Earlier this week, a Starbucks barista named Josie went all kinds of viral after tweeting a photo of a customer’s ridiculous mobile order, a monstrosity of a drink that involved more than a dozen different additions, including seven pumps of dark caramel sauce, extra caramel drizzle, extra whipped cream and, uh, five bananas. “On today's episode of why I wanna quit my job,” Josie wrote in the now-deleted tweet.
A lot of Starbucks staffers are feeling Josie-ish lately, because complicated orders with eight or nine or 12 customizations are becoming more common—and they’re putting a lot of the blame on TikTok. As Josie’s tweet made its way around the internet, other baristas filled his mentions with pics of the borderline undrinkable beverages they’ve had to assemble. The r/Starbucks and r/StarbucksBaristas subreddits have been filled with green apron-wearers typing out their frustrations about customers who order drinks with names that were made up on TikTok, not to mention an emerging crop of barista-turned-TikTokers who post “aesthetic Starbucks drinks.”
“The orders have gotten a lot crazier during the two years I’ve been with the company,” Grace, a Starbucks barista in Michigan, told VICE. “I’ve asked my coworkers if they thought the orders were getting worse, and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, 100 percent.’ It’s very rare for someone to come in and order a regular latte or a black coffee. At our store, whenever someone does order something like that, all of us sigh with relief because it’s not a drink with 17 customizations on it.”
Grace said that an increasing number of customers have been asking for drinks they’ve seen on TikTok; and they seem to assume that every barista in every Starbucks automatically knows what a Sunrise Peach Frappuccino or a Harry Styles Refresher is—and is able to make one on the spot. “To be quite frank with you, all the drinks on Tiktok are such a bitch to do,” she said. “With our [standard] drinks, we just pull the sticker that tells us what it is, and we immediately know how to make it. For those TikTok drinks, you literally have to read a novel.”
The pandemic has made this even more complicated. In Grace’s store, team members have been instructed not to touch customers’ phones, so the customer might have to stand there reading the step-by-step instructions. “Sometimes I have to pick the cup up multiple times to make sure I’m adding everything that they wanted; other times they’ll just show us a screenshot of the ingredients,” she said. “I personally hate that, because you just lose all communication. They don’t even talk to you. They just say, ‘I want this,’ and then shove their phone in your face.”
Aria, who works at an Arizona Starbucks, echoed that exasperation. “Sometimes customers show us a picture of a drink or describe what it looks like, in which case we have very little to work with,” she said. “The trendy drinks are sometimes time-consuming or annoying to make, especially when customers aren’t satisfied when their ‘ombre refresher’ doesn’t look exactly like it did on TikTok. Another customer was adamant that a rainbow frappuccino—five different frappuccinos layered in rainbow order—was on our ‘secret menu.’ It took us about 10 minutes to make, and when the customer finally tasted it, they were disappointed that they couldn’t taste every color all at once, whatever that means.”
Aria said that she believes the “TikTok drink boom” has been good for Starbucks’ business. She may be right—at least when it comes to a specific demographic of customers. According to Apple, TikTok was the second-most downloaded free app last year, right behind Zoom. And if scrolling through TikTok makes you disturbingly aware of your own birth year and forehead creases, that’s probably because around 40 percent of users are between the ages of 16 to 24—significantly younger than the forty-somethings that have been identified as the Starbucks "core customer."
“Since TikTok’s biggest audience [seems to be] children, most of these drinks aren’t even coffee or espresso-based," an Illinois barista who asked to be identified by her Reddit username, Chemical-Less, said. "They’re just heaps and heaps of sugar on top of each other.” She added that you can often tell if a drink has been sourced from TikTok if it involves "either the excessive caramel drizzle or vanilla sweet cream cold foam.” (Some Starbucks stores are currently enduring caramel drizzle, white mocha, and strawberry acai shortages. Congrats, Tiktokers, you played yourselves.)
Grace says that it's reached the point where she can ID a TikToker as soon as they open their mouth. “You can tell if they’re filming a TikTok, because when they’re at the [drive-thru] order box, they order a little bit differently,” she said. “They’ll be extra nice about it because they’re filming themselves, too. Sometimes they’ll be like, ‘Oh, can you surprise me with your favorite drink today?’ And I’ll sit there, like, This is gonna be for TikTok. They want to figure out what the inside drink [is] that the baristas are all having.”
Although making one Dogecoin MemeLord Double-Dank Upside Down Frapp can be an annoyance (we made that one up—please don’t ask for it), making nine or 10 of them can have a knock-on effect for the entire store. Customers often ask for them to be remade, because they don’t look like the one they saw online—and all of the extra stuff that gets tossed into a blender can result in too much liquid to pour into a cup, leading to wasted ingredients. Extra complicated Frappuccinos can monopolize the entire bar, causing slow-downs for other orders. “Customers who come in looking for a quick latte are forced to wait along with everyone else,” Chemical-Less said. “It makes our customer connection score go down and reflects poorly on us.”
The three baristas that VICE spoke with said that they remain committed to serving their customers and stressed that there are no limits to the number of customizations that can be made to a single drink. That’s pretty much what Starbucks said too. “[W]e believe in giving customers the power to design the beverage that meets their individual preferences,” a spokesperson told VICE. “There are many ways for customers to modify their favorite beverage and most customizations are reasonable requests from customers. If customers order a beverage that is not listed on our menu boards, we recommend they know the recipe so that their barista can handcraft the beverage perfectly for them.”
What the baristas do ask is that customers have a little more patience when they’re placing an off-menu order. They’d also ask other baristas to maaaaybe stop posting insane drink combos on social media for clout—and TikTokers to stop filming Starbucks workers while they’re just trying to do their jobs. “To my knowledge, I have been filmed twice, and neither time was I asked for my permission to be filmed,” Grace said. “Filming me, or anybody in the service industry, is intrusive and disrespectful. I ended up finding the TikTok that one girl filmed of me, and it was just really frustrating.”
“She just used me as a background,” she continued. “Like, ‘Look a day in my life when I went to get coffee and went home to make banana bread,’ or some shit like that. This is how I make a living—and I’m hardly making a living—so I just wish people would be more considerate.” (A Starbucks spokesperson confirmed to VICE that “personal photography, video recording or audio recording without consent is prohibited” in its stores.)
Aria emphasized that she and her coworkers can only do so much. “Starbucks baristas go out of their way to meet customers’ requests every single day,” she said. “We’re happy to customize the ingredients of any drink, but we’re people, too.”
On the day that Josie's “I wanna quit my job” tweet went viral, the most upvoted and awarded post on the r/Starbucks subreddit was titled, simply, “Starbucks Hack!”
“Be nice to the Baristas,” the post reads. “That’s the hack. I cannot tell you how much we appreciate customers who actually treat us with kindness and respect.”