Sunday, January 13, 2013

Didn't Amount to a Hill of Beans

In the early 1990s when coffee wasn't yet a major thing in most of this country, some of the folks with lots of money in Atlanta realized it was about to be a major thing, and they started opening fancy coffee places. In January of '94, I answered a very wordy ad in the paper and went off to apply for what would be my final (good lord willing) service industry job. Of course, I can't remember most of the words in that very wordy ad, but I remember the impression it made on me, and I remember that it said to "dress with attitude."

The initial application process felt like a casting call. I say that as if I've ever been to a casting call; I haven't. But there were many of us, all gussied up in whatever we hoped would be perceived as the right thing, and the pick me pick me pick me energy was thick in the air. I'll tell you what I wore. After much internal debate, I opted for sleek and simple, tight black shirt, jeans & boots topped by this wonderful men's checked blazer I used to have. It had several of just the right shades of brown. Damn, I don't know what ever happened to that blazer, but I have a feeling that one of the many men I knew who used to vocally admire it so walked off with it one day.

Anyway. Who knows what bearing the outfit had on things. I was hired to wait tables at what the owner of this yet to be opened coffee joint described as "cutting edge" and "like nothing Atlanta has ever seen." Now, this was not a person who had ever owned or run a cafe or restaurant before. This was an agonizingly rich person for whom this was their big, fun project. You know? Have you ever met one of those folks? It was my first time. It freaked me out.

Meanwhile, those of us who were chosen were called in for a week - a WEEK - of orientation. This felt like high school. I say that as if I've ever been to high school; I haven't. But every day, we were prompt and all dressed up ("with attitude") and in class we were attentive and in the breaks we chatted and admired each other's outfits and talked about how this felt like high school.

We had classes on coffee. We practiced making coffee drinks and we took tests. We had a class on wine, too, and learned to say that things were "oaky" and such, and one day we had to listen to a motivational speaker tell us how important it was be our best. I felt like we were on the verge of being made to walk around the dining room with books on our heads, but nah.

When the place finally opened for business, we were way over-staffed and shifts were hard to come by. I had just moved into a new place with dramatically low rent and I remember that being the only thing that saved my ass during those first couple of weeks of only getting the occasional short shift.

To act like someone with a business analysis for a minute, the big mistake with that place was the location. All this energy and effort was put into this person's idea of what "cool" is, so, like, we played the same Miles Davis album alllllllll day long and those of us working there were, you know, dressed (and coiffed and inked and pierced...) "with attitude" but the place was downtown, like, not some groovy downtown where people hang out but the all business 1994 Atlanta downtown, where big corporate schmucks worked their big corporate 9-5 jobs just like we've all seen on tv, and then went to their homes elsewhere. So, the live music in the evenings? Not a scene. Never took off.

We occasionally had a rousing breakfast crowd, depending on what convention was in town. Oh my gosh, when the AA/NA conference was in town, we were packed all day! But mostly what we had was to-go coffee business at the counter, and then a lunch rush featuring The Worst People On Earth. You know: Lawyers. Ad executives. And so on. This was before everyone had phones glued to their ears and laptops in their bags. These people had phones glued to their ears and laptops in their bags. They were rude to the point of meanness. Everything about them broadcast a strong signal of I am more important than you. Serve me. They made me sad. And they didn't tip worth a damn.

I usually worked breakfast/lunch, which put me on a wacky sleep schedule. Up at 5, on the train by 5:30, at work and sucking down an iced mocha by 6, home by 3, when I'd tell myself to stick it out and stay awake, but most days I'd crash out and wake up addled around 8, stay up til 2ish, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Once in a while I had to stay late and work happy hour, which is when I'd see the even worse side of The Worst People On Earth. The addition of alcohol brought out their flirty side, yet did nothing to diminish their condescending and proprietary air. Nor did it loosen up their purse-strings. Bah.

I made some good friends working at that misbegotten joint! And learned to make fancy coffee back before everyone knew how to make fancy coffee. And got to eat lots of pretty delicious food. And to dress "with attitude."

The combination of low volume, low tips and the obnoxiousness of the clueless owner thinned out the staff steadily. Plus, Starbucks was about to come to town, and they had a big-ass casting call sort of event of their own. Caribou, too. The fancy coffee thing had arrived. All the barristas were whispering about the higher wages at the new chains, the benefits! By the time I left - nine months in - I felt like the last, stubbornly deluded rat swimming away from the sinking ship. Nice line, right? I actually said that to the chef when I gave my notice. I was proud of my phrasing. I was also all hopped up on iced mocha.


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Give 2 NOLA said...
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