What I Learned About Being a Starbucks Barista

We’ve all been there. That relentless caffeine craving starts gnawing at you, and you begin to calculate the distance between you and the nearest coffee shop. With one dotting what seems to be every block nowadays, chances are you’ll be getting your fix at the next Starbucks you see. Whether you placed a mobile order, or ordered your Joe the old-fashioned way—you know, that face-to-face thing people do—you’ll be interacting with a barista in some form, even if it’s just to say thanks when they hand you your drink. But what lies behind the bar? What are the secrets swimming around in the minds of those hard-working baristas? To be quite honest with you, I never considered it too much myself, until one of my friends started working there a few months ago. Now, I have made such a habit of spending hours at Starbucks that on more than one occasion people have actually thought I worked there. I know the baristas by name, and in the copious amount of time I have spent there, I have learned a lot. I have decided to share my new-found knowledge with you all, and, as it were, spill the beans. The coffee beans, that is.

Making and remembering all the drinks isn’t as difficult as you might think.

My friend told me her first day on bar she was shaking, just thinking that there was no way she could do it. Now, we refer to her as the Alpha Barista. She said it’s totally comfortable now, and actually feels really cool to know how all the drinks are put together. Almost all the drinks have essentially the same base, just a few minor differences. For instance, a latte and a macchiato are practically the same drink, the only qualification being that in a macchiato, the espresso shots go on the top, instead of the bottom. Fun fact: you’re actually not supposed to mix up your macchiato. It’s made that way to taste all the different layers individually.

Along with having the same bases, there is a ratio between sizes. The pumps of syrups are the same for most drinks, with the exception of things made on cold bar. To put it simply, if a “grande” has four pumps, larger or smaller sizes have a specified, higher or lower number of pumps based on that. The same logic is used with shots. Once you have that down, it’s just muscle memory.

Your intricate orders are noted…

And just as you suspected, they can be super annoying. No shade from me though, because I know my order is super high-maintenance. Because of the previously mentioned system of making drinks, alterations disrupt the flow. Even just asking for light ice is a small request that can throw off everything. It sounds simple but asking for light ice means they have to add more of the actual drink, thus throwing off the ratio. It is understood though; people like what they like. Even some baristas have orders on the more outlandish side, so it’s okay. Just be considerate when you’re ordering.

Advice from a shift manager?

1. Order your drink in this order: SIZE, HOT/ICED, TYPE OF DRINK, ALTERATIONS. For example, I would order a “grande”, hot, blonde latte, with three pumps of caramel and two pumps of hazelnut. Saying things too far out of order might mean they have to start all over again, so try your best to get it right the first time. And for the record, whether you say tall/grande/venti or small/medium/large, it doesn’t matter. They know what you mean, just make sure you say the size.

2. Speak clearly! It’s loud back there, and if you’re mumbling or rushing through your order, you are only making their job harder and increasing the chances something you want will be missed in the order.

3. Be patient. It only makes sense that your long order might take a long time, so don’t get frustrated with the baristas. You’re not the only person they have to worry about.

What about secret menu orders?

Now I hate to disappoint you all, because if you’re anything like me, you’ve been imagining a secret Starbucks society that meets in the dead of night, wearing hooded cloaks that smell of coffee beans and mystery, to discuss the intricacies of a menu only few have the privilege of knowing. The truth? It’s not that deep. Some of the secret menu things are pre-entered into the system, but there are plenty of them the baristas actually don’t know. If that’s the case, you can explain to them what you’re looking for, or pull the same move as the random lady who pulled out a Facebook post about it. Just know that in those cases, it’s mostly guesswork.

Once you’re a seasoned vet, rush hours really aren’t that stressful.

On bar, most of the stress actually doesn’t come from making a ton of drinks. With clear orders paired with muscle memory, the baristas get into a groove. A mixed-up drink might throw it off, but what messes things up more than anything actually isn’t the customers or the orders: it’s the other baristas. One of the shift managers explained to me that after working there for a while, the rushes don’t get to him anymore. Picking up other people’s slack, because someone didn’t do their job is actually what causes the stress and the bigger setbacks. That being said, setbacks can happen in any work place. Anyone who has had a job has probably had to pick up slack here or there, unless of course you were the slacker. If you’re at Starbucks, especially during a rush, just keep your patience pants on. There is a lot going on back there, so if your drink is taking a while, it’s not a personal attack on you, things just take time.

There are plenty of perks to working…

Now I’m sure you all didn’t come here to listen to me talk about stress. You want to know all the goodies the baristas get. Namely one goody in particular: free coffee. And yes, you do get a ton of free coffee. And tea. And pastries, and all of that nonsense. If you are like me, and you have become closely associated with the baristas, good news! Chances are you’ll get some free stuff sometimes too. As an aside for those of you not already tight with your local baristas, be nice to them. Strike up a conversation, ask them how their day is going. They deserve it, and whether you realize it or not, you’ll probably brighten their day. More likely than not, you’ll get a smile or a quality conversation out of it, too. It’s a win-win.

Apart from the free cups of joe, there are other upsides to working too. From what I’ve been told, and from what I’ve seen, there’s some serious comradery among the baristas. I’ve been in the store during closing while they all sing and dance to Mariah Carrey, and crack jokes. Outside of the store, they are just as close: studying together, getting food or just watching The Office. Mostly though, there’s free coffee.

…but it’s a double-edged sword.

With all that great coffee comes great tragedy. And by tragedy, I mean the fate of becoming a coffee snob. As a barista, you have coffee taste tests, and you get to learn all the idiosyncrasies that go along with the brewing process. Soon enough, you can taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and a lower-quality one. Gone are the days of cheap campus coffee carts, and basic caramel macchiatos. Instead, the drinks become more personally fitted to the barista who consumes them. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, all the access to the multitudes of drink possibilities have spoiled some baristas. With too much of a good thing, they have turned to straight espresso just to get the job done.

What do the baristas order?

The following are the favorite drinks of the baristas of Pitt if you’re looking to try anything new!

1. Alivia’s Choice: Iced Americano with three pumps of classic, topped with cold foam

2. Sean’s Choice: Straight Espresso

3. Nora’s Choice: Iced Latte with Coconut Milk

4. Sam’s Choice: Double Almond Milk Latte

5. Jenn’s choice: Honey Citrus Mint Tea with two pumps of peppermint

6. Louis’ Choice: Quad (four shots) over ice

So that’s a barista life.

Take this knowledge I have given you and be wizened. If you have any more questions, just ask your local baristas! If they aren’t super busy, I’m sure they’d love to chat about it, just as everyone was very open to talking with me. If you’re just there for a quick trip, flash a smile anyways. They are a really interesting and lovely group of people, and everyone deserves a little positivity now and then.

Photo Credit: 1