“It feels like you have to interact a ton in this job,” Amanda, a barista at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, explained to me over Americanos. “Customers definitely expect you to be nicer than if you were a bartender.”
The 30-year-old, who is petite and pretty with shoulder-length hair and a double lip ring, knows what she’s talking about – for the last few years, she’s worked at coffee shops “up and down Brooklyn” before settling in her current neighborhood, Park Slope.
“Plenty of people almost think they’re in a relationship with you,” she admits. “ If I see them outside of work, I say hi, but they may want something more.”
The barista-customer relationship is one of the most personal in the service industry. You see your barista almost every day, he or she is often one of the first people you interact with in the morning, and over time, it’s nearly impossible not to develop some sort of rapport.
Daily coffee shop banter can be much better (more polite) or much worse (more awkward) than what a bartender faces, since no one has the excuse of being drunk. But it rarely translates into a real-world relationship.
What really varies is how you choose to interact with your barista. The effort some patrons have put into pursuing Amanda made it clear they’re interested in more than just a throwaway flirtation. Amanda, who isn’t too interested in the attention, and who happens to be gay, was able to give us a fairly objective view of a range of customer behavior. While very little coffee shop flirtation goes anywhere beyond the counter, there’s a clear distinction between what to do and what to avoid.
What not to do:
1. Anything Cheesy. You’re out of luck, class clowns: corny pick-up lines are almost always a fail. Unfortunately, the brevity of the coffee shop transaction and the shakiness of the interpersonal connection makes coffeeshops ripe for them. Amanda was completely unimpressed in her re-telling of a guy requesting repeat cappuccinos, hotter and hotter, until finally bursting out this gem: “The coffee was hot, but the server was even hotter. That’s what the Yelp review’s going to say!”
2. Anything sexist or demeaning. At least being corny isn’t as bad as being misogynistic (in any part of life, but that’s a topic for another time). And corny pick-up lines plus inappropriate banter will result in one appropriately furious barista.
Amanda recalled a particularly obnoxious group who offered to hook her up with one of their friends — while his girlfriend waited for them outside. They also lewdly commented on another barista’s body, demanded to know Amanda’s sexuality, and insisted that she join in during their over-the-top discussions of “hot asses.” Phew. Eventually all four went away.
3. Anything homophobic. One group she currently deals with is a coterie of construction workers. They come in almost daily, and “they try to flirt by gay-bashing and flexing.” Comments like “look at all these homos” are not appreciated, though generally she considers their flirting to be innocuous. “They pick out a different one from their group every time, ‘Handsome Dave,’ or whoever. They ask me all these stupid questions, like who I think is the best looking, and I always pick the ugliest one. It’s like, why not throw that guy a bone.”
4. Being awkward. It’s the most basic pitfall: not having confidence. For what it’s worth, Amanda doesn’t fault people for flirting politely if incompetently — she’s just at a loss as to what to do with it. She, like most normal people, has empathy for the fact that the game is hard. But keep in mind that while you may have thought long and hard about that cheesy pickup line, it’s hard for your friendly barista to field. “I get really confused, because I’m not expecting it,” Amanda explained, “I turn into a robot every time.” When you accidentally come off as awkward because you’re shy or intimidated, your barista might very well respond in kind, just because she’s at work, and her mind is elsewhere.
What to do:
1. A large gesture. We were surprised to learn that the right over-the-top gesture can go over pretty well — though only if you’ve laid polite groundwork. When Amanda moved from Tea Lounge in Park Slope to a friend’s coffee shop farther into the neighborhood, she let a few regulars she really liked know where she was going. One of them, an older man who had always made a point to be nice, started driving to her new coffeeshop every morning to keep seeing her.
Then, an extravagant flower arrangement arrived at the shop one day, bearing a card that read “I hope these flowers make you smile as much as you make me smile every day.” With some sleuthing, Amanda confirmed they were from the regular. Another customer, a make-up artist who used the same florist for photo shoots, recognized the flowers from Zuzu’s, an upscale Park Slope shop.
Given her sexuality and their age difference (she estimates he had at least 15 years on her), the guy didn’t stand a chance. That said, Amanda genuinely liked him, and for once, she found the attention nice — “I always smiled back at him. He wasn’t creepy, just pleasant.” She even kept the card.
2. If you think there’s a chance, put some time in. To make real inroads, it seems, you have to show dedication. It’s a little like dieting — quick fixes and crash plans don’t work, but a thought-out, gradual regime does wonders. While the out-of-nowhere straightforward hitting on tactics usually leave Amanda cold, a thoughtful, slow plan once paid off.
At one point, Amanda “ended up with a significant other” who began as one of her regulars. The woman came in daily to study for the GRE, making friends with one of Amanda’s friends who also came by the coffee shop on a regular basis. Meanwhile Amanda, who “never talks to her crushes” at work, resigned herself to the fact that the hottie was probably after her friend.
As it turned out, the customer was putting in her time, in order to get closer to Amanda. When she finally made a definitive move, it was clear and non-invasive: “I’m taking the GRE tomorrow, so I won’t be back, but here’s my number.” The two wound up dating for a year.
So, what can the caffeinated public take away from all this? Well, unfortunately, bad customers are more memorable than all you nice coffee drinkers. Amanda had to admit that “I don’t really even think about the people who are pleasant, who I actually like. Unfortunately, I remember the ones who are nasty.” That said, you can and should smile at your barista every day — she’ll probably smile back, even if she doesn’t want to go out with you.
And if you’re flirting with a greater purpose in mind, just remember that your barista is the one in the middle of work. So pay for your coffee, and unless you’re set on asking out the object of your affection via an actual plan, it might be best to quell that instinct to hit on your barista — or at least, manage your expectations.