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Baristas and Customers: How We Can All Get Along

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See how nice this is? [Photograph: coffeecommon on Flickr]

Okay, enough already: We've read both sides of the story here, many times over. Customers complain about "hipster" baristas who are too cool, too slow, or too lecturey. Baristas complain about customers who breach line etiquette, don't understand what a macchiato is, or order espresso to go.

Coffee-loving friends, listen to me: We can and should peacefully coexist across the counter. Here's how.

First, everyone everywhere—not just in the coffee shop—needs to realize that respect is a two-way street. (Arrogance, however, is a cul-de-sac.) Common sense dictates a few basic interpersonal tenets such as, "Do unto others," and, "Don't be a schmuck if you can avoid it," but there are other, perhaps less-intuitive things that both patrons and service-industry folks can do to make the cafe experience an enjoyable, valuable, and peaceful one.

Here are a few.

For Customers

The barista is on your side. The people behind the cash register and the espresso machine at your local cafe are there because they like coffee, they like making people happy, and they like working hard for a living. They want to make you something that you will enjoy, and appreciate when you support their business. They are not the enemy, and they are not "beneath" you: You can take a second to make eye contact, and to exchange at the very least a simple niceties such as, "Hello," and, "Thank you." (And please, please put down the cell phone for one minute. Everyone knows it's rude and disrespectful. You can call your friend back once you're done ordering.)

If you would describe yourself as "not a coffee snob," you would do well to pick a coffee shop whose aesthetic and product resembles what it is you're looking for in particular. If you are irritated by baristas who tend to get excited about the coffees they're serving, or whom you find too effusive or chatty (aka "lecturey"), you might feel more at home at a cafe with less of a focus on the coffee itself and more on the hospitality experience. There are different types of coffee shops for the same reason there are different types of restaurants: Not everyone is comfortable donning a black tie for dinner, especially when all you want is a slice of pizza. Patronize an establishment where you feel at home, not one where you feel out of place.

Remember that there are about a zillion ways to interpret a cappuccino, as well as anything else that might be on a cafe menu. One man's cheeseburger might be topped with a melty Kraft single while another's wears a slab of Stilton; so, too, are there different interpretations of the cappuccino, caffe latte, cortado, and anything else on a cafe menu. If you can suspend whatever specific idea of "cappuccino" you came in with, you might be pleasantly surprised by what is presented to you by the barista in charge. Should you prefer to be specific when ordering in the hopes of getting precisely the drink you want, go about it in a polite and respectful way—and try to understand that sometimes your requests can't be accommodated. The customer is not responsible for creating nor enforcing the menu in any establishment, nor should he or she expect the employees there to bend to every whim. But I'll wager that if they can, they will.

For Baristas

Be on the customer's side. The people that walk up to the cash register and the espresso machine at your cafe are there because they want to support the business and purchase something they will enjoy. They are not the enemy, and they are not "beneath" you: You can take a second to make eye contact, and to exchange at the very least a simple niceties such as, "Hello," and, "Thank you." (And please, please don't lecture someone about being on their cell phone. Everyone knows it's rude and disrespectful. Just. Deal. With. It.)

If you would describe yourself as "not really a people person," or find that you feel frustrated by questions or requests from your customers more often than not, being front-of-house in a service industry like coffee might not be for you. That doesn't mean you should quit coffee altogether, but perhaps a job that is less social and requires less constant interaction would be a better fit. Look for apprenticeship opportunities with local roasting companies you like: Perhaps a job in the production department, or even in administration, is better suited to your personality, and will still let you work with your beloved coffee.

Remember that there are about a zillion ways to interpret a cappuccino, as well as anything else that might be on a cafe menu. Coffee drinkers often approach baristas with a very specific idea of what their favorite drink—be it a cappuccino, caffe latte, or cortado—should look and taste like, and they will have those expectations in place when you present a drink to them whether you like it or not. Some people are very receptive to different interpretations of the "same" drink, while others are more particular. If someone tells you, "That's not a cappuccino," try to avoid the knee-jerk response, "Yes, it is." Instead, work with them a little: Find out what they wanted, and guide them toward a more appropriate drink if that's the most civilized solution. If that doesn't work, offer to make them what they want, or else politely—emphasis on politely—explain that your cafe has a certain way of creating and presenting drinks, and you're sorry to disappoint them. Offer to exchange their order for something simpler or more universal (a cup of drip coffee, for instance), or be friendly and recommend a place nearby that might have what they're looking for.

How else can we join forces as customers and baristas to make the coffee shop experience less combative and more contentedly caffeinated? We're in this together, people.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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