What It's Like Working at Starbucks

The benefits and job security are great, but the pay and career potential aren't so hot, according to employee reviews of working at Starbucks.

That shouldn't come as a surprise. But what might surprise the coffee giant's customers is that working there isn't as easy as you'd think. Just make a pot of coffee and pour it, right? Or mix in a few shots of this and that, and it's ready to go. Not necessarily, according to interviews with former employees.

And if you get a "partner" making your drink while they're having a bad day at work, beware the warm whipped cream that has been left out all day and can ruin your drink.

But more on the hidden side of Starbucks later. First, it's good to have an idea of what you're up against when you walk into a Starbucks. I've always felt like a fool not knowing the lingo when ordering at a Starbucks, and don't think ordering something to drink should be more complicated than ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant.

-- See hourly rates for Starbucks employees.

Many people don't realize that half of a cappuccino is foam, and that the drink can't be ordered cold, former Starbucks employee Jennifer Guild of Richmond, Va., told me in an e-mail. " I was always happy to help a customer understand how the drinks were made so they could ask for extra pumps of vanilla or less foam or 140 degrees, " Guild wrote -- but don't ask the cashier to spend five minutes describing how every drink on the menu board is made at 7AM on a Friday.

Instead, she recommends coming in at 3PM Wednesday to ask about drinks when the store isn't so busy. "Sometimes they might even have something that they can let you taste so you can see the differences in the drinks they are telling you about. I would say that there are no real trade secrets at Starbucks – it is just learning how a drink is constructed so the customer can ask for and get exactly what they want."

Consistency is key

That's the point of going to Starbucks or any other chain -- it tastes the same at every Starbucks you go to. Just as a Big Mac is the same at every McDonald's restaurant. It's also that precision that can make working there difficult for people who think making coffee is easy.

Guild said employees must like working in a fast-paced environment that can be stressful and physically demanding, such as standing on their feet for hours at a time.

"We had a retired lawyer who was a regular customer (so you would think he saw how busy we were and how much stress there could be) who wanted a part-time job just to stay busy after he retired," Guild wrote. "He started at Starbucks and lasted less than two weeks. He said he had no idea how much it took to be a good employee. I also had another guy who I trained for weeks and weeks and he just wasn't getting it. He felt like I was being too hard on him but he just couldn't grasp the basics. After about three months he left the company. He said he thought it would be easy to sling coffee, but at Starbucks all the rules made it very hard. But, looking back, I think it is important that Starbucks has so many rules -- that way you can get the same-tasting drink (hopefully) from any store in the country."

- See hourly rates for a retail store manager, a retail store assistant manager, and a retail sales associate.

Some 'dirty' little secrets

As with anyplace where food or drink is served, there are some things customers may not want to know. Here are some from Kelly, a New York resident who didn't want her full name used, and worked at Starbucks for several years on the East Coast:

  • The coffee is not always fresh. Often, employees start a new urn on top of the remains of the cold coffee, so the new stuff mixes with the old. There may not be a freshly done urn all day.

  • Not everyone keeps track of regular or decaf. Many times, she said, she found regular coffee in the decaf hopper or vice-versa.

  • If the coffee is bitter, it is often because the urns are not cleaned at all or not cleaned properly. Clean urns are the key to good coffee. Employees clean them infrequently or don't clean them thoroughly, leaving residue behind. Sometimes there is no urn cleaner (a powder called Urnex) for weeks because the manager has not ordered it.

  • There are good employees and bad employees. Bad employees, if they are at the bar making drinks, can easily screw up your drink. Employees don't always follow the recipe, so they might put in the wrong amount of syrup. Or they are careless with the frappuccino and give you light rather than regular or vice versa. They keep the whipped cream out, letting it get warm, which wrecks it.

  • You will be told the store is out of an item, but it is actually in the back stockroom or the employee is too lazy to look for it.
  • When we run out of vanilla syrup, we substitute sugar-free vanilla (which does not taste the same at all).

  • Often if the drink is bitter it is because the espresso machine has not been cleaned or maintained properly. It might have coffee residue or the wrong temperature. The shots are not timed properly. (Most customers do not complain, however.)

  • The carafe/Thermos jug at the condiment station may be labeled wrong. In my store, if we ran out of half-and-half, people would make it by mixing heavy cream with skim milk. This doesn't work because it separates.

We should point out that these issues should not be assumed to be common at all Starbucks, and are only the opinion of one former employee.

Next:Trade Secrets from a Waitress >>

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