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All of the Terrible Things I Learned While Working as a Barista at a Global Coffee Chain

There were mice in the madeleines. There were mice behind the walk-in. There were mice giving birth in bags of powdered frappé mix in the basement.

by Anonymous
May 24 2017, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user nodoca

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. For this installment, we hear from a former barista at a major coffee chain.

I have a very good reason for not drinking lattes anymore. In short, it's mouse blood.

During the time that I worked as a barista at a busy outpost of a certain global coffee chain, I saw a lot of mice die. We had a rather serious infestation at one point—not exactly unheard of in New York—but we never managed to get shut down by the health department.

There were mice in the madeleines. There were mice behind the walk-in. There were mice giving birth in bags of powdered frappé mix in the basement.

When we lowered the lights at the end of the night, the mice came out in droves: on the counters, atop the espresso machines, inside the pastry cabinet. No matter how many surfaces we sanitized, I always knew that a cup of coffee from our shop was inevitably touched by mouse paws.

Let me back up: I began working at this chain in 1999, when I was a high school sophomore in California. Let's call it "The Coffee Shop," because I'm fairly certain that I signed a contract that would hold me and several generations of my spawn liable for speaking ill against the company.

There were mice in the madeleines. There were mice behind the walk-in. There were mice giving birth in bags of powdered frappé mix in the basement.

The barista gig was my first real W-9 job, and one of the few options available to 16-year-olds in my Bay Area hometown at the time. I could've stood behind the refrigerated lines at Jamba Juice or Cold Stone Creamery, but pulling shots of espresso—in those days, with a legit La Marzocco machine, not the digitally calibrated dispensers they use nowadays—somehow felt cooler, moodier. At least that's what I told myself.

This was more than 15 years ago. Back then, too-cool customers would still pretend like they weren't buying into the upwardly mobile strip mall culture that The Coffee Shop was selling, with its $20 bags of Sumatran beans and havarti sandwiches. Those were the holdouts who refused to order their 16-ounce cup of coffee as a "grande," sometimes going as far as pointing out to me—the acne-riddled teen behind the register—that this cup is called "medium" here in America, and who do I think I am?

But most customers were endlessly polite. I knew many of them by name—in a time before the company began its policy of always putting customers' names on cups—and started preparing their overly complex affronts to Italian coffee tradition the moment I glimpsed them walking up to the door. I had bought into The Coffee Shop myth: I came home exhausted each day with sticky grounds wedged under my fingernails and sometimes in my hair, but I felt like I was learning something about how to taste coffee, and how to prepare it well. My pathologically happy manager urged all of us to simply drink more espresso anytime our smiles dipped. Everyone was simpatico and wildly high on caffeine.

That was the first year, at least.

'I can't be around these fumes for too long,' she told me. 'I used to huff that shit.'

Later on, I got a new manager: a sweet, motherly Midwestern woman in her early 50s, I figured at first glance. Only later was I told that she was far younger, rumored to have been ravaged by a meth addiction. One day, when we were scraping promotional decals off the glass doors with an industrial solvent, she told me she needed to take a break. "I can't be around these fumes for too long," she told me. "I used to huff that shit."

Admittedly, this has nothing to do with coffee: odd characters inhabit every industry and every workplace. When I moved to New York and transferred to a new store location in downtown Manhattan, I learned this quickly.

On my first night in New York, a water bug the size of adult man's loafer chased me through the front of the store while my new coworkers laughed at my suburban naiveté. I was less friendly with them than my California crew, but I made inroads with a few: one of them moonlighted as an escort and sold cocaine. When she didn't bring her gun to work, she was still packing a box-cutter, which she pulled on one of the baristas who made the mistake of calling her a "bitch" on the floor.

It was a filthy, horrible, exciting introduction to a city I'd valorized growing up. One day, I'd serve a handful of celebrities: Spike Lee (apple cider); Philip Seymour Hoffman (drip coffee, black); Elijah Wood (ignored me while he talked on his phone). Another day, a group of junkies would use our bathroom as a meeting spot to score drugs from a dealer inside.

When she didn't bring her gun to work, she was still packing a box-cutter.

It soon became apparent that just about everyone working with me was on drugs, too. I discovered our busser—who was nicknamed "Gollum" by the staff due to his physical resemblance to the Tolkein character—smoking crack down in the basement, which doubled as our storeroom and strongly evoked Buffalo Bill's lair in Silence of the Lambs. Another one of our baristas regularly missed work because he had nodded out on heroin.

The rest of us mostly stuck to marijuana. We were given an hour to close the store; if you went over your eight hours, you had to be paid overtime, which The Coffee Shop considered to be very bad business. One of my managers strictly enforced a policy of "pre-closing," so that the actual closing could be completed in about 15 minutes after we kicked out the last customers. We then spent 45 minutes getting paid on the clock—which was electronic and required you to be physically present in order to clock in and out—smoking blunts in the front of the store with the lights off. We regularly had a dealer drop off our communal weed for the evening, right where everyone else was picking up their $8 mochas with extra whip.

Oh, that reminds me: the mouse blood.

So, the store was overrun with vermin. It got so bad that, at one point, we were told that we couldn't change into our uniforms at work anymore because our clothes could be carrying bugs. Sure, I remember thinking. I definitely have a swarm of cockroaches living in my pants, and your serial killer basement is as clean as a whistle.

One day, we found a mouse asleep inside a package of biscotti, wedged between two pieces of them. The little guy had chewed his way in, gorged himself, and passed out. For someone who grew up on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it was adorable. Until my boss drowned him in a mop bucket.

But the most searingly memorable experience was, by far, the time that I sprayed mouse blood all over the store's floor. It was a particularly busy day, and we had run out of vanilla syrup (which goes in everything). I ran down to the basement to pick up a case, past the glue traps that had been laid on the stairs. As I hurried back up with a giant box blocking by view, I felt a crunch. Something was stuck to my foot, but I hurried out on to the floor regardless.

When I set down the box, I realized that I was trailing mouse parts behind me. One of the poor rodents must have become stuck in a glue trap, which I then stepped on. Horrified, I limped to the back room, where Gollum peeled the blood-splattered trap off of my cream-caked work boot with the handle of his broom.

And then, inexplicably, he threw the trap—and all of the gory mouse bits stuck to it—in the sink, which was full of mugs, whipped cream canisters, pastry plates. These were things that people ate off of every day. Realizing his mistake, Gollum quickly picked up the trap—meanwhile placing his other finger to his lips to make a "shhh" gesture—and tossed it in the garbage.

That's the day I stopped eating or drinking anything from The Coffee Shop. I know that most places don't operate like that—and that the things I witnessed and participated were more the fault of the health department and my supervisors, rather than the company as a whole—but I have never been able to shake the feeling that we weren't the worst crew out there.

Besides, the coffee sucks anyway.


This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.