It’s 8:45 on a Tuesday morning – the notoriously more evil cousin of Mondays – and people are already huddling into one of the small cafés at East Croydon train station.
Some are nervously shuffling back and forth, others are passive-aggressively exclaiming that they have a train to catch so “could you please hurry up a little?”
Two have already left the queue in realisation that the latter part of the previous sentence would be an impossible demand to throw at someone who is limited to having four limbs and who is probably on a wage that wouldn’t adequately compensate them for their efforts anyway.
“You get used to picking up on the physical cues like shuffling and looking at the people ahead in the line with frustration,” says Jack*, who’s worked in the industry for a few years.
“I don’t really baby these people or try to go any faster but I also don’t ask these people extra questions or make recommendations. We have people angrily leave the line sometimes and to be honest I prefer that. If you don’t have time you’re just going to have to get your coffee later or be late.”
The one redeeming factor about being on the receiving end of a group of caffeine addicts asking for this morning’s first or second hit is that they don’t have to deal with them for the rest of the day.
As Sarah*, a barista of ten years tells me: “Getting there at 6:00am was the worst part, but the best part is leaving at 3:00pm! Other than that, the morning customers are very regular.
“When people have a routine of coming to your shop you know to anticipate the rush, which is easier than afternoon shifts where you can get intermittent rushes of business that are less predictable.”
The ability to pick up on certain behaviours and respond to the tides of customers throughout the day is an added responsibility of a barista most people might not think about when entering a coffee shop.
All baristas, no matter the workplace, unanimously agreed that part of the job involves prioritising the experience of the customer over their own – with varying degrees of boundaries employees are allowed to set for their own wellbeing.
“It’s down to the employee, because if there are no customers, then you don’t get your wages.”
As one particularly nihilistic barista explained: “People are bitches and nothing I do can make them be nicer so best to just let it go.”
The common trope in hospitality which says that ‘the customer is always right’ can take an emotional toll on employees.
With the added pressure of the pandemic, low pay, irregular time off, staff shortages and therefore often longer shifts, the emotional labour of having to coddle angry customers is rarely accounted for people working in hospitality.
Emotional labour goes far beyond being polite to rude costumers: being expected to hide and swallow your feelings in exchange for a customer’s money can, at worst, contribute to burnout in a work environment that already comes with huge pressures from the start.
But with managers and 24-hour CCTV cameras watching your every move, it comes as no surprise that most people choose to fall in line as to not risk our source of income.
“If you don’t take anything personally and you refuse to let someone else’s problems rush you, then there’s really no emotional toll at all, to be frank,” one barista tells me.
Jack confesses that the speed at which he’s expected to work at can actually take away some of the emotional labour that’s involved in entertaining customers.
“You kind of get used to the regulars who don’t want to talk and want fast service so that suits me as well, like that’s one less person to small-talk with.”
Josh* worked as a bartender before making his way into coffee. He’s expected to finish his training to become a fully-fledged barista who’s then qualified to train others in about two weeks. In the meantime, he works for one of the big coffee chains near East Croydon train station.
“There are these Golden Rules when it comes to service in coffee,” he tells me. “What we do is we greet the customer, we take the orders, and one of the rules is basically to think of the time. Obviously, we have to feel calm, even when doing an order of four coffees, which can be quite challenging.
“Obviously, if you want a coffee before getting on the train, then you need to allow five minutes more for that. If you only have a minute to catch the train, you catch the train.
“But we understand that, so especially in the morning, we need to try to be faster. And there are so many tricks. So for example, we have some basic drinks: Cappuccino, Latté, Black Americano. If you’re working the same queue with me and both our orders need cappuccinos, I’ll make two cappuccinos. Easy.”
When Josh talks about the ways in which he and his colleagues perform a perfectly coordinated dance of greeting customers and preparing coffees at the most efficient speed, it almost seems like they’re preparing to go into battle.
It’s unclear against whom, whether the enemy is time ticking away, CCTV cameras watching them, or simply their own expectations.
At one point he says that he’d jump in for his colleagues to help his ‘brothers and sisters’ when feeling stuck with a difficult customer so that they can learn how to deal with challenging situations.
“You kind of get used to the regulars who don’t want to talk and want fast service.”
“It doesn’t matter how difficult it is. Customers are customers. You have a bad day, I have a bad day, it doesn’t matter because they give you money. That’s the point. I want to make them happy, that’s the point of business. It’s down to the employee, because if there are no customers, then you don’t get your wages.”
“Secondly, it’s not just about money. Well, money is on top, every single business where you work is about money. But at the same time, I will try to find a way for you to enjoy the coffee once you come in.
“You place an order, I will do my best to serve the right drink for you to enjoy, fast as well. I don’t like waiting up to 10 minutes for a coffee, anything longer than five minutes is too much,” Josh tells me.
“Obviously we’ve had bad moments, everyone has bad days. But the customer doesn’t know that. They come here, they want a nice experience.”
As Michael Pollan writes in his recent book This is Your Mind on Plants, the majority of us ingest caffeine regularly, be that through coffee or soft drinks, which makes caffeine the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world.
Mirroring the ways in which Sufis in Yemen drank coffee to help them concentrate during their religious observances, today coffee offers a baseline consciousness for workers across the world.
“Coffee and tea ushered in a shift in the mental weather, sharpening minds that had been fogged by alcohol, freeing people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, thus making possible whole new kinds of work and, arguably, new kinds of thought, too,” Pollan explains.
But is there more to our caffeine culture than letting a molecule deprive us of sleep in exchange for being able to work faster and longer hours?
“I’ve only worked for independent shops and thank god for that,” Dan* tells me; he’s worked as a barista for two years and has been at this current place for a couple of months.
“I honestly would rather not work in coffee than work for a corporation. Regulars are nice, most people are pretty great, and if anyone isn’t, we have full capacity to kick them out or put them in their place. I’ve always felt safe working at my shops and I have encountered very few awful customers.”
Crushed Bean in East Croydon resembles the kind of small-town coffee shop where the request “The usual, please!” actually works outside of the movies.
Its founder Pam tells me they decided to open it over four years ago, after pivoting away from being a civil servant to chase a different, more enjoyable way of life.
“We know most of our customers’ orders, as they get the same thing every time. We can just shout a name, so it’d be like, ‘I’ll have a Ben,’ and then Molly will know how to make a flat white with no sugar, or the temperature might be different. So that makes it really nice,” Pam said.
“And also, it’s much faster, because you can see people down the line, so you can see Emma or Tony’s there. So I can start making coffees without even having taken their order, because they always get the same thing. And you can just give them a nod or a wave to make ‘the usual’, which is really nice. And it speeds up service a lot.”
Pam tells me it’s very rare that they encounter difficult customers and the nature of the place’s small team makes it easier to build good relationships with each other, although this shouldn’t stop big chains from being able to treat staff with respect, they point out.
Independent coffee shops have suffered since the pandemic, and Brexit hasn’t helped, they tell me. The price of coffee has gone up and with beans arriving from overseas, travel restrictions have naturally made business trickier.
“People are bitches and nothing I do can make them be nicer so best to just let it go.”
Crushed Bean currently gets their espresso from a small farm in El Salvador, which directly trades with a roaster called Clifton Coffee based in Bristol.
“This means we know exactly what the origin of our coffee is. Therefore to make it worthwhile for the farmer, it has to be a certain price, and we have to be able to cover our costs as well,” says Pam.
“So, I don’t think we’re cheaper than the chains because we’re kind of forced to be. But people don’t mind paying, because it’s nice coffee, and it’s made with love.”
Another independent cafe which only recently celebrated their two-year anniversary in South Croydon is Bob’s Your Uncle, whose owner has worked in coffee for over a decade.
Having started his career as a barista in a Costa in Birmingham, he’s all too familiar with the differences between independent coffee shops and chains.
“You have to be very much of a ‘yes-person’. Just do what you’re told,” he tells me over an oat milk flat white which his colleague kindly prepared for me.
“You can’t really fend for yourself, because everything’s on paper, whatever you say, whatever you do, was included in training. So from how you phrase your questions, how you phrase sentences when you’re trying to up-sell certain things. The one thing you have to worry about is making money and reaching certain goals that are given to you by the manager.”
One of the reasons he left ‘corporate coffee’ was because of his disdain for the unequal customer-employee power dynamic and the lack of freedom to stand up for what he thought was right – be that decisions related to the coffee shop’s offer or the way staff are treated.
“People have this mentality that when they come into a chain, it doesn’t matter where you work, what you do, it can be for a steakhouse, Nando’s, Pizza Hut, any chain.
“The general public’s got the mentality of ‘I’m here to get served. And because I’m paying five pounds for a pizza, you owe me. For the next hour-and-a-half, you have to do anything I ask.’ Which isn’t great, but it is what it is.”
Although he’s the owner of Bob’s Your Uncle and therefore liable if anything goes wrong, he takes pride in the trust he’s developed for his staff and the fact that at the end of the day, he sees himself as an equal part of the team.
“We have people angrily leave the line sometimes and to be honest I prefer that.”
“I still work on my coffee, clean the toilets, sweep and mop the floor, just like anyone else. I’m proud of the staff. Just because I transfer the money at the end of the month, it doesn’t really make much of a difference at the end of the day. For them to have the money, they have to do their best and I have to do my best as well.”
When asked what their top tips would be when ordering a coffee in a rush, Dan tells me: “Know your order size, temperature, milk. I don’t care if people are chatty or grumpy, just make my job easy and you’re my favourite customer.”
“Give your barista time to make a complicated drink,” Sarah advises me. “If you are short on time, settle for something short and sweet. Or call ahead to have the drink ready when you get there.”
Pam’s suggestion, particularly if you’re planning on becoming one of their regulars, would be to bring a reusable cup.
“Also, get a slice of cake because that helps independents especially. The profit margins for coffee are so low now because of the price of the coffee. So if you get a coffee, maybe get a pastry or something as well. That really helps us out,” they suggest.
“I don’t have an ideal customer in mind because they don’t exist,” the owner of Bob’s Your Uncle tells me.
“Like I said, after doing that for so many years, I’m realistic. You will serve 100 people in a day. You will get five people who come back and be like: ‘That was pretty good’. And you’re here for those five people. You don’t have to worry about the other 95 because there will be people who appreciate what you do, and in some places that’s worth more than money.”
After a few seconds of deliberation and greeting his regulars coming in for their daily caffeine fix, he did find some words of wisdom to share with me after all: “Just keep it simple. If you give coffee orders bigger than three words, you’re part of the problem.”
Ironically, Josh misunderstood my question and perhaps quite tellingly gave me advice for how to be a better barista rather than a customer: “Eye contact. A warm welcome. Get the order. Make the order. Make sure you do it right. Focus and make the customer feel happy so they come back again.”
* Some names have been changed at the interviewees’ request.
All images by Annika Loebig.