WHY DO WE PRETEND WE LOVE COFFEE ALL THE TIME?
Real talk: work sucks sometimes.
About three years ago, coffee people lost their minds over the website, and subsequent outing of, The Bitter Barista. There was a deluge of responses on Sprudge, the guy lost his job, and basically everyone had a reaction one way or the other.
The responses that struck me, at the time, were those that were dissatisfied with the views taken by Matt Watson, the bitter barista in question. On his website, he says things like, “This guy just got mad because we don’t have a yellow-pages. We also don’t have an abacus or a sun-dial,” or “When I ask ‘for here or to go?’ I’m only curious what kind of cup you want… Not what your plans for the day are.” And while some of his opinions shared were a little more extreme (especially if you order alternative milks) nothing on the website struck me as particularly offensive. In fact, I probably thought all the things he wrote before, too.
There’s a tendency in coffee to value passion above all else, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Matt Watson was vilified by a number of coffee professionals. We cite passion as the reason we’re all here, and sometimes feign ignorance or even disgust when someone else isn’t as passionate as us. But passion doesn’t equate to perfection or even satisfaction. You can love coffee and hate your job. You can love making coffee and hate the area in which you serve it. No matter how passionate you are about perfecting your craft, when a customer complains that your prices are too high or insults your intelligence or makes you feel less than you are, it sucks and it hurts and expressing that hurt shouldn’t detract from the care you give your craft.
Sometimes, work just sucks. You can be having a bad day, you could be working for the wrong company, or you can be in the wrong role, but we shouldn’t persecute people for finding ways to express that, nor should we question their commitment to coffee. Since the Bitter Barista controversy in 2013 (which, if you were wondering, may have led to being fired but then led to publishing a coffee book) I’ve thought a lot about how to balance my passion for my work and the genuine frustration I feel when work sucks. And I can’t believe that others are just living perfect lives without frustration. If you think you are, then I’d wager your employees or the people around you aren’t, and it might be because of you.
What’s exciting right now is that people are starting to write and share more about their not-so positive experiences in coffee, and I hope that begins to shift the way in which we view customer service. Yes, we want to be nice and extend as much care and knowledge as we can, but customer service is an ultimately a means to an end. We want to give good service partially because giving good service is nice, but we also want people to like their drinks, be nice to us, and give us a good review or a tip. As a boss or a business owner, to pretend like those things don’t matter is irresponsible and demeaning. When a customer complains or doesn’t leave a tip, it hurts, and being allowed to express that hurt through whatever means necessary is important. We don’t question the motives of an office employee when they vent about their jobs—in fact, we all laugh and idolize movies that mock the redundancy and apathy most people feel about office environments.
[Side note—I’ve dreamt of making a Clerks-like movie about baristas.]
So why do we think coffee is different? Why can’t we make light of bad situations? One of the reasons I wanted this website to happen is to let people be free to just exhale and say, ‘sometimes, shit sucks.’ Because it does. And that’s ok. No one has built the perfect coffee shop that treats their employees perfecting and has perfect customers—if someone has, please let me know if you are hiring—but until that time, we have to create spaces for barista to unburden the emotional toll service work takes, instead of making them feel bad for having a shitty day.
If you have a story to share, please send it to permanentbarista at gmail dot com.