Courtesy Maritza Camacho
Jacky, 19, an SRJC freshman, has been serving coffee for a year now as a barista in a Santa Rosa coffee shop. Working there during a pandemic has completely shifted her experience as a barista, as she recalls a recent incident that made her feel horrible and emphasized how customers sometimes don’t understand that workers are human.
“Well, one time a “Karen” ordered 26 drinks and started to complain at the drive-thru window because her drinks were taking too long and started to get really mad and said she wanted a discount,” Jacky said. “We said no obviously, and she got even more mad and blazed off without the drinks and completely wasted our time.”
Jacky and other coffee shop employees have been deemed essential workers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many continue to come to work, risking their lives, to serve you your morning cup.
For coffee shop employees, normal days consisted of cleaning, making and serving coffee and building customer connections while always maintaining a smile on their faces.
Three months later, serving coffee has radically changed.
Today, normal work days for a barista might consist of temperature checks upon clock in, hand washing every 15 minutes, gloves and face masks for direct contact with customers, non-stop drive-thru lines with mixed looks of fear and appreciation from customers.
But what do these coffee shop employees want their customers to know?
Employees from Starbucks, Dutch Bros, Peet’s Coffee and a number of other small local coffee businesses chimed in about their experiences working during the coronavirus pandemic. They talked about new precautions they’ve had to take, encounters with customers — good and bad — and how their stores have supported them. Lastly, they offered some tips for other baristas and future customers.
Many coffee shop employees can quickly recall times when certain customers didn’t have compassion for these essential workers.
Some customers have reported these employees for just trying to help them. Jacob, 19, a coffee barista, experienced this during one of his shifts that left him feeling both scared and annoyed.
“An older couple didn’t understand that they needed to order what they wanted on a mobile app, and they literally started to scream at us, saying we were being ageist against them,” he said. “We offered to help them to figure out the app, but then they just left and called my head supervisor. After a few hours, my head supervisor came by to get our side of the story and the report is still being written to this day.”
Several baristas explained that typically the worst times are during rushes when they receive an overwhelming amount of orders all at once.
“When it’s our rush, the mobiles and drive-thru are going at crazy speeds,” said Amanda, 18, a barista and SRJC freshman. “It can get a little overwhelming at times when you’re running back and forth and trying to multitask.”
For Amanda and other baristas, these rushes heighten the stress when they are trying to offer their best customer service.
Kevin, 19, a barista from Hayward who transferred to a Santa Rosa coffee shop, recalled a customer who ordered more than 20 drinks through DoorDash. ”At the time, we also had to deal with customers who kept adding drinks at the drive-thru window because they forgot to order them at the ordering speaker,” he said.
Kevin felt stressed and annoyed, but he didn’t resent these customers because he understood the family at the window was trying to find an outing and Starbucks was the closest thing to that.
Several of these bad experiences have also been about customers not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
Both Helen and Kimberly describe a situation at a Santa Rosa coffee shop that they did not personally witness but were told about by coworkers. A woman came through the drive-thru saying she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was threatening to get the staff sick with the virus. The staff had to stop and sanitize everything thoroughly after the incident.
At another store, Edgar, 21, a shift leader at his coffee shop, said, “One horrific event was when a customer was coughing all over the money and trying to hand it to me. So instead, I just gave their drink to them for free due to safety reasons.”
Close calls with customers who don’t take the necessary safety precautions makes these employees worry about their own safety and that of their coworkers.
Yet, the employees have also had many positive experiences that can overpower the bad times.
A large majority of the coffee shop employees mentioned the gratitude they feel towards the customers who offer appreciation and those who spread positivity one way or another.
Kendall, 20, a barista and third-year SRJC student, said, “The majority of our customers are super grateful and appreciative that we are still open, so people have been expressing their gratitude towards us, which is really rewarding.”
Jacky enjoys the generous customers who pay for the stranger’s drinks in the car behind them. “Seeing that person smile brings so much joy to us,” she said. “Also, when customers ask us about our day or anything to try to get to know us, and when they say that we did a really good job making their drink. That overrides the bad experiences.”
Eden, 19, a local coffee shop barista, agreed. “Almost every single customer has made a point of telling us how happy they are to see us open, and some even pull me aside when I pass off their drink to show genuine interest in how my family and I are doing.”
A reoccurring comment from most of the interviewed coffee employees was how much they appreciate the generous tips they receive. It is the small gestures like these that make a difference in the days of the employees.
Some employees offered tips for other coffee shop workers during this pandemic.
“Yes, it gets very busy, yes it can get irritating to be constantly surrounded by people, but this is part of the job,” said SRJC freshman and barista Amanda. “Enjoy it. I love all of my coworkers and each of their personalities. They make my job ten times better at the end of the day.”
Albert, 26, a former SRJC student and newly hired barista, reminded others to trust in their mask and wash their hands. “If someone isn’t following health/safety guidelines, report them,” he said. “If your manager refuses to acknowledge the danger, then you have the right to refuse service/refuse to work. I feel good about it all right now but if at any point I feel unsafe, I’ll let my manager know and go from there. This is an uncertain time but so long as you’re being smart about everything, you will be fine.”
For Eden, staying as positive as possible during the pandemic can make a big difference whether you’re serving or ordering. “We’re all going through our personal struggles but showing extra kindness is so valuable right now,” she said.
These coffee shop employees also had some final messages for future customers who want to enter their stores.
Most baristas urge customers to be patient with baristas and want customers to reconsider the necessity of going to their coffee shop everyday for a simple cup of java. Take a break once in a while to make coffee at home instead.
In addition to patience, Jacob wants customers to understand that baristas are getting paid minimum wage during a once-in-a-lifetime event and kindness goes a long way to those who are waking up each day, putting on a mask and gloves and making you your coffee so that you can go out and have a good day.
“We help make customers’ days better by serving them coffee. Some people want the normalcy of going to their local coffee shop to escape from the horrors and problems of the world and we work very hard to try and achieve that,” Jacob said.
Jacky wishes for patience from customers. “If we are taking too long please understand that we could have gotten a really long order before yours and we are trying our hardest to get you your drinks. Also, please don’t order more than 10 drinks and not tip us. That is very rude.”
Despite the challenges that Jacky faces as an essential worker, she wants customers to know that we are all in this together, we’re all going through the same thing.