MARY WHEELER poured coffee for a year and a half and no, she doesn’t care how you take it

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By Mary Wheeler

My alarm would go off every morning at 5:20 a.m. I would throw on a grimy brown T-shirt, often still stained from the night before, dingy Nike sneakers and too-tight jeans. My blonde hair was carelessly thrown into a ponytail or braid, I wore no makeup and usually chipped nail polish. To top off my look, I had to wear a tan baseball cap two sizes too big. This was my typical attire as a food service worker at one of New York City’s most popular bakeries.

No, I never aspired to work in a bakery. I was just one of the many recent college graduates in 2009 that had either been laid off or were “underemployed.”

I had struggled for six months to find full-time work and was only able to find temping gigs on Craigslist (working as a receptionist at a real estate office, collecting signatures for nonprofits, cleaning the sides of boats out in Connecticut). Needless to say, my work history was about as irregular as my birth control routine—when I finally landed a full-time job at a swanky Chelsea bakery, I thought, This is great! But in the world of food service, that excitement quickly dwindled into burnout.

It took two solid hours to open the bakery. The inventory: an endless array of cookies, cakes, brownies, scones, muffins and breads. The appeal to eat any of it was quickly diminished by the overpowering and sometimes nauseating smell of sugary sweetness.

The bakery opened promptly at 7:30 a.m. and, like a bank or the DMV, people would line up out the door, eagerly drooling over the chocolate croissants, apple coffee cake and lemon bars. I generally gravitated to making the drinks—less interaction with people, less shifting around. Coffee, lattes, hot chocolates, macchiatos, americanos—all, basically, drinks I could never afford.

The rule I was taught was two shots for a large cappuccino, one shot for a small, followed by a lot of foam and just a touch of steamed milk. I never followed this rule. I made all of the drinks, cappuccinos and lattes, exactly the same (no measuring, no concept of espresso to milk ratio). Even the toughest coffee connoisseur never questioned my barista skills; any complaints I got were because the drinks were too hot. Looking back, my drinks probably tasted terrible.

We had another rule at the bakery that I never understood. The idea of stellar customer service entailed putting the milk and sugar in the customer’s coffee. If someone asked for two packets of Equal in their coffee, it was, “Of course, absolutely.” The problem with this was that the majority of the time, customers would complain that you put too much or not enough of something in, defeating the purpose of the ass-kissing.

After the initial 9 a.m. rush of grumbly people on their way to work passed, life at the bakery slowed—but not for long. There were still salads and sandwiches to be brought out, iced drinks to be made, tables to be wiped and product signs to be readjusted before lunch hit. The great thing about food service is the diverse array of people working in it: struggling artists, single moms, divorcées, college graduates, high school graduates, foreigners, etc. Food service is a very non-cliquey business—whoever you are, wherever you came from and however you want to define yourself, you have a place.

In food service, you always have one scene-stealer of the day. The woman who screamed because the orange juice wasn’t freshly squeezed, the line-cutters, the indecisive tourists and those who were just angry. There’s really no right or wrong way to react to such hysteria, though I found that remaining silent and staring blankly back seemed to do the trick. We did occasionally have a celebrity appearance—Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio, Molly Shannon—so there was a faint hint of glamor in working behind the counter.

I’m happy that my food service days are behind me. I don’t miss the customer always being right. I don’t miss smelling like a Krispy Kreme donut. And I don’t miss putting half and half in someone else’s coffee. The next time a food service employee asks you how you take your coffee, know they really don’t care and are just counting down the minutes until they get to clock out.

Still, I can think of worse jobs.

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  • R C Bac

    Very concrete description of the business and what goes on. Especially the ending.

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