Coffee house confidential: My life in a quintessential college job

As I browsed Digg this week looking for fresh stories, I had to laugh a bit when I saw that a CNN piece touting the potential health benefits of coffee ranked among the most popular pieces. After all, I've been serving the stuff for about five years as a barista, and the effects of America's coffee consumption habits on my own life and health have run the gamut from highly rewarding to migraine-inducing.

If you've never worked at a coffee shop, you're missing out on one of the most memorable positions a college student can find, and the passion with which most baristas regard their positions (for good or ill) might surprise you. It's a highly polarizing environment--and one that you might still find time to experience after graduation. In my home store at a major, perhaps even ubiquitous national coffee chain (whose name I shall not mention due to company policy regarding the media), the applications for positions pile higher every day, and, in the current economy, their list of qualifications just keeps getting longer, as even Master's degree holders fail to find full-time positions in their fields.

With that in mind, I decided to offer a few insider's tips on the world of steam and espresso for jobless students and those still in the hunt after graduation.

The most interesting people in a coffee shop gather behind the counter... and customers still talk down to them. In just the last couple of years, I've seen my shop staffed with playwrights, painters, actresses, filmmakers, graphic designers, a historian, DJs, indie rock bandleaders and fiction writers, among others. It's a wonderful place to meet potential collaborators and muses if you're into the arts, but you'll have to learn to hold your tongue when some slovenly suit-and-tie gives you the toddler-worthy "slow talk" because his latte isn't ready after 90 seconds. Many customers refuse to comprehend the idea that the person serving their coffee might equal their intelligence; such a revelation would shake up their worldview a bit too much.

A coffee shop is a pressure cooker for intense confrontation.
A popular Brooklyn cafe made local headlines last week when most of the staff walked out during the morning rush, but I doubt that such a spectacle would shock any seasoned barista. I've held a variety of positions at numerous restaurants, and none of them hold a candle to a coffee shop for teary-eyed, mid-morning breakdowns and big screen-worthy drama. Maybe it's all those arty personalities (read: big egos) bouncing off each other, or the tension that spills over from hyper-caffeinated customers when the drinks get backed up. Whatever it is, though, a coffee shop job will inevitably test your self-esteem with an epic clash every so often--and it's more likely to involve a co-worker than a customer. A thin-skinned barista won't last long in a morning rush, so students with fragile dispositions may want to look elsewhere.

Baristas occupy the lowest rung of the tip ladder. Imagine a bartending job where your patrons only get more sober as you serve them and you begin to see why individuals looking for great tips should take a position in a night-time establishment instead. It's no wonder that baristas at a few coffee shops in Washington state have even taken to going topless to hustle up a better tip rate. (Why go tipless when you can go topless?) A full-time barista might pull in about $120 a week in tips, but as anyone who's ever held a service job can tell you, a fat wad of singles is the devil's plaything. It'll take all your restraint and fiscal wisdom to make them last more than a day or two.

You'll carry the scars of battle with you. With all that boiling water and steam flying around, a busy coffeeshop will leave you with an endless parade of burns and blisters on both hands, not to mention the signature black-cracked digit known as "barista finger" that comes from constant hand-washing and leveling of coffee grounds. Also, you'll waft the scent of wet coffee grounds wherever you go... and you'd best leave your white shirts out of your work wardrobe.

A day in a neighborhood cafe can turn into an episode of "Dennis the Menace." We've come a long way from the radicalized cafes of 18th century England, where Charles II actually tried to ban coffee shops as hotbeds of disaffected anarchists. American cafes today are hotbeds of yoga moms and their caravans of massive strollers. You can add screaming tykes to the list of potential barista stresses, and you likely won't last long if you can't re-stock a condiment bar properly while getting ankle-rammed by a Big Wheel trike.

Urban coffee shops provide a haven for the homeless. Where else can you pay $2 for a beverage and relax in an air-conditioned environment for hours? Especially in downtown areas, all coffee shops harbor a revolving cast of homeless regulars that fall beneath the radar of the average customer's upturned nose. While nine-tenths of the homeless I've met are normal, decent people with poor luck, a barista can find themselves in some harrowing situations when they run into that other ten percent.

At my first coffee shop position in the financial district of Chicago, for example, a homeless regular wearing half a tattered ski mask, Phantom Of The Opera-style, once spat in my face when my manager assigned me to remove him from the store. Earlier that same day, an elderly woman had accused me of plagiarizing her great unpublished novel when she couldn't pay for a banana. I considered pointing out that her novel couldn't have been that great if I still wound up working a cash register after I ripped it off, but I thought better of it and simply promised I'd never do it again.

The crazy hours will kill your work ethic if you're not careful. Almost every barista I've ever known slings their lattes in service of some other passion or potential career--and almost all of them have had to wrestle with a serious crisis of confidence when the coffee shop seems to subsume all other productive interests at times. I tend to consider myself a freelance writer, but after closing the shop at 10 p.m. and heading in the next morning at 4:30 a.m. for an eight-hour opening shift, it often takes superhuman resolve to write my Money College column instead of oozing into the couch for a "Law & Order" marathon.

Still, even with all those caveats and pitfalls, most baristas (myself included) take an odd sort of pride in the foibles of our day job. The flexible hours bring in a cadre of unique, creative individuals, and, in a coffee shop with the right chemistry, the inevitable shared hardships only strengthen future friendships and professional relationships. For all my gripes with the world of coffee, and my readiness to dive into a real writing career after graduating college, I'd never trade my years as a barista for a cushier college job.

Finally, I'd like to make one professional observation about that CNN article. Most of the proposed health benefits of coffee come from its antioxidant contents, but there's a growing body of research that suggests milk proteins reduce or negate the effectiveness of antioxidants. In other words, you're really only getting these prospective benefits if you're drinking straight-up black coffee--and based on the number of mochas and frappes I'm churning out every day, I have a feeling most coffee shop patrons shouldn't get too geeked about the health benefits of their beverage just yet.

Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at
steven.t.kent@gmail.com.

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