In the Drive-Thru

Coffee To Go

For seven months, when I was 41 years old, I was a Starbucks barista.

I spent a good amount of time in the drive-thru window–which, as you can imagine, grieved my introvert soul. Talk to people? Like, in person? People whom I don’t know? People who will be angry if I hand them a too-dry cappuccino or an overly foamy latte? Yes. And, actually, the expectations went far beyond mere talk; I was expected to “inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Yes, that’s Starbucks’ mission statement.

And you thought it was just a pricey coffee shop.

I took that mission statement seriously, and I did my best to inspire and nurture–which is reasonably difficult when customers continue their cell phone conversations while you’re trying to ask them questions about their order, when they refuse to look at you as they pay, when they forget to turn off their windshield wipers, when they ask–at the window, with eight cars stacked up behind them–to tack on six additional frappuccinos.

I overlooked rude ordering behavior: “Gimme a . . . Lemme have a . . . ” I attempted not to see people picking their nose at the speaker (yes, there’s a camera). I ignored the under-the-breath comments about how stupid I was for having to repeat back an order of a half-caff-quad-grande-no-whip-soy-extra-hot-three-pump-mocha-one-pump-raspberry-I-mean-three-pumps-raspberry-one-pump-white-mocha-in-a-venti-cup-and-make-sure-there’s-no-foam latte. (Only a slight exaggeration.)

Most of the time it was great fun, and I made it my personal challenge to cheer up the crankiest of customers. I succeeded more often than not–at least winning a half-smile. I once consoled a young woman with tears flooding her face because of a recent break-up. I asked after grandkids. I helped teenagers ask their crushes to homecoming. I remembered names and favorite beverages. Mostly, I made eye contact and smiled.

Which, it turns out, is a big, big deal.

I remember one gentleman in particular. He pulled to the window in a pristine, silver Honda. His suit was freshly pressed, his tie bright and stylish. His back seat held a couple of car seats, and in his passenger seat sat a stuffed, leather messenger bag. His wrist swam in a giant watchband, the same color as his cufflinks. Everything about him spoke success. Wealth. I asked about his day; he only nodded his head. I passed him his pastry, which he took without looking up. I was too green to be offended by his lack of acknowledgement, so I kept chattering on about nothing–nurture and inspire, you know. He kept his head down as he dug for exact change and passed it through his window to mine.  Finally, as I handed over his beverage, he looked up at me. Our eyes met, and I broke into a wide grin. I’m telling you, the look that washed over his face was overwhelming. It said, “Wait. Are you actually seeing me? Do I matter somehow?” He may’ve been successful, but he certainly seemed to feel insignificant.

A few days ago, I was helping to serve dinner at The Bridge when I experienced that same look. We were down to the last few people in a line of 175 when a young guy–early 30s maybe–came through. He was wearing a heavy coat, still zipped against the cold, and a black beanie. His hands were chapped. “Good evening, sir,” I tried. He sort of grunted, full of melancholy, and reached for his tray. And then, for whatever reason, he looked up just before he walked away. Our eyes met, and I beamed at him. His posture straightened, he held my gaze for a good three seconds, and then he smiled with his whole face before he walked away. Again, it was as though he couldn’t believe someone was seeing him. 

And then I went home, got in an argument about white privilege, and cried for an hour. But that’s a whole other Oprah.

Anyway, do me a favor:  See someone today. And risk being seen.


  1. barbie   •  

    Kelley, I work as a cashier at a local grocery store, and I come across the same people as you while you were a barista. In fact, just yesterday, a regular customer whom I hadn’t seen in over a month came through my line.

    I used his name (which I learned from reading one of the personal checks he writes when he shops) and asked him where he’s been and what he’s been up to. He looked up at me with a look of total shock. “You remembered my name? How do you remember me? You see hundreds of people a day!” His face broke into a huge smile and he said (I am paraphrasing) “you remembered me, used me name, and made my entire day. My wife and I have been very sick lately and I haven’t been out of the house in over a week. Thank you.”

    I am a complete extrovert and I love talking with people. When I see my regular customers, I try to learn their names and remember them because I have never had anyone do that for me and I long for it. I consider it to be a small but meaningful way to connect with people and I have several regulars who will wait in line just to see me and have me ring them up…that means as much to me as it does to them.

    I love this blog post because I get it and I try to live what you’re saying every day at work, and people really respond. It doesn’t just make them feel better, it also makes me feel better.

    • Kelley   •     Author

      Barbie, I’m not at all surprised that you’re an extrovert. You’ve always had such a fun, bubbly personality. I’m sure your customers looooooove you!

  2. ken   •  

    So Mary’s been asking me every hour or so (slight exaggeration) “have you read Kelley’s blog yet?” Very glad I did. Love what you wrote.

    One of the best lessons I learned early in life was to look people in the eye. [think it was from my father] I have noticed over the years how few people ever really do that. For a while I worked at a jewelry store in downtown Atlanta. I rode a bus and subway train every day. It was very rare to have anyone look up at me. (this was before smartphones) Working for about 15 years in retail I saw it all the time from both customers and employees. In fact, someone making eye contact usually indicated that they needed some help.

    I remember having a conversation one time with Amanda about this. How important it was to look someone in the eye and see them as a person. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Kelley   •     Author

      Thanks for your kind words, Ken. I’m not terrific at eye contact because of how vulnerable it feels, but I’m trying to get better. I’m not at all surprised you passed that along to your Amanda. You’re quite a dad.

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