Customer service is one of the most trying industries to work in with long hours, little pay, rude people who are often impossible to please — and coffee is probably the hardest customer service industry of them all. Baristas rise while everyone else is sleeping, make often peril-filled journeys to get to work and prepare to help get the city up and going. Yet, I got up and did it every morning for nearly seven years.
I practically fell into working in coffee. During my freshman year of college, I needed a job and the coffee shop right down the street was hiring. I was in Seattle, where being a barista is pretty much a rite of passage. It was a small Northwest chain, often plagued by poor business decisions, but I loved it. I met many of my good friends there and it became my home away from home. The crew at the “T” became my family. We worked together, shared crazy customer stories and, because we were such a tight-knit group, shared all the angst and drama that comes along with a group of barely-adults getting together.
Working in coffee is an exercise in tenacity. It’s often extremely fast-paced, and you have roughly three minutes from the time the customer hits the door to complete an order. It’s the quickest turn-around in customer service and some days the rush is never-ending. People are often difficult, have no idea what they’re ordering, aren’t paying attention, talking on their cell phones or demanding mass quantities of coffee without notices in a modicum of time. There are people who like to throw fits and cause scenes, there are people who, based on their behavior, must just be awful morning, noon and night.
To be honest, I’m not an ideal candidate for working in customer service, so how I managed to make a career out of it surprises everyone, including myself. I’m a great employee, but I will not tolerate people being unnecessarily rude or unforgivably stupid. Where others grin and bear it, I will simply tell the offending party in equally blunt terms to get lost. When I decided on a whim to move across the country to Chicago, I figured I’d be fine. I’d survived seven years in the coffee-consumer capital of the world. Working in customer service in Chicago, however, is a whole different ball game.
Chicago is an amazing city, full of wonderful, weird people — the elite, the miscreants and of course, the tourists. Regardless of the category, almost everyone starts his or her morning the same way: with a trip to the coffee shop. That being said, Chicagoans are often not so great before they’ve had their morning coffee (and while this is probably true of everywhere, Chicago is infinitely more fast-paced than Seattle). I know it’s a cliché, but there are people who literally transform from the minute they hit the café door, hell-bent on wreaking havoc on anyone that dares to cross their path, to a pleasant, charismatic businessman on his way to the office once he’s had his first sip of coffee. The changes I’ve witnessed are remarkable and working in a coffee shop is the best kind of people watching. I know more about some of my customers than I do acquaintances, merely because I see them perform the same routines day after day. Baristas keep this massive city thriving by allowing its denizens a short reprieve before heading out into the hustle and bustle.
Soon after moving, I bit the bullet and started working for one of the most successful companies in the world, in one of the busiest areas of Chicago. While my former company had been plagued with financial issues, this company flourished and conquered the world. I almost felt like a traitor. I imagined that I’d love working for such a successful brand, but I was wrong. I instantly took umbrage with many of their practices and most certainly did not have the sense of camaraderie I’d felt in Seattle. Something had changed on my cross-country trip. Work had suddenly started to feel like work. Chicago was my new home and I was determined to enjoy my time here.
I bid my coffee-making days adieu and opted to work on my writing, which was the reason I’d moved in the first place. I don’t regret the time I spent making coffee in Chicago because I met some very interesting people, and learned a lot about the city, but it was definitely time for me to move on. Working in coffee was often infuriating and exhausting, but the truth is, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. Even with all the bad customers, I often met some great ones as well. I’ve become an expert at reading people from every walk of life. I’ve learned and experienced things that I’d never get to if I’d worked somewhere that only employed or served a specific type of individual. Some of the people I worked with in Chicago had the same passion for their job that I once had when I was in Seattle and that’s awesome. Having a job where you can excel while still having fun is a great opportunity and something I hope that everyone finds at some point in their careers. For now, though, I choose to live my life on the other side of the counter.