What better way to study human nature than wearing the famed Green Apron in one of the cafes that is part the world’s favorite coffee chain? Not only have I learned to take an order in 30-seconds and make – in less than a minute – a grande half-caff soy 130-degree no foam add sugar free caramel and extra caramel drizzle caramel macchiato, I’ve also observed the human condition across every socioeconomic line. It’s been quite a show.
I’ve served Super Bowl champions, millionaires, homeless people, TV personalities, doctors, lawyers, nurses, soccer moms, cops, laborers, po’ trash of every stripe, a few certifiable crazies, a wide variety of canines (“A puppaccino, please.”), the sight and hearing impaired – you name ‘em, I’m their caffeine fix.
Most of them are just plain ol’ folks – just as nice as can be. All they want is their cuppa java, tea, frappachino or smoothie. As in the rest of society some of them take themselves way too seriously. Moreover, some of them take their coffee way too seriously.
I don’t begrudge them that, however; I understand, I really do. In today’s fast-moving digital mile a second world, our pleasures are often fleeting and few and let’s face it, coffee is addictive.
Not only do people take their caffeine fix seriously, they want it fast. Survey after survey shows the most important thing to our customers is speed and the company expects the Green Aprons to make it so. Occasionally things do get bogged down and, for the most part, people understand; shit happens.
Someone adds a drink or two at the window. Another has eight different gift cards with $5.00 on each paying for a $37.67 order. Still another wants to reload their card, a time consuming transaction. It can all add up very quickly and clog the pipeline. At an eight-minute wait we start handing out free drinks. Not a happy time, I can assure you.
Once in awhile a customer or two will get testy. In rare instances things get nasty. Luckily, I’ve only experienced it once in nearly a year-and-half in The Apron but he was a dilly.
IT’S ONLY COFFEE, PEOPLE
It was a typical busy day at one of the busiest stores in Washington State. I was “at the window,” meaning I was at the drive-thru dispensing drinks and taking money. At peak times there is one person taking the drive-thru order at the first stop – menu and speaker/microphone – and a second at the window handing out and raking in the $$. Ideally the whole transaction takes two-minutes or less. A good 30-minutes will see more than 30 transactions; the expectation is more than 40. But, as with the rest of life, the unexpected happens and the times can increase dramatically.
I can average more than 30 transactions per 30-minutes and things were moving along nicely with a long line of cars, but our wait times were good. Inevitably, something happened and the wait jumped to four-to-six minutes. As usual most people understood but this one dude was clearly angry when he pulled to the window.
When things get crazy like that the tension rises and mistakes happen. In this case, the barista gave this guy our standard 2% milk when he’d ordered non-fat. No big deal, right? It’s a quick fix. Nonetheless, this guy went ballistic – on me. He screamed, he ranted and raved. He threw obscenities like fastballs.
Now I’m good with assholes and bullies. I don’t take their shit personally. They try to intimidate and it doesn’t work with me. I let this guy blow his top for a few seconds and then calmly said, “Sir, there’s no need to talk like that to someone who’s trying to provide you with good service. Let me quickly get you a new drink.”
You would’ve though I’d tossed acid in his eyes; he began an even more irate tirade and his volume rose accordingly. I’d had enough; I was about to close the window on the jerk before I said or did something rash when the driver behind him began to honk her horn. She honked hard and long until the screaming meemie finally drove away. My new hero horn honker got a free drink.
SAFE AT FIRST PLACE
Colorado winters can be mean. Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures hit often and hit hard. One of the things I really like about this company is its policy of being a “third place.” That means after home and work, your local Starbucks is the third place where you feel most comfortable. Sadly, in some cases we are the first and only place, especially in the freezing, driving snow.
In bureaucratese they are “displaced persons.” To us, they are homeless and too often they are invisible. We don’t care who you are, as long as you cause no trouble, you can order a cup of water or an iced venti, half-caff, two pump vanilla, four pump caramel, nonfat, with whipped cream white mocha and stay as long as we are open. I’ve been known to buy a cuppa java or two for those who are too scared, embarrassed or shy and huddle in a windbreak outside.
Just recently I witnessed a heartwarming scene. Two obvious transients standing in front of me at the front register ordered a couple of venti coffees and some sandwiches. This is an unusually large order for these cash-strapped folks but the smartly dressed woman behind them stepped up to pay for their order. She then followed them to their table and talked with them for about 20-minutes.
I’m sure she was preaching to them, if not trying to recruit them to some church, because when I thanked her afterwards for her kindness she mentioned something about “The Lord.”
Frankly, I don’t give a rip what she said to them. Just the fact that she brought them in and fed them was enough for me.
THE RELUCTANT QUARTERBACK AND THE PROUD DEFENSIVE COACH
That crazy busy drive-thru I mentioned above was in Renton, WA, just east of Seattle, right across the freeway from the Seattle Seahawks magnificent headquarters/training facility on the shore of Lake Washington. Frankly, it was the main reason I applied at that particular location but, as usual, I digress.
Needless to say, we are a favorite pre-workout stop for players, coaches, top brass and the reporters who follow them around. Most of them prefer the drive-thru rather than coming into the store. Understandably, they value their privacy and they don’t want to create a scene.
A small few do come into the café and we treat them just like our other regulars, being careful not to draw any unwanted attention to them, especially when they come in with their wives and kids – which they often do. Again, we work hard to make our stores a place where people feel at home and comfortable. It’s in our DNA.
One particular day, more than halfway through the Seahawks Super Bowl season, I was taking orders at the window. A big SUV comes to the order point – it is equipped with a microphone and video camera – and I can barely see the driver; he was leaning away from his window toward the passenger side. I thought he was talking to someone or dealing with a kid. Nonetheless, I could barely hear him.
“Sir,” I asked politely, “could you please move closer to your window so I can hear you more clearly?” He complied, but in the process raised his tinted side window two-thirds up. Though his voice was still muffled I finally got the order.
When the SUV rolled up I was obviously curious as to who the shy guy was and there, less than three feet from me was the Hawks rising star quarterback, Russell Wilson. Yours truly was both starstruck and speechless
The opposite end of the spectrum entered our café after the ‘Hawks stunning beat down of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVII. One of the defensive coaches – I don’t know which one to this day – walked in proudly wearing his brand new Super Bowl Ring. It is way more impressive in person than any picture can portray. Can you say Bling-Bling -Ring-a-Ding?
THE BARISTA AS BARTENDER
I’m not sure why but there is a certain and instant intimacy created between some customers and the barista taking their orders at the front till. You often hear about bartenders as substitute psychologists, marriage counselors, etc. We often find ourselves in the same role from behind The Green Apron. Sometimes, it is surprisingly – and gratifyingly – successful.
I’m not really one for idle and meaningless chitchat like, “So, how’s your day going?” Or, “enjoying the nice weather?” In fact, I prefer to play the goofball (surprise!) telling corny jokes, tossing bad puns and often, singing a song that relates to their name.
As a side note, after spending most of my life thinking I have a tin ear, many customers have complimented my singing and, the more I sing, the more I can hear that I am actually hitting the notes. WTF? But, I digress as usual.
Strangely, my comic behavior sometimes opens the door for serious discussion. For example, a guy my age, after giving his order, asked me to hold his drinks while he went to the bathroom. I, of course, replied with a prostate joke. The guy turned around and asked if I had trouble with my prostate (guys my age will understand this). “Not really,” I replied, “if you don’t count that it’s the size of a cantaloupe.”
This opened the door for a serious discussion with the customer asking me how I knew mine was so large.
“Haven’t you ever had your doc do an examination or take blood for a PSA test?”
The guy looked blankly at me, clearly having no clue about any of what I’d just mentioned. I briefly explained the concerns for men our age and urged him to make an appointment to get checked. A few weeks later the man returned, walked up to my register and shook my hand.
“Thanks man,” he said, “you may have saved my life.”
“I went to the doc like you said and my PSA was sky high. They did a biopsy and I have prostate cancer. I start treatment next week. They don’t know if that will work; I may still need surgery. I can’t thank you enough.”
I was floored. It never occurred to me that he might have cancer. I’m pretty up-front with people and I don’t hesitate to offer what I consider helpful advice but I never think about or really worry if they heed that advice. Thank goodness he did.
Some women have volunteered, without any urging from moi, that they went out for their cuppa java, to “get away from that asshole.” I take that as a need to share and I am extremely sensitive to any sort of domestic abuse, emotional or physical – it’s a hot button – so I don’t hesitate to ask if someone is mistreating them. Sadly, the answer is often, “Yes.”
This is obviously a very delicate situation but I try to give a little encouragement and some helpful information. So often these victims of abuse feel hopeless and trapped. I offer up some local resources and urge them to do research online.
On the lighter side, I’ve had women and men make passes. I think at least one guy hit on me when he said, “I really like the way your (shoulder length) hair curls.” Hmmmm.
Then, it is not rare for another self-styled goofball to come in and try to out-goof me. The results are often hilarious. I consider myself a success when I see a whole line of customers chortling if not outright guffawing right along with us.
I like to tell my customers that I don’t sell coffee and tea; I sell service and I take that very seriously. It turns out that when you serve and observe from Behind The Green Apron, you never know what service you might need to provide. It’s a challenge that makes my job all the more interesting.
Stay tuned for more Tales From Behind the Green Apron.
 “Puppaccino,” simply a tiny cup or cup lid with a small amount of whipped cream – guaranteed to satisfy any canine customer.