Coffee, Tea and Me
by Nicki Lynch
I never wanted to work in retail. When I went for a degree in computer science, I had visions of working in an office, at a terminal, discussing accounting programs and such with peers. Then I looked over the job market in Chattanooga and discovered after almost three years of filling out applications, handing out résumés, talking to 'head hunters' and going to interviews that there were no entry level computer jobs to be had in Chattanooga. Not unless you knew someone I didn't know.
So when the new two story shopping mall opened in town, for fun, I dropped by and left my resume off with any store that would take it. Only one called back -- a coffee and tea shop.
I was interviewed by the owner and asked to start work that day. I begged off, knowing that I didn't have the type of shoes necessary to stand around all day in, and I wasn't really sure what I was getting into. I've now been working there for six months and even survived a Christmas at the mall, a not-to-be-believed situation unless you've been in retail.
This coffee store is part of a chain that specializes in gourmet coffees and teas, as well as various appliances to go with them. The main sellers are coffee beans by the pound and half-pound, and loose and bagged teas. The biggest part of my job, apart from the constant cleaning (as grinding coffee is very dusty) is handling customers.
Chattanooga is not a major city, even though the city council and major employers would like to think that it is. For the most part, the people who shop in Chattanooga are rural people to whom traffic lights and a middle turning lane are curiosities that they don't quite understand. For something as exotic as a coffee shop, many are overwhelmed.
For the first few months, we had to explain what we sold to almost everyone who came in the door, although we had many who stuck their heads in and pulled them out again, unable to cope with the wonder of it all. The best example of that were two old ladies who stuck their heads in, exclaimed, "My goodness, look at all those raisins!" and ducked out again. It was also amazing how many people thought it was a candy store, with bins of small chocolate candies.
For those who knew what a coffee shop was, we had to explain to them that we were not the same coffee shop which had been in another mall in town and had closed about a year earlier. I was amazed how many people felt we needed to know that there had been another coffee shop in town.
Then there was the small group who knew about coffee shops and were coffee snobs. The coffee snobs were usually yuppie types who would point out the espresso coffee beans to their open-mouthed friends, exclaim how nice it was to get Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee locally, and then ask for a cappuccino, telling us how they last had one in Italy.
Heard on a daily basis in the store is someone saying, "It smells so wonderful in here! You must love working here!" All you can do is to smile and say yes. Actually, I no longer smell the coffee, and my co-workers say the same thing. After the second day, I could no longer smell the coffee brewing. I can smell it when I open the bins, and I do smell it when I'm pouring the coffee, but that's about it. Even when I've been off for a few days, I still can't smell the coffee the way I used to.
The first few months were the hardest in dealing with the public. Face it, when you're in sales, you can't tell a tell a customer what a stupid question they've just asked. Well, you can, but you won't be in sales long. The best you can do is to give a direct answer and let them make up their so-called minds. For example:
One question we got about once a day for the first three months was: "Is this the coffee you grind for instant?" Rather than say, "Only if they've repealed the laws of Physics," I would usually answer, "No. You have to brew the coffee after you grind it up. Instant coffee is not ground-up beans." Fortunately, I haven't heard that question for quite a while.
Another question is: "I don't like coffee myself, but I want to buy some for a friend. What do you think he (or she) will like?" The temptation is to tell them, "How the hell do I know? I'm not a mind reader!" but usually just ask the friend's preference, which they don't know. Since they don't like coffee themselves and refuse to sample what we're brewing, I'm stuck with describing each coffee, or picking out two or three of the best sellers and recommending them. Usually this is enough to make a sale.
We brew three coffees each day, a regular, a flavor, and a decaf which can be either a flavor or a regular coffee. This may not seem like a big choice, but to some people this is a major decision in their life, and they will agonize over it the way some people will consider buying a house, starting a business, or getting married. I suppose it is a shock, since the other coffee place in town only served one kind of coffee per day.
When a person comes up to the window, they usually lean over the counter, look at the three or four coffee pots with coffee in them and say, "What coffee are you brewing (or 'serving', or 'boiling') today?" Then we hit them with The Choice. "It's on the top line of the menu," I say. They look, and then ask if these are the coffees we are brewing today, and if they are available.
For the most part, they don't want to read a menu, opting to having the choices and prices recited to them, despite having a clearly marked sign. Considering how many people that are served each day, I'd have no voice left if I did that! Besides, we do have a sign! But most people will still ask what each coffee is. The owner also points out the sign and even had one person tell her, "You mean I've got to read?"
While most people have gotten used to us and make their choice without fuss, we still get the occasional customer who lives in terror that we serve wildly exotic drinks and that their 64 cents will have been spent badly. I remember one lady who was almost literally dragged up by her friends, while I was waiting on a customer. She was protesting that she didn't want anything too strange and looked over at what I was doing.
She watched me pour the contents of one cup into another and exclaimed, "See, that turned from white to brown. I'll bet that was something strange!"
The lady next to her turned and said, "She's making hot chocolate for me."
That shut up the first lady until the lady with the hot chocolate left. I think she was a little disappointed that she only got coffee in the end.
Another time, a guy brought up his protesting girlfriend for some coffee. She didn't want the regular coffee of the day, which happened to be Hawaiian Kona (an excellent coffee, by the way), and asked if we had some "regular" coffee. (For some reason, people seem to think we have several exotic coffees brewing as well as a pot of Maxwell House somewhere.) So the guy turned to me, winked, and said, "Give me a cup of the Kona and give her some regular coffee." So I went over to the coffee maker and poured two cups of Kona and brought them over, giving him his Kona and her the "regular coffee." He paid and they both went away happy.
The hardest question to answer, after pointing out the three coffees of the day is when the person asks, "Which is best?" I have no idea what that question means, and usually just repeat what each coffee is. The second question is, "Is it strong?" An equally meaningless question, but it's one that most people ask, terrified that they will get a strong cup of coffee. How we're supposed to know if they will think it is strong is beyond me. One day, about an hour apart, one person protested that the regular coffee was too strong and a second person said the same coffee was too weak. We have a lot of people who ask if the coffee is a dark roast. We never serve a dark roast, but the same people will ask, over and over. One lady has to see the beans before she contemplates buying a cup, in case we are trying to get away with serving her a dark roasted bean coffee.
There is also another problem with having such an exotic place as a coffee store; people want to try this thing they've heard about, Espresso. Since we give samples of the brewed coffee, many people ask for a sample of the espresso or cappuccino, which we can't do. The problem is that some people really don't know what they are ordering, and are disappointed when they get it. To that end, the manager wants us to ask people, tactfully, if they know what they are ordering. Many don't.
For some reason, these people with a yen to explore show up at the busiest time. I had a couple show up just as a rush started and they wanted cappuccinos. OK. As I was making them, the guy asked what I was doing, and when would I get their order. So I told him that I was making the cappuccinos that they wanted, didn't they? Well, yes, but he didn't know I had to make them up. I finally go them made and rung up, so the guy turns cute. When asked for payment, to which he seemed surprised at the amount (considering the price was clearly marked on the menu they spent ten minutes studying), he asked if we took charge cards. With the people seething behind him, I told him through my clenched teeth, yes, we did, but not at the take-out window. He tried to make light of it and then slowly took out his wallet and all but counted out the amount in change while making bad jokes all the while. He finally left, much to everyone's relief. I have no idea if they liked what they got.
Working with the public is no picnic, but every now and then there is that one customer who is literate and knows what they want and have their money out, ready to pay. Or the customer who tells everyone in earshot how wonderful the coffee is and how he/she comes in every day to get it. Or the customer who looks forward to seeing you, because you make hot chocolate or cappuccino "just the way I like it."
- - - - - - - - - -Nicki's article apparently struck a chord with some of our readers; it brought forth a few letters of comment from those who had been stuck in similar kinds of jobs, including one from Pat Molloy who once had a job as a sales clerk in a pet store and, like Nicki, soon could not smell his surroundings (though in his case, it was a Good Thing).
The covers for M5 were another contribution from Alan Hutchinson, which also brought compliments from readers, like Stven Carlberg who wrote that "Alan's work is delightful, funny, clever, and deserves a big, appreciative audience."
One other article in M5 that was both related to Tennessee and of fan historical interest was by Memphis fan Dal Coger, whose fan activity extends back to the 1940s. The subject of his article was Claude Degler, who was one of the most legendary (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) fans of that or any fan era. Here it is again:
Mimosa 5 covers by Alan Hutchinson
All other illustrations by Julia Morgan-Scott