The notorious relationship between the barista and the customer is a dark legacy of sorts. The barista is an unsavory pirate to customers, scowling at fru fru drinks, refusing to smile or talk and sporting any possible number of pretentious accessories meant to be hip, edgy or cool (tattoos, glasses frames, retro clothing, shag hairdos, etc) which only further separate them from a middle ground of mutual, cultural comprehension. This is a silent knowledge. It’s not in the interview. I’m recognizing this at the same time as I am tattooed, have clever frames and probably dress better than you. This is a digression.and a joke: I’m sure you dress great.
The question is: Why is it this way? Why are baristas snobby where other food service workers are held to the masochistic code of “the customer is always right.” What makes the barista different? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time as I’ve been a barista for almost eight years, working in Portland, Oregon; Aspen, Colorado; and Seattle, Washington at two of the best coffee shops in the rainy city. I started out my career at around the age of 23 and was, as explained above, a mean barista. I would set out to intimidate, obfuscate and berate. I become a barista because I associated it with art, music, culture, and alternative/intellectual culture. These were, at least in the Pacific Northwest, correct assumptions, however, not until recently, have I come to realize what I was actually trying to be a part of.
The artisan coffee sub-culture is a connoisseur niche, like wine, tobacco, or gourmet food. A small number of people are experts and a large number of people flock to them for the product. With any product which is of superior quality (or of artistic quality), class designation and respective status’ become somewhat obscured. Yes, the barista is serving the coffee and is the blue collar, low-income portion of the equation, BUT, in theory, the barista knows more about your order than you do, knows about the history and nuances of the product you want, and can help you or hurt you at their leisure. They have studied, experimented and struggled toward eventual success. With knowledge comes power, and the standard relationship is upset. The result is what is perceived by ignorant customers and baristas alike as a rivalry. Actually, baristas who are, in fact, knowledgeable about their product and can present it perfectly (latte art, demitasse, timing, etc) and have come to a place where they respect themselves and the undeniable fact of unknowledgeable customers, have chilled out, grown up and realized that, though they are gods in their subculture, they are still behind the counter to give the customer what they order and the customer will never care as much as they do about the product.
Once this is accepted, a weight is lifted. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to encounter one of our own in a younger stage. They are sincerely interested in palette and profile and they ask questions and want advice. This allows me to excel beyond the role of counter help or ‘barista’, a term which is unfortunately also ascribed to Starbucks employees, and into the realm of the connoisseur, where I can educate and mutually celebrate coffee.
There is another aspect than coffee to the barista world and that is people. A constant and friendly, tipping regular is forgiven everything. A good-looking or cultured appearing apparition is flirted with, and an elderly couple who takes 10 minutes to order, if they remind you of your own grandparents, are treated with charm and finesse. Non-tippers, I think, deserve cold treatment, as it is an effort to socially engineer, to train. Likewise, if someone still thinks it’s acceptable to talk on his/her cell phone at any customer service counter, I feel it’s my charitable duty to tell them that they won’t be helped until the phone is out of sight. “Why?” the customer asks, offended, “Because it’s very rude.” This is a fact. These are two side reasons for a barista’s chilly behavior, though the customer’s behavior is not the reason that creatures of the barista culture are snobby.
Beyond the evolution of the ‘barista’ from an Italian bartender, who also prepares espresso, to an American brat, and the connection of the barista to class status based on pride and knowledge, there are hundreds, no thousands of baristas who think they know about coffee and don’t, or who know nothing about coffee and are simply following the cultural signals to be rude, as when I began doing barista work. In Colorado, I was not serving a quality product, even though the coffee shop I managed (and made coffee at) roasted the coffee on site. They didn’t do it like they do here; nevertheless, I convinced myself that I was special and knew something and flared my barista feathers all over the place. I was, in a sense, a poser, as most baristas across America are. They know a little, maybe, like how to work the machine, but they have no inkling about the tiny details that go into buying, roasting, and preparing a good cup of coffee. They can’t really tell, by taste and sight, a good shot from a bad. They can look at the crema and color and guess, but it takes a lot of study to understand what’s going on. It’s hard and it takes time.
I was in Grand Junction, Colorado and asked a barista if the drink on the counter was my drink because I had been in the second room of the huge coffee shop. He was very rude and told me he calls the drinks out and I need to listen. This is typical barista treatment and I remember the frustration I felt when customers didn’t follow the rules. I was still livid. I let him know that I am aware that he calls drinks out, that I do listen, and that the coffee shop is busy and big and he should not get so ruffled if a customer wonders if his/her drink is getting cold on the counter. Rude treatment relegates the customer to standing scared in the corner wondering if the drink was called and not heard. He backed off. I was upset because the coffee was not good, the milk was not steamed very well, therefore, this barista had no idea what he was fighting for. I understood though as this used to be me. I think that aristocrats probably had a hard go at it when the bourgeois culture started to emerge and act up at the turn of the century, and the bourgeois probably weren’t sure how to act or how to assert themselves. Am I comparing artisan or connoisseur culture to the emerging bourgeois? Yep, in the sense of cultural morphing and behavior as various roles and positions evolve, I am. Time will tell.