The Starbucks Experiment

Monday, January 30, 2006

Ding Dong Merrily on High

Just a little post to tell the world that everything is going well with me. my cousin Tessa and her dreamy Chilean boyfriend Simon stayed with me last week, and Laura spent the weekend, all of which was lovely. i'm doing some editing stuff at the Gallery, and will shortly start working on an exhibit to go up in June, all of which is a nice change from constant research. i still like the people i work with at Starbucks (life's miracles never cease to amaze . . .) And i'm going to New York this weekend, to reconnect with my past and future home, not to mention current friends. to top it all off, i'm reading Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollop, one of his Palliser novels, which features one of my favorite literary characters of all time. if Phin was a real person i would marry him in a second, and judging from the four (count them, four!) women he manages to fall in love with over the course of two novels, i can see that i'm just his type. Tschuss, ciao, cheerio, bisoux, and other international terms of cheerful good-bye.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tip-Top Tipping

Now that the holiday season has come and gone (although our front door is still graced with a christmas wreath), i have time to turn my attention to a phenomenon that the holiday season made me much more aware of: tipping.

in the first place there was this article in the paper, a sort of guide to end-of-the-year tipping, you know those yearly gifts you give to your postman, hair-cutter, dog-walker, etc., if you are an adult that is. well for some reason the article dwelled considerably on tipping at Starbucks (or similar coffee chains). the author of some bogus book about tipping thought this idea was laughable, akin to tipping at McDonalds (!) because sbux is the fast-food equivalent for coffee.

there are so many things wrong with that sentiment i don't know where to begin. Starbucks is not fast food or fast coffee. yes, we try to make sure the customer does not have to wait long for her drink (4 min. or less is the gold standard). and we celebrate a certain amount of standardization (every outlet is supposed to brew the same coffee each week, for example). but that standardization is tempered by a huge amount of personalization. taking the above example, although it's the same all over the country, the coffee that we brew still changes from week to week. and anyone who's read my post about ordering your drink, or listened to other people order their drinks, knows that each drink can be customized ad infinitum. but to my mind the most important difference between Starbucks and a fast-food place is the level of service. everyone who works at sbux, and everyone means not just the register people, is expected to make eye-contact with the customer, greet him or thank him, welcome feedback, and memorize a regular customer's name, face, and/or favorite drink.

what all this means is that yeah, you should tip. not everyday perhaps, and not necessarily more than the change you get back from that smiling sbux partner on register who's trying to make eye contact with you. in fact, and especially if you're a student/poor young person, you shouldn't even put all of that change you just got into the tip jar (after all that would turn every $3.52 latte into a four dollar drink). a lot of people who come every morning and pay with cards seem to tip $1 a week. the $1 per drink tip doesn't really make sense at sbux, even though that's the industry standard for bartenders and in my opinion we do about the same amount of work. but bartenders are only paid via tips, whereas sbux partners get an hourly wage and excellent benefits (which is one reason why that latte costs so much to begin with). but there are certain occasions when a more proper tip would seem to be in order. my guidelines for serious tipping (meaning an actual bill) are as follows:

1) tip for labor-intensive drinks like extra-dry cappucinos, caramel macchiatos, and most importantly frappucinos! if you order a frappucino at any time, but especially at the end of the day (when chances are the barista has already cleaned the blender station) remember that they are the stickiest, sloppiest, messiest drinks to make at sbux, and tip accordingly.

2) tip for large orders, meaning three or more drinks, and def. tip for coffee travellers (the boxes of coffee that people get for meetings etc.). it is amazing how many people waltz in, ask for a traveller, and don't tip, especially considering that making one traveller requires brewing an extra pot of coffee, assembling the box, getting together the cups, sugar, stirrers, etc., filling travel cups with milk (two kinds!), filling the traveller (which takes more than a smile), and oh yeah, weighing it to make sure we gave you enough.

3) tip when the partners are especially pleasant or personal. has your drink been memorized? do they remember your name or other personal information (like the fact that your daughter was in the school play last night and "how did it go?")? are you always greeted with a smile? trust me, it takes a lot of energy to do that every day.

4) tip on holidays. i was amazed by how many people were amazed that we were open on thanksgiving and then didn't tip. we get extra pay (time and a half), on certain holidays, but those do not include things like the recent martin luther king jr. day, which was so mind numbingly boring because guess what? no one came in because they were at home asleep. we are forced to open at the same ungodly hour every day except officially sbux recognized holidays (july 4th and thanksgiving are the only ones that i know of so far). and those are the days when we really wonder why we're still working here.

5) with the above in mind, tip if you are coming in v. early or v. late. at those times of day, its not profitable for us to be open, we only do it for your convenience. special gratitude is obviously appropriate when the people serving your coffee had to wake up at 4am to do so, but it is no less appropriate in the evening, when the partners are busting their asses to get everything clean and get the hell home after a long day.

and if there is one person in particular who always makes your day just a little bit better, give the tip to her, not the jar. just for the record, all tips are divided evenly every week based solely on how many hours each person worked (and i should know because i have the lovely job of figuring out who gets what).

i wouldn't want all of this to suggest that people don't tip v. well. obviously, they could tip better (like i wouldn't mind a mink coat or a new car). but if the holiday season showed me anything it was that our regular customers really appreciate what we do for them. Leah the notoriously picky drinker of v. dry cappuccinos, who tips a dollar a day anyway, presented everyone with a signed christmas card and extra cash, $25 and up. Mary Anne who comes in early every morning (partly so that we all have more time to chat) brought in homemade peppermint brownies. one guy who is always rather curt and seemingly dissatisfied with life brought in two cases of champagne for us to divvy up. Mr. Grande in a Venti Cup stuffed $50 into the tip jar. And then there is our first customer of the day, every day, who waits outside in his car for us to open. he tips $1 every morning for a $2 venti regular coffee. and we always tip him with an extra-cheerful "good-morning!"

Thursday, January 12, 2006


I don't know exactly when i realized this, but crossing the atrium of the National Gallery's east building is like strolling beside an indoor swimming pool. the vastness of the space makes your heels click against the floor in a way that reminds me of flip flops slapping against wet concrete. and just like water, the pale stone from floor to ceiling reflects natural light throughout the space. the north side is bordered by this funny outdoor room; it's rectangular with one long side formed by a marble wall separating it from pennsylvania ave. and the other long side formed by a glass wall that separates it from the interior of the gallery. this space was originally built for a reflecting pool, but it is now home to Roof, Andy Goldsworthy's large scale sculpture that i've been working on for the past five months (my god has it been that long?). Roof is made of slate, and the way the northern light reflects off of it into the atrium is beautifully subtle. Goldsworthy thinks that IM Pei designed the original reflecting pool exactly to bring more light into the building on this northern side, and his sculpture achieves exactly the same.

Roof consists of a series of slate domes, each one hand built without mortar, that interlock, push against the outside walls, and even extend to the other side of the glass barrier into the gallery. from the mezzanine one floor above, you can see that on top of each dome is an oculus, a black hole that reaches far down into the center. the domes have been likened to whirlpools, swirling into each other and around themselves, and indeed looking on one of these domes from above is like viewing a whirlpool from below. but walking across the atrium reminds me of water in far less abstract ways than Goldsworhty's sculpture. it reminds me of an indoor swimming pool because it literally smells like chlorine. i don't know how or why but it definitely does. it's a very surreal experience but oddly comforting as well. chlorine, no matter how inappropriate in an art museum is certainly a familiar smell. it reminds me of easier days when my main activity during the summer was to go to the pool everyday, or of slightly more complicated but still easier days in high school when i was on the swim team and spent winter afternoons sweating under water. maybe one day i'll look back on these days as a simpler time, and smelling chlorine won't remind me so much of a swimming pool as of the atrium that i walked through on my way in and out of work. i'll remember the way i always looked north on Goldsworthy's Roof to see the light reflect off the slate, and the click of my heels across the marble.

i'm not sure why i'm writing this now, except that writing it makes me feel like my life consists of swimming in a pool. just going back and forth, or worse, round and round. i don't know if it's the new year or the fact that my applications are in, or even the new shift-supervisor thing, but these feel like early days. i feel unwilling to actually get up, out of the pool, and walk forward in an actual direction, like i shouldn't have a direction just yet. i wanted to come back from San Diego very refreshed and gun ho. i made plans to start yoga, to redo my room and my wardrobe, to be more social. maybe all of this is just a more complicated way of saying that, surprise surprise, i'm not keeping my new year's resolutions. i don't know. i'm not really thinking. i'm just swimming.