So Tie on Your Apron
To the new baristas…
It's June again, and I have settled in at the beach to be a barista for the summer. Last year was my first go in the coffee and ice cream business, when I moved in with my best friend at the beach to have my first full time job. Now that I am back for my second year, I have already been upgraded to shift manager—it's just such a transitory job that you can't get kids to stick around for longer than two summers before they move off for college or big boy jobs in the cities. So with all of three months' experience under my belt, when my shift starts, I get to be the boss.
I am eighteen and working on a resort island, where the clientele are the richest of the rich, with small squealy children who don't tip nearly enough and expectations that run outrageously high. The teenagers who come in and order ten dollar frappes are beautiful and tanned and careless while I know for a fact that there is whipped cream in my eyebrows and my shirt smells like old milk. We complain a lot around the shop about the difference, but I could never actually feel upset about this—because I really love this job, and I really love being good at what I do. I get to be surrounded by coffee and ice cream all day, and I work with some of the coolest people I've ever met. And when the shift ends, the night starts, because if you want to coordinate a party around here, the first people you tell are the ice cream kids. We're the only ones who see everyone on the island every day and we know exactly which beach accesses will have the best ragers and the best times.
This year, I've somehow earned the rank of training the newbies. Apparently, this is all you need to know if you want to be expert enough to ring in the next generation. When they trained me up, the managers seemed like such professionals who knew what they were doing a) with the coffee machines and b) with their lives. And now that I'm on the other side of that, I'm enjoying a position of reflection.
When I first got the job, I applied the same day as my best friend and we trained over Easter break. We worked our first weekend to get a ahead of the learning curve, figuring out how the ancient register system worked, how many scoops went into a milkshake, how to set up a cold brew overnight, that sort of thing. Hopefully, we'd be in shape for the summer—but I never expected how many things you'd have to remember. Along the back is a wallpaper of index cards, each one its own recipe for a new drink, and when people want to modify those you've got know the options of what is and is not possible to concoct in a blender or a steamer. Be careful what you say yes to. When they ask you for a soy cappuccino—you must know that those are physically, materially impossible. The customers are not always right, but you always have to let them think they are, and that all of your suggestions are their original ideas. So if I can't make you a soy cappuccino, have you ever heard tried an iced soy chai? and on such a beautiful sunny day like this?
These interactions all came later, long after the grunt work of earning proficiency, soon after the satisfaction of confidence. The espresso machine, on my first introduction, earned the kind of respect that some Lovecraftian god deserves on first encounter. The steamer wands twisted out like spindly silver arms, and if you bumped against them too soon after a latte you could count on your skin to welt up under the burn within the next few minutes. And then, if you didn't secure the levers tightly enough before you pulled a shot, boiling water and thick black coffee grounds would spew out of the seams and leave a painful, hot mess all over the back counter and all over your body.
We take pride in making our own whipped cream in the shop, but it's a fickle trick when you start out. When it starts to get low, the pressure is always the first thing to lose out, and most of the milk oozes out in a soupy foam while the edges spit out cream flecks. You have to dispense it all into the sink, and there's many a time I've stood with the nozzle pointed down into the drain long after it ran dry, because I know that the moment I unscrew the cap, the bottle will discover some new power and spit thick white bubbles all over me. How many times one of my coworkers has come behind me and whispered the word "nut" into my ear while I wiped cream out of my eyes is beyond count now. Rookie mistake. Now we just know to hand the cans off to the scoopers and let them figure it out when the cream gets low.
The hierarchy behind the counter is a funny thing, a little microcosm of society existing amongst the 3-4 people working the shift together. The baristas have to be over sixteen, or OSHA starts breathing down our necks for minors operating heavy equipment, so there's already an age and expertise imbalance when you walk in. All the little boys get hired on as scoopers to work behind the ice cream counter, with their arms shoved down in the cases and shoulders trembling from scooping stuff that freezes to rock solid more often than not. The baristas are the older kids, and you get a mix between late high schoolers working summer jobs and college-age kids looking for a gig to get them to the next school year. Whoever's been there the longest works drinks, while the second-in-line stands on register and cleans out blenders between customers. The scoopers can only earn rat-rank and work the ice cream tubs for the night; if they're lucky, they get a chance to take out the trash and catch some fresh air.
On my first shift ever, I started at three in the afternoon and walked in to a dead shop. For the next few hours, my manager had us restocking spoons and drink sleeves, giving us extra trips down to the storage dungeon to give us a chance to stretch our legs. When the customers trickled in, I read the recipes posted on the wall and got their drinks out to them in decent time. If this was work, this was easy. My first impression though, was wildly incorrect. At seven o'clock the families showed up in full force for post-dinner dessert and nothing had yet prepared me for the true meaning of "hustle".
The line was out the door for three hours and every other person wanted something out of a blender. Frappes were a cup of ice, five ounces coffee base, and two scoops of powder, unless they were flavored, then they needed syrup, unless they were chocolate flavored, then they just needed chocolate powder. And if it was a large, all the portions changed. And that was just the frappes. Smoothies and shakes and frozen chais and chocolates all went through the register and everyone wanted whipped cream, except of course the ones you didn't ask. Kids knocked over stacks of cups, licked the expo marker off the case so no one could read flavors, and put their used sample spoons back in the clean jar just before you could stop them. The scoop basin overflowed twice and you'd hand a person their order only for them to say they didn't realize that a mocha had chocolate in it and they didn't like chocolate and if you didn't mind of course, can they get a new drink? When the last group went through and paid, I fell back against the wall and slid down to sit in what moments ago had been a puddle of spilled peach yogurt. The owner came through the swinging kitchen doors and strode right up to my manager. How's the day's take tonight? Good, good, made something like four grand. That's good, that's good. Busy then? And then he says it. Nah. He says. Not too busy. Pretty good night. I believe my heart skipped a beat. That chaos of crying children and half-dressed teens and disgruntled CEO dads and manicure mommies with all the wrong orders and rock-frozen ice cream and out-of-stock flavors? That? —Meh, that was not too busy.
And now I'm working a Sunday night shift a full year later. It's Father's Day, so there are going to be a lot of families coming through for special dessert night—I make sure that we have the salted caramel and butter pecan preloaded in the upstairs freezer for all the dads coming through. Tonight I've got two trainees working their first nights of the summer. One of them is a dedicated pothead who just looks like he needs to sleep, and one of them is a hundred pound girl who I know is going to last forty minutes with a scoop in hand before her arm gives out. It's the wrist that goes first, then the elbow, then once you've locked your elbow, there goes the shoulder, and then the back, and then you just get to be sore for the next two months. I'm just going to have to get her really comfortable with the Cthulhu on the back wall so that she can work drinks. I expect nothing short of a shitstorm of people tonight, and a hell of a lot of fun.
So for all the new kids, I have this to say. With this job, you are going to hate the ritzy bitches who come in and talk to you like this is the 1960's and you're the hired help. You're going to get frustrated when you've got the shift manager and the shop manager and the restaurant manager and the complex manager and the owner and the owner's wife all giving you instructions when all you want to do is get the line down and the floor cleaned. And you're going to have workers from the complex coming through and helping themselves to the drip tin, and kids who make messes and play the penis game in the lobby, and when you take the trash out, it'll leak out the bottom and run into your shoes and smell awful, and you'll get off late and come in early and your sleep schedule will be just shit for the whole summer. And by the end of the season, you might feel a little like a walking scoop of sentient ice cream.
But then—you're going to miss the smell of dumping coffee in the evening. And you'll miss that quiet walk down to the dungeon to grab another ice cream tub. And the view off the back porch of the lighthouse glowing in the sunset, or lit up all warm and orange under the white stars and the dark blue sky. And you're going to want to have stale muffin wars with your coworkers again in the parking lot and you're going to want to pull a few shots on the espresso machine and you're going to want to get kindly harassed on your way through the kitchen every time you need to scoop a cup of sugar. And you're going to want to be a Sandpiper again. A lil ole sandypipes.
So here we go. Welcome to the shop, welcome to ice cream fam and get ready for work. You're in the club now— you will get invited every time there's a party after hours, because when you control the caffeine and sugar intake of the island, you basically set all the rules. Who else are the renters going to talk to when they show up? Go learn the drink recipes and make peace with the espresso machine. And in two years, when you're training up some bright-eyed fifteen-year-old who's got their first real job with tips and everything and the first night rush scares the shit out of them and the boss comes through and asks how the evening went, you'll smile a little and tell him "not too bad," because you know exactly how to do all this and you're exactly where you want to be. This is the coolest job I have ever had, and you're probably going to meet the coolest people you'll ever meet. So tie on your apron and wash up your hands. And welcome to the Sandpiper.