Every time somebody orders coffee from me, a little piece of my soul dies. And even worse, hot tea. Like daggers through my heart.
I have never cared much for coffee. Even though I could definitely use that caffeine boost when I have to be to work at 6:30 AM, or am working a double, or am back at work at 8 AM after closing the night before…I just can’t get past the taste of the beverage. It is bitter and chalky, and especially here in New Orleans where it is often laced with chicory, has the sludgy appearance and consistency of the grounds (no pun intended) at Jazz Fest after a good rain. No amount of cream or sugar or vanilla-flavored syrup could ever mask that flavor. Not to mention coffee stains something awful, especially those sexy white uniform shirts we have to wear. And coffee breath is its own special breed of halitosis that not even eating a tuna fish sandwich on garlic bread topped with onions, ranch dressing, and sauerkraut could surpass.
But now I have a whole new reason to hate coffee. It has become an absolute blight on my working life. A source of much torment. My caffeinated undoing.
I work at a restaurant whose main claim to fame is its breakfast. It’s all about the eggs and bloody mary’s and mimosas. And, Lord help me, the coffee. As we all know, breakfast and coffee go hand-in hand. Everyone wants that morning pick-me-up, their coffee fix to get their day going. Of the 150 million Americans who drink coffee every single day, 65% do so at breakfast. So the unfortunate odds are that some of these coffee-craving lunatics are liable to wander into my restaurant, and end up seated in my section. This means that if I work a Sunday brunch shift, for instance, it is highly likely that close to 98% of my tables will order at least one cup of coffee. And though hearing them speak that evil word when placing their drink order makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a coffee stirrer, I have to grit my teeth and smile back at them and say, “Certainly!” despite my pain.
Have a cup of woe.
I have asked myself why exactly it is that I hate coffee service so intensely. I have had to do some soul-searching (though there’s not much left of my soul after all the many coffee orders that have slowly destroyed it), to see why I let it plague me so. After all, there are plenty of places that serve coffee, and doubtless with much less agony and angst than that which affects me. I am sure that the servers at Denny’s or Ihop have a much easier time of it. There simply must be a better way to serve coffee than what we are forced to do where I work. With approximately 24,000 coffee shops across the country at present, there are obviously plenty of folks out there who are perfectly at peace with coffee service. I am not one of them.
They’re called baristas, and I suddenly have a new-found respect for them. They have become my heroes. In 2013, Starbucks made the list of the top 100 best places to work. These people work all day making and serving coffee for a living, and are apparently blissfully happy doing so. Are they nuts?
But I am not a barista. I am not a coffee specialist. I am a server in the broader sense, and serving coffee is not easy. In fact, it is probably one of the most complicated, labor-intensive, unnecessarily elaborate processes I’ve ever had to deal with. I feel like I could potentially come up with a cure for cancer, remove a brain tumor and solve the Rubik’s Cube in the time it takes me to make a single cup of coffee.
Nothing gets under my skin more than someone who dares to say, “I’ll have just a coffee.” Just a coffee? Are you kidding me? In any sense of the word, there is nothing “just” about serving coffee. Let me explain.
Once the guest has asked for the dreaded beverage, the lengthy operation begins. We go back to the server station in the kitchen, which is only a few feet long and definitely too small to accommodate the seven or so servers all trying to prepare coffee for their caffeine-deprived guests at the same time. With such little space and so much prep work, we all end up crawling over each other like cockroaches on yesterday’s donuts. (May I please note here, in the name of job security, that we do not serve day-old donuts in our establishment. In fact, we do not serve donuts at all. Nor do we have a problem with the creepy crawly invaders…New Orleans’ unofficial mascot).
The cups and saucers are stored in some low-level cubby hole, around knee level, which can only be accessed by doubling over as if to tie our black, slip-resistant, freshly shined uniform shoes. Not to mention there are usually more little plates kept in said cubby than there are actual saucers, so we have to manage to work around all the wrong items to find the right ones. To make things worse, the cups and saucers are very often shoved so far back in this cave of despair that we really need to kneel down and all but crawl into the hole to reach a cup or saucer, frequently stacked just beyond arm’s reach.
After finally managing to score a cup, we have to warm it up with hot water from the coffee machine. Cold cups lead to cold coffee, and no one likes their coffee cold, unless of course they asked for it that way. So we don’t want to give our guests anything to complain about. Next, we need to get a mini pitcher of cream out of the fridge, to serve with the coffee. The creamers are also stored well below accessible level, and require further bending over and contorting ourselves to reach their elusive hiding place. Ironically enough, this cream is kept ice cold, and doubtless the instant the coffee drinker pours it into his brew, it probably drops the coffee temp more than any pre-warmed cup could ever stand up to.
By the time I am ready to go to the table with my coffee hodgepodge, I have now done enough squats and toe-touches and calf raises to make the boot camp class instructor at my gym proud.
But the fun’s not over yet. We still need a sugar caddy, the location of which seems to constantly change based on the whim of whoever set up the coffee station that morning. The whereabouts of the sugar caddies usually vary between a shelf almost on the floor, involving another backbreaking bend, or kept so high up above all the other coffee accessories, it involves standing on tippy toes to reach it, or being at the mercy of the good will of a taller server, hoping he will take pity on you and hand you one. Sometimes the sugar caddies end up directly in front of the coffee machine, where they are dripped upon and made useless. And the sugar packets needed to replace the wet ones live on a shelf even higher above the caddies themselves.
Once all the accoutrements are finally in place on the tray, we fill up the shiny metal pots with coffee that we will carry out to our guests. Usually in some state of caffeinated chaos, there is a shambles of six or seven pots strewn around, some still half-filled with the dregs of someone else’s coffee order, which we never know if it is warm or frigid, decaf or regular. The last stop is to take a detour past the silverware station beyond the kitchen, nowhere near the rest of the coffee gear, for a coffee spoon.
By the time I am ready to go to the table with my coffee hodgepodge, I have now done enough squats and toe-touches and calf raises to make the boot camp class instructor at my gym proud. I have also had to navigate a labyrinth of coffee pots and trays and dirty rags and puddles of spilled cream and leaky coffee and fellow servers and stray Splenda packets and other assorted mess and doom. And I spent a good chunk of time doing it, while all my guests at all my tables are certainly waiting impatiently with some urgent need. Some breakfast emergency which coffee made me neglect.
Keep in mind that the above is actually a best-case scenario. This would suggest that all the countless coffee service requirements, though they be plentiful and difficultly obtained, were actually readily available. More times than not, this is not the case. Usually some piece of the painstaking puzzle is missing. The creamers need to be filled with cream. The sugar caddies are half-empty and glaringly devoid of Equal. Someone just took the last coffee cup. I can’t find a clean coffee spoon. This only adds more effort and stress and delay as we are forced to run around the kitchen looking for all the many stray parts.
One more coffee-induced nuisance: The average coffee drinker downs 3.1 cups of the black liquid a day, a figure which surely doubles when it comes to brunch. This means consistently making the rounds of the dining room on the lookout for empty cups, and swooping in with top-offs and refills. Yet despite this fact, we are not allowed to keep a coffee pot conveniently prepped with any coffee in it whatsoever anywhere on the premises. Rather, after each use, we must immediately return to the kitchen to empty the pot, and must come back yet again to fill it when someone’s coffee is below acceptable level. If you ask me, this is extremely inefficient, and definitely cuts down on potential coffee distribution.
There are only two things in this world worse than coffee service. One is death by Ebola. The other is tea service. It is more or less the same process as for coffee, and then some. We must first take a tea box out to the table to allow the guest to choose some fancy schmancy teabag, with a name like “Darjeeling Estate” or “Mint Mélange”. Of course, the tea boxes are stacked four high on the highest shelf in the kitchen, where no normal human without Gadget arms could easily reach them. After the guest makes his selection, we repossess the chosen teabag and return with it to the kitchen. We then place the teabag in a ceramic teapot (of which we have all of about six, in a restaurant that could seat close to 400 people at full capacity). We still have to warm the cup, we still need the flexibility of a yoga guru to get a saucer and some cream from their underworld dwellings, and we still have to locate a spoon and a sugar caddy… unless the guest has specified he takes his tea with honey and lemon. In this case we must delicately arrange several lemons (presliced for us, if we’re lucky) on a plate, and pour honey from a sticky, honey-covered plastic bottle of the stuff which is oozing all over the shelf where it lives, into some sort of a pitcher. And pitchers are always among those items which are never handy, and kept somewhere back in the distant confines of the dish room. We then fill a metal pot—smaller than the ones used for coffee service, one must differentiate-- with hot water, and go with the whole lot to the table. Next step: put the cup down on the table, put down the spoon…put down honey, lemon, cream, sugar, ceramic teapot. Remove lid from ceramic teapot (it actually has a lid, if we’re lucky), place lid on the table. Transfer hot water from metal teapot to ceramic teapot. Replace lid. Return to kitchen and cry.
I would never subject myself to the torture that is tea service, if I had a choice. Not for all the tea in China.
A cup of coffee or a cup of tea each cost $3.50. This means that even a nice, 20% tip on one of these fun hot beverages is $0.70. Seventy cents! The end simply doesn’t justify the toilsome means. The labor to payback ratio simply doesn’t add up. As one of my managers pointed out, there is far more exertion involved in serving a $3.50 cup of tea than in selling and serving a $500 bottle of fancy champagne. With obviously considerably less gain. Based on this logic, I think they need to seriously jack up the prices of the hot stuff. Someone should open a VIP room in some trendy nightclub where they serve only coffee and tea. Skip the bottle service, coffee and tea are, literally, the true hot commodities. Coffee is an $18 billion a year business in this country. That’s a lot of beans! And for all my struggles and effort, I feel I deserve a bigger slice of that giant mocha pie.
With all the sweat and anguish involved in serving coffee, I have to wonder: Is it really worth it? I am certain that the 150 million American coffee drinkers would say undeniably, yes. And I get it. We all have our obsessions. I am obsessed with spray butter and Lifetime TV, so who am I to judge? Coffee is an absolute addiction for some. (Not far off from pica, I would imagine, which is an addiction to eating dirt and chalk and other things that taste like coffee). But to those out there who say things like, “Don’t even talk to me until I’ve had my morning coffee…” I say, come on, man, relax.
It’s just coffee.
"Wait for it..." is a bi-monthly column reliving accounts from New Orleans service industry. More than 60,000 people work in the Crescent City's restaurant business...here are their stories.