BoozeCoffee Shops

The Advantages of Being a Barista VS. a Bartender

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By Brin Marie

To serve coffee or beer?

When I left my last coffee shop to start bartending, it seemed the next logical step if I insist on working in customer service for the rest of my life. Which I do, because my value as a human is based on compliments and dollar bills, y’all, and I don’t have the dexterity (+8 on my best days) or the core strength to swing around a pole. At their basest, the similarities between baristas and bartenders are obvious. Both rely on serving the itchy, parched masses mood-altering substances. Both are usually the most important near-stranger in most people’s day. Both have varying degrees of dedication to the craft: many bartenders and baristas strive to be at the top of their game even though many people that have never done it (i.e. people with ‘respectable’ jobs, like accountants, insurance salesmen, or honeypot vendors) consider them to be toiling in the sticky, dehumanizing purgatory between a college degree and a grown-up career.

Photos courtesy of Allie Neal and the OaklandCoffeeRush

That being said, there are times when I’m standing in line at my local coffee shop and I feel that dull pang of jealousy while I watch the busy bees behind the espresso bar slam pitchers and gallons of milk around with purpose and gusto, trading jokes and stiletto-sharp snark that only they can hear over the whoosh and screech of the steam wands. Sometimes, I miss being a part of the inside joke. I love coffee shops and coffee shop culture. The first thing I do when I move to a new city is look for the next cafe that feels like a second home (Shout Out To Arrow Cafe on N. Rampart!). While I absolutely love being a bartender, and can’t imagine doing anything else, I will remember my days behind the machine with a jittery fondness.

Aside from the camaraderie and always smelling like roasted coffee, here are some of the things that I miss the most:

The Hours

I am a morning person. I am up naturally at 7am every morning. While I may read in bed or putter around the kitchen, I cannot go back to sleep. This was perfect when I had to open coffee shops. I am perky as fuck as soon as the sun comes up. I much prefer working in the mornings, when I have peaked for the day, and then have the rest of the day to cross exactly one thing off of my to-do list before I pass out in front of Tales From The Crypt by 9pm. I have heard the perks of bar hours are that you have your whole day to sleep in and get your adulting done before you go to work, but that just does not compute. Even after years of closing bars, my swollen eyes crack open in the wee hours, whether I want them to or not. I’m a wonky lil’ automaton, so it’s been hard to reprogram my brain. Life is what happens after you work. Cry for me, I’m broken.

Less messy connections with regulars

As a bartender, we tend to catch people either on their best days or their worst. People are hell-bent on getting drunk to celebrate or to dull the pain of a spectacularly terrible day. Even if they walk in sober, they throw a shot back or sip that martini just a wee bit too quickly, and now you’re having a conversation with just a slightly different person. I’m not exactly blowing anyone’s mind right now, but booze amplifies emotions. I’ve seen my fair share of normally stoic old men burst into tears. And as the bartender, you are the vessel into which people are going to pour all of the good, the bad, and the ugly. When chatting with people over the counter at a coffee shop, it tends to be a little more even-keeled. I’ve never had to assure a regular at my coffee shop that they didn’t act like a belligerent rage-beast when they came in last week. Or worse yet, remind them that they did turn into a monumentally no-good drunk, but as long as no one was assaulted and they promise to behave from here on out, I’m happy to welcome them back. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had people get caffeine-zooted, but it’s a relatively small annoyance compared to that dude that laugh-cries while he punches out the mirror panels in the women’s bathroom.

Not having to clean up vomit

Drunk people puke. Sometimes even sober-ish people puke when their shitty friends decide to buy them Malort (filming your friend spewing all over the floor in a crowded bar is a real knee-slapper). In the ten-plus years that I’ve been a barista, I had one smart-ass kid ‘loose the fury’, because he had a free drink card and wanted to impress his pals by ordering 8 shots of espresso. I did my best to talk him out of it, but the little scamp doubled-down and snottily threatened to call corporate. So I handed him his cup of ulcer and regret, then handed him a mop so he could clean up the inevitable wellspring of shame that was about to erupt from his pissy little smirk-hole. In the seven years that I’ve been a bartender, I’ve had to clean up more vomit than I could possibly count (weigh?). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to double-glove my busted, foil-cut hands and use a paper cup to scoop someone’s re-gifted Pad Thai out of the bathroom sinks.

I’d rather drink free coffee all day than booze

I am a light-weight. I enjoy the whiskey, but the whiskey hates my guts. Literally and figuratively. Before a shift, I’ll have a shot with the bartender that I’m relieving. It helps give me the giddies, because otherwise, I am fairly shy and soft-spoken. I will also do one or two at the end of the night to give me the wiggles to deep clean the bar at closing. An old coworker used to call it my ‘cleaning juice’ and would buy it for me because then he could sit back and get drunk while I’d happily mop the floors and scrub the bins. I get buzzed ridiculously easily, is what I’m saying.

Dramatic recreation

Because of my shamefully low tolerance, I very rarely drink on the clock, and even then, it’s a ‘whisper shot’ if a customer insists.  The responsibility of accurate cash-handling, maintaining state liquor laws, and keeping my guests safe is too great to do in a foggy euphoria. My tolerance for caffeine, on the other hand, is sky-high. I barely feel the effects of cold brew anymore, and can be on my 64th ounce and only realize because I can’t stop peeing. Frankly, sometimes I worry that a stroke or heart attack will just sneak up on me because I won’t get the shakes or upset tummy that usually stops people from slamming a near-fatal dose of caffeine.

Gotta’ batch the cold brew? Gotta’ make sure it’s up to snuff. Re-calibrating the machine? Better try a few shots of espresso to be certain they’re the right texture, flavor, and consistency. A coworker asks if I want to sample the new latte they just invented. You bet your ass I do! It’s fun to be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor when you love what you do, but not when you have no idea if the next drink could make you more entertaining or throw you into a mopey funk where you’ve convinced yourself that the only thing that will cure what ails you is playing Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ at least fifteen times in a row.

I bet customers would hate that.

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