I've recently had feedback from my manager through my boss that some guests are unhappy with my service because I always seem preoccupied and I always seem to be doing more than one thing at once. First I was outraged: of course I was preoccupied, there is a never ending laundry list of cleaning, food preparation, restocking, and learning company updates. Now, I realize how clouded my own vision is. I have six years in food service, and eight years under the retail/hospitality banner. My main volunteer platform as a kid was planning and preparing events—I have a wealth of experience in what else someone might have to do to to be prepared for a guest that a lot of the world doesn't have.
If you have ever wondered why your barista is so busy when there are no guests or why she seems distracted, stressed, or overwhelmed when you just wanted to know what is in the samples, then this is your article!
First let's talk physical numbers. The Corporate owned otherwise known as Freestanding stores require that at least two baristas work together (which means there are always three so that someone can cover breaks). Corporate does this so someone can be ready to talk you a guest through an order, make small talk, or answer questions.
However, in contract stores like mine, there is often only one barista. When I work, I am both the barista and the acting manager.
Whether there are a million people or ten people coming through the shop there is a base level of work that needs to be completed so the station is clean, stocked, and ready to receive guests. One person is barely able to do that base level of work on his or her own. That one person is even less able to do this work when guests come in and not only want something but also want to chat.
Of course the barista is graded and reviewed based of his or her ability to “amaze and connect with” guests. This means that he or she is going to try to give you that personal experience even if it is wildly difficult. Attempting to give you the same experience you'd get in a store with three to five people catering to you is actually the first stress I want to bring up. Most baristas know whether or not he or she is failing to give you the service you want and even if he or she doesn't know how to fix it he or she feels pressured to try.
He or she may truly want to talk to you. A random conversation is a great way to relieve the monotony of work, but with the sink water running, the oven humming, and possibly an espresso machine steaming, it might be legitimately hard to hear you. Two of my baristas have a hearing difficulty. They often have to ask the guest to speak up or repeat something and I've seen guests get frustrated.
Of note as opening lines go “How are you or how is your day” are bad conversation starters for most food service people. I can promise you that working in food service is dirty sticky work. Your barista is minimally physically uncomfortable. There are at least three and upwards of seven timers running ready to constantly beep and scatter the barista's attention. If you've placed more than one drink order or if you have more than two adjustments to a regular drink, your barista is mentally preoccupied trying to remember it all and order it for maximum efficiency.
Also your barista is required to be perky and cheerful with you, which is probably the opposite of how things are really going, asking “how are you” and having to lie about it to maintain the illusion of perky joy the company wants can be exhausting and taxing.
While it's not your fault, he or she may have interrupted a delicate cleaning procedure where proper timing makes the difference between a clean shiny area or a dull chemical mess that needs to be cleaned and redone. Cleaning steaming pitchers, sinks, and floor drains for example often takes a noxious chemical compound at a very high temperature and a lot of scrubbing. As soon as the chemical goes from near boiling to unpleasantly hot, it significantly decreases in effectiveness, which means more scrubbing and more time.
Also remember, the whole time the barista is working with this cleaner there is the potential for splashing that may burn since the water is hot, or slowly be destroying his or her skin because the chemical is caustic. He or she is wearing gloves for protection, but each guest is another time to take the gloves on and off that risks fluid in the gloves or fluid from the gloves splashing onto exposed skin.
There are a lot of products with 24 or 48hr shelf lives. The barista has to go through make sure he or she has enough for the day, all of which has to be done are the right time. Too late and her or she will run out, too soon and he or she will throw the work away. So a guest coming in or deciding on a drink five minutes earlier or later will play a big role in the barista's life.
I can't speak for all stores, but mine has a storage at the right place problem. For example, I have a walk in fridge that has milks for drinks. I need to restock those milks from the back, which happens a least once a day. The goal is to restock just once a day after closing because there is only one team member working and it takes 10mins to get the milks and put them in the fridge. If a barista has to make a run while open, they have the added stress of knowing with certainty there will be at least one upset guest.
There is a lot going on before a single guest steps on the scene. Your barista appreciates that you want an A+ experience and they really want to provide that. Assuming the person behind the counter is doing something else when you step up to place an order and assuming she never actually insults you, maybe you could find it in your heart to be more understanding if she's flustered or clearly stressed.