An entourage from Long Island careens into the Dupont Circle store, at least four generations talking simultaneously as they lock their sights on the counter and move in. The grandmother has heard about this frappuccino drink. “What does it mean, frappuccino?” she asks no one in particular, which is me. My explanation, fluid now from answering the same question in a perky voice for the past six hours, sparks a string of follow-up inquiries. “But…but what about the mocha frappuccino? And the Valencia. What the hell is that?” And then, before I can respond, she comes to a verdict: “You know what, I am going to
try a little swallow of each different kind. I can’t decide.”
Right about now, any average fast-food ambassador would tell this client to step off. But this is Starbucks. And Rule 27, Section 8, says the customer is not only right but deific. So for the next 10 minutes I blend six different breeds of frappuccino, separately, and line up shots of the stuff to a woman who never even makes eye contact with me. She then shuffles out, convoy in tow, too full to actually order anything. I know what to do next. Recover. Re-evaluate. Respond to remaining customers: “Welcome to Starbucks. What can I do for you?”
Propped up against the window, the laminated help-wanted sign (green, of course)like the beatific employee smilenever takes a break. For weeks I glimpsed it and looked away, as I hurried down Connecticut Avenue still holding out for my dream job. So when reality knocked in a way that could not be ignored, I finally surrendered at a Dupont Circle branch and applied to be a “barista,” or coffee-pourer. I expected a W-4, a job, and a so-glad-to-have-you. I got handed an essay inquisition and a we’ll-call-you-later.
Eventually, I revisit the store for a one-hour interview, which begins badly: “What do you like about coffee?” The manager, a narrow-faced woman with professional-length hair, sits across from me at an intimate table for two. She stares over her bifocals, pen poised, awaiting my thoughts. I start to wish I’d taken her up on the beverage she offered earlier. Since I’m not walking out of here with a job, I reason, might as well get a free drink. But I smile like a good girl and keep up appearances, waiting for a punch line that never arrives.
“Why Starbucks?” I toy with the truth: “It’s near my house and I like coffee better than Big Macs.” But I resist, since the woman isn’t blinking. So I tell her I have always respected coffee-schlepping as an honest, possibly even noble, trade. Then I take off, expecting never to hear from the place again.
But a month later, somehow having achieved clearance, I get the call. It’s the same manager woman, and she sounds as if I wasn’t her first choice, so I keep telling her how happy I am to have made the cut. She softens up and dictates directions to the Wisconsin Avenue off-site training studio.
The first installment of my 24-hour training saga begins the very next evening. The place is much harder to find than an actual Starbucks, two of which I pass on the walk there. I enter through an unmarked door, follow a maze of white hallways, and encounter a receptionist. She identifies my kind immediately, and points toward the back room. Starbucks ads, blown up and dry-mounted, dwarf the walls.
Easing through a nondescript metal door, I stand face to face with 10 different gleaming espresso machines. Silver-wrapped bean bushels are stacked to the ceiling. And 15 baristas-in-training sit around a conference table chatting. The instructor, armed with dry-erase markers and a videotape, nurses a cappuccino. When I try sliding into an outer-circle seat, he sternly pats the chair next to him.
The room quiets down as I relocate to his side, feeling like the token slacker in a class full of gifted and talented. On my way there, I notice that we look like one big Land’s End family. Like the rest, I am sporting the requisite white collared shirt, with no logo, tucked into my solid khaki shorts, no higher than 4 inches above the middle of the knee. That’s the middlenot the top. Denim and stretch materials are forbidden. Same goes for “unnatural” hair colors, poor hygiene (but don’t mask the funk with cologne, pleaseit interferes with the aroma of the beans), and body piercing. Seattle, it seems, is far, far away.
After the benign banter comes the inevitable name game. We have to remember each other’s names and store locations, which we proclaim like coats of arms. “Amanda of Dupont,” “Calib of Chevy Chase.”
I have chilling flashbacks of high-school drama classes, but the circle of names finally gives way to some friendly trivia. I can use this at parties, I tell myself. Starbucks, it turns out, is the name of the first mate in Moby Dick. He was a coffee fanatic, which is why three college friends decided to name their brand-new coffee house after him during Seattle’s tie-dyed days.
They sold the place before it got really big, before 300 stores speckled the land, with a mind-boggling 17 in D.C. alone. As any drug dealer knows, you have to build a market as you go: Get them hooked, and then launch one, two, three caffeine troughs within blocks of each other. Before you know it, Columbian decaf outsells Jamaican weed on Dupont Circle.
Recruits, our teacher explains, are to be referred to as “partners” from now on. Baristas scoff at the label of cashier. We are each other’s customers, important and diverse, our teacher assures us, as he passes out 200-page manuals. In order to better understand the Starbucks mission, we have been sequestered in this coffee boot camp for six four-hour training sessions. Before we can venture behind the counter, or “bar,” as it’s called, we will become intimately acquainted with the Starbucks way: coffee awareness, selling skills, and pneumonic devices to remember them all.
In return, we will be embraced as members of the Starbucks family. We will receive health care. We will recycle. And one day, if all goes as we hope, we may qualify for bean stock. Until then, we will earn $6.30 an hour. But more importantly, we will nurture an appreciation for coffee, the world’s drink. We are artists, thank you very much, who know how to brew the finest café in the land, using the choicest beans and the purest water.
By this time, I have stopped trying to exchange knowing glances with my partners. Listening to the man talk, a quiet deference has settled over the room, as we pass around a pitcher of java. The place heats up as the practicum commences.
I nearly crack during the drink-calling course. Just so you know, when you the customer tilt your head and tell us just how you’d like that coffee, we have to translate what you say into Starbuckese and shout it out to the bartender. Turns out there really is an unquestioned order. Decaf comes before size, which is always before skim, or something. I never could get it down. And tall is bigger than short, but grande, which means tall in French, is bigger than tall. And there are actually customers out there who speak the language: “I’d like a decaf, short, vanilla, skinny, no-foam latte, please. To go.” Gee, all they need is an apron.
The second night we actually make contact with the espresso machines, and not one of us “pulls a shot” to Starbucks standards. They’re too bitter or too watery.
We are then directed to remember we are onstage at all times and greet customers within seconds of their arrival. Pissed-off patrons must be handled via a step-by-step program, which involves validation and motivation. Eventually, we should taste and be able to describe in detail all 32 flavors of coffee. Should any one of those types be out of stock, we should chat the customer up until she decides on an equally satisfying blend. Everybody gets what they want at Starbucks, whether they know it or not.
Magical new words enter my vocabulary. Within hours, I refer casually to “the French press,” “the steam wand,” and “the tamp.” Only days into my immersion training, I start appropriating the lingo and the lyrical tone, telling friends, family, and perfect strangers about the Starbucks worldview, the environmental mantra, and milk norms.
By my third class, I begin to realize a spiritual connection to espresso, to its enticing smell, deep warmth, and fragile crema. I visualize my future as a coffee connoisseur, impressing dinner guests with rare beans from my climate-controlled cave in the basement. Thinking back on years of sucking down 7-Eleven brew, I am ashamed of my tawdry, common tastes.
I keep waiting to snap out of it, to wake up and smell the Starbucks for what it really is. But the drug and the dogma keep me believing. And after I’m released into an actual, live store, the show goes on.
Hordes of D.C. humanoids rely on us for service and sauce, dropping five bucks for a cup of joe without a thought. And to think, I say to my lucky self, I can get it all for free, night after night, after night.
Early on in my career, I am nominated for a partner prize after sprinting to the Starbucks up the block to get an unstable diplomat his favorite scone. Catching my breath that night, I watch a colleague clean up a prep-school kid’s vomit and then offer him a free, sobering latte for the road.
One weekend, I break away from my new workplace to attend a funeral in New Jersey. For the first time in weeks I am removed for a whole 72 hours from my coffee house away from home. On my way back, I am troubled by how few Starbucks I see on Route 1. But they will come, I know, in due time.
My first night back to work, a homeless guy comes in and heists the tip jar. This is his regular routine, and I watch as my manager offers him the key to the restroom just a few hours later. Counting up my lost tip money in my head, I marvel yet again at the company’s oh-so-’90s embrace of service over money.
And then a little voice, buried in the caffeinated recesses of my soul, points out that it was my cash we lostnot Starbucks’.
Later that night, I run into my friend Zoo on the street. Just the guy, I think, to squelch the irritating questions planted by the tip-jar incident. I find out he just took a job at California Pizza Kitchen, another Connecticut Avenue conglomerate. He’s in training, it turns out, and gets visibly excited when I ask him about it. “First, we had to take a four-hour class for a week,” he says. “Every morning, at 8 a.m., we got quizzed on what we learned the day before, covering everything from wine varieties to the ingredients in a BBQ chicken salad. And you have to get at least a 90 percent on each quiz. After the classes end, there’s a two-hour cumulative final exam. The next week you go through three ‘shadow shifts’…”
I take my former friend by his shoulders, searching his dilated eyes for a glimpse of the boy I once knew. Finding not a shred, I turn back toward Starbucks. I discover my manager at the condiment bar, arranging sugar packets in a perfect spiral. As I struggle to come up with Starbuckese for “I quit,” she looks positively baffled. Soon enough I give up and just walk out the door. The chirping baristas and the ring of the cash register fade behind me.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: DARROW MONTGOMERY.