had one tip jar on the counter with a sign that said "Tips for Counter Intelligence". I thought that was pretty brilliant. Counting up the tips, rolling the coins and cashing out was a coveted job for every shift change. On a good shift, I might make $20 in tips and that felt very extravagant, although some days that money would go directly to tolls and parking tickets.

Soon I starting presenting my parking tickets to the bosses, asking them to take care of them or I would quit. Things had rapidly gone downhill since the lesbians took over. They wouldn't let us run the air conditioner. It was frequently very hot and humid in Newport and crammed behind the bar with the oven running at 400 degrees to churn out more baked goods, it frequently got to be 100 degrees behind the bar. The management concession was to let us drag a chair behind the bar so we could take turns sitting down. But having a chair there made it even more impossible for us to move around. They also let us drink all the water and juice we wanted so that we didn't actually die mid-shift. Otherwise, we paid half-price for everything we ate or drank except for those happy moments when we were allowed to indulge in the "mistakes": burnt cookies, unwanted frappucinos.

I would sometimes wear my bathing suit under my clothes, and at night, after we shut down I was known to vacuum in my "skivies". Then I would go home and jump in the pool, the only way to cool down before bed. The worst was working a closing shift, putting me home at 11pm and then getting up to open at 6am. I was never a manager and so I never had to get in earlier than that to start baking.

Burns were common, especially from the milk steamer. I would go home at night with coffee grounds everywhere: in my scalp, under my finger nails. I smelled vaguely like coffee for two years, and, to my horror, mayonnaise from the sandwich bar. I also believe I may have done damage to my hearing, spending eight hours a day next to constantly whizzing, industrial strength bar blenders. We used sharp fish knives to cut the bagels, that also resulted in several injuries. It was terrible to have to explain that we could not make espresso drinks that day, or explain there was no more discount for faithful local customers, or try to push poorly conceived new products one of the bosses had ordered without consulting the other, therefore making everyone testier and bitchier.

I can still recite the list of coffees, and if I receive an order for one Turtle frappucino and one vanilla latte, I know the best order in which to prepare the drinks in consideration of the economy of time and movement. I won't say I miss it, but today I work as a secretary and I proudly preside over the kitchen where we have a small Krupps Coffee and Espresso Machine. Having an overqualified secretary who brings you your coffee just the way you like it every morning with a smile on her face is good service. But having an overqualified secretary who offers to whip you up a homemade cappucino in the afternoon when you're looking a bit peaked is perhaps an indication that her mind is someplace else.


NancyPearlWannabe said...

It may not be much consolation, but smelling like coffee grounds is a thousand times preferable to smelling like raw red onions after working in the catering biz for three years. We used to ground coffee into our hands on purpose to take away the onion smells...

claire said...

I worked at a Peet's coffee for two summers during college - opened shop at 4:30 and was done by 1:30. every day when i got home my mom would swoon over "how great you smell!" now, i love coffee, but having the oils and coffee grounds rubbed into your skin every day really does take the mystery and joy out of it.

i did get up to 9 shots of espresso a day that second summer. i think that's what ruined caffeine for me. sad.

but we would suggest to annoying customers that they try starbucks when they asked for a grande anything.

Beta said...

I'm also a graduate of the school of Sparky & Pat. Never knew Katy though. My favorite parts were the chilled cookie dough, German tourists, and clarifying to customers exactly what was going to go into their caramel macchiato so there wouldn't be any surprises. We did have some beautiful (and smart!) women working there that summer, but also 1 guy - he wasn't too shabby either.

Cupcake said...

We used to make a drink for the stoners at Ben & Jerry's with four shots of espresso and two shots of vanilla syrup. Basically, you had a sip, your eyes shot open and your teeth fell out. That's how customer service was acheived at B&J. And it was highly successful: it was not uncommon to walk in and find them dancing on the counter.

I looked for a photo of me at the coffee bar (of which I am certain I have dozens) but I couldn't find one in Brooklyn. Maybe in Dad's basement? Bummer.

Dawn Z(ed) said...

I worked in a ballon/novelty shop for 4 years through high school. It might be bad to smell like coffee, but let me tell you, latex is worse.

There is something about the smell of latex that just stinks. Nobody ever comes up to telling you how good you smell. People try and move away from you while trying to figure out what that odd smell is. It's almost as hard as onions when it comes to removing the stink.

Not only did that job leave me with a massive dislike for balloons, but I'm now allergic to latex.

Joshua said...

I worked at a Starbucks for four days in high school, but had to quit because they needed me to work way too many hours. Also, I hate Starbucks-though my boss was extremely nice about the whole thing and even hired me despite my describing the company as an conglomerate spreading across the globe.

When I was 21 I worked at a chocolate and coffee shop in Aspen serving the rich and evil and once exploded steamed milk all over my self while making a cappucino for some Italian baroness. She ended up just asking for a cup of milk. I also refused to make people fancy Italian sodas because I was convinced the syrups beyond the counter were just for decoration. I was wrong.

Meg said...

We had a coffee shop much like the one you talk about in my college town, Winona Minnesota. Acoustic Cafe.... every year I knew someone who worked there. The most memorable thing about it was that I dated a guy who worked there, Dave, and he used to smell like hoagie.... they made their hoagies with fresh turkey, corned beef, etc so he always smelled like meat, sprouts and espresso... I can still smell it if I try hard enough. Thanks for making me think about Dave!

Joshua said...

They call 'em "hoagies" in Minnesota too? Weird.

Cupcake said...

It's amazing that with all those good smells like coffee, and freshly baked cookies we always ended up smelling like chicken salad. Gross.

Beta, I forgot you went to work for Sparky and Pat! Do they still own the cafe? I remember when you used to work at Jitters. Oh boy, we're total coffee sluts.