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From Broadway to Barista and Back

I used to love waiting tables in New York City. I kid you not. I had a few restaurant jobs that were really great over the years, with solid management teams in good houses. I have always enjoyed customer service, and I appreciated meeting all of the thousands of different characters that drifted in and out of my worldview from behind the apron. Of course you always remember the jerks. They left an impression. But the majority of people are not terrible, and they make for really interesting observation material. Society at large makes for a good character study.

A few weeks ago I started a weekend job at the bakery coffee shop in my small town in Maine. It’s a chance for me to get out of the house away from the babies, to make a little money, and to converse with some grownups. I go in at 7AM and stay until early afternoon greeting the tourists and giving an extra nod to the locals. I stand out among the other baristas, who are all high school age girls. I am the old mother of two who is often mistaken for the owner. People look to me as if I have some sort of authority. Even the other girls do it. After all, I am the grown up. They are just barely out of childhood and still making their way through these waters. Then there is me, all birthing hips and boobs standing next to these baby waifs. Still, we are all together learning as we go. 

Real picture of me and one of the high schoolers I work with at the coffee shop.
Real picture of me and one of the high schoolers I work with.

It is busy now that the weather is warming and people are venturing out from their homes again. We have a steady stream of people throughout the morning and they all want their pastries, and smoothies, and sandwiches, and espressos promptly served to them. They have no idea who I am or what my story is, and why would they care? Our relationship is transactional. They need something and I can provide the service.

Service is the key word there. It’s not just food and beverage that someone ladles out when they are working in F&B. They are providing a moment of recognition, a moment where attention must be paid. It’s a brief interlude of courtesy. There is a greeting, a welcome offered, and then a service is provided. It’s such a simple moment repeated hundreds of times during the day, but it is never exactly the same. That is, if you are doing it right. If you are present and performing to the best of your ability. Every interaction is a unique chance to do something well. There is psychology at work here. Every customer needs something different. Some of them want you to make conversation, and some want a wide berth. 

It’s knowing how to quickly read a person’s body language and emotional cues and deciphering what sort of care they need. That’s the key to good service. 

I believe very much in the value of taking pride in your work. If I am steaming the milk, I make it extra frothy. If I’m melting the cheese on the english muffins, you’d better believe that cheese is super melty. I have been onstage at the Tony Awards, and I have made you your latte. Both of these things have been true in this lifetime. I find value in all my work because I do it with integrity. Even if I am heating up your croissanwich, I am doing it to the best of my ability and with an open heart. There is value in service to others. We forget to appreciate that. I know that I do.

I do my best to satisfy the customer. Some people you can never please. They come in determined to have a bad experience. There’s nothing you can do to appease such people, and one thing I have passed down to my teenage barista squad is the value in taking the loss and the benefit in letting said grouchy people go. Arguing with them is a waste of time. There are some customer service battles that are not worth going to war over, I promise you. The customer is not always right. That’s some nonsense.  

Morning is tricky. Some people look at you like you are holding their fix. They show up bleary-eyed, hair still wet from the shower. They avert their gaze like vampires squinting away at sunlight. You have what they need. Take all the money. Give them their caffeine and do away with the chit chat.

Then there are the crazy people. You get them too. The guy who buys four beverages from the cooler and then stuffs them into his sack of newspapers. The older gentleman who always gruffly asks for a receipt and counts every single penny of his change. He comes in. There are all types, all ages and genders. The kids who are meeting up in town to skateboard and come in begging for water. The elderly woman who asked for the cookie to be cut in half and then insisted on leaving the other half “for someone else.” She’s there too.  

Maybe some of the customers speculate about me as well. It is a very small town and people do love to chat. No matter, I suppose. I’m there because I missed being with other people. The quarantine robbed us all of so much time. I guess I’m just trying to make up for some of that. It’s not Broadway, and it’s not forever. But for now I am happy to give you a smile and help you start your day. These days I am taking joy in the little moments. I hope you are too.

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