Wednesday, June 27, 2012

You Are Not Jack Nicholson

Can we tell you how to order your coffee?

"Oh hell no," every single customer in the waking world says. "I want my drink the way I want it, and you'd better make it for me chop chop on the double because I am important."

"Oh god, I don't care," most baristas say. "Just put your change in the tip jar and I'll make whatever you want. I'll steam 16 oz of chocolate syrup and top it with apple juice, just please god pay and leave, I've been on shift ten hours already."

"Oh hell yes," a surprising amount of baristas say. "We have very specific guidelines in place for quality control, we take the flavor of our espresso very seriously, and if we see one more guy pay for 3 shots over ice in a grande cup and then use all our bar milk to make a cheap latte we will straight up go on a killing spree."

I'm somewhere between those two camps. On the one hand: yeah, it's a coffee shop that thrives on customization and customer input. You have your latte prepped just the way you like it and we're happy to do it for you. On the other hand: Starbucks cares about flavor and quality, but they care much more about you coming back to their location and associating fuzzynice memories with it, which is why I never kicked out a nonviolent customer and happily steamed skim milk to over one thousand degrees.

If you're in a Starbucks, go nuts on customization. Ask for sixteen shots over ice, we'll sell it to you. Get a venti cup full of espresso shots and use them in morning coffee over the course of a week, which to my horror happened multiple times at one of my stores. It's Starbucks. Our first and foremost concern is providing you with a pleasant experience that is wholly customized.

But if you walk into a local hipster coffee bar run by the guy who blends his own beans, and you take to the internets or bitch him out in public because that guy won't sell you shocked espresso, you're not Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces righteously ordering toast. You're just a jackass.

People forget they're paying for a gourmet experience in these places. You don't walk into Alinea, find out they won't fry your squab, then bitch on the internet in indignation. Because the chef prepared the meal and you respect the opinion of the chef. But thanks in part to Starbucks, fancy coffee is now mainstream coffee, and baristas aren't so much considered skilled people preparing a gourmet beverage as they are smiling automatons that press buttons.

"I just quit being a barista, actually," I recently said to a guy operating his own coffee shop. "I was at Starbucks for around 4 years."

"Oh." He eyed me across the counter. "So you weren't actually a barista."

I don't agree with him, but I can understand the sentiment. Because to him, I wasn't a master beverage artist prepping a great drink from great ingredients: I was a Mr. Coffee machine, throwing in whatever awful shit the customer wanted. I was the reason customers think they can get ketchup on a Chicago Dog.

(I put ketchup on my Chicago Dog.)

 The colors, duke, the colors!
Clearly your group should've worn matching hats.

I toured a cavern once. I think it was in Ireland. Pretty normal stuff--cool rock formations, etc--until our tour guide turned off all the lights and cheerfully explained that since no sunlight reached these caverns, your eyes would never, ever adjust to the all-encompassing darkness.

She waited an uncomfortably long time to turn the lights back on.

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