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It’s high-time for students to start their summer jobs to earn cash to sustain themselves. One thing’s for sure: you won’t be able to pay your college fees with your salary.

It’s high-time for students to start their part-time jobs to earn cash to sustain themselves. One thing’s for sure: you won’t be able to pay your college fees with your salary.

I recently took up a part-time barista position at Starbucks that I was probably underqualified for, partly because I wanted to — Nickel and Dimed-style — comprehend what earning minimum-wage (RM5.00/hour, which is 1.23 USD/hour) is like. I was also suddenly very interested in management systems, and so wanted to take a look at how F&B chains managed their resources, deciding whether systems are factors that make Starbucks so successful.

1. Learning is experiential: watch, analyze, and reciprocate

Five minutes ago I had just seen my fellow co-barista steam pull two shots of espresso with his left hand, steam hot milk to the exact temperature with his right, pour the espresso into a Venti cup with the left and the perfectly fluffed milk atop of it, creating the perfect latte.

Five minutes after, I had to do that myself. There was no instruction manual; every recipe and each was passed down to me informally and verbally: most of the time I was expected to simply learn from observation.

At the time I was nervous making my first hot caffe latte; I poured the shots too slowly because they “die” after ten seconds. I spilled the milk on the counter. Had to wipe it. Served it without a hot sleeve, so it burnt my customer’s hand. Turns out, the milk was too frothy; the customer wanted a redo of it. I chirped, “Sorry it sucked, yes, will remake!” and the pull-shot and steam-milk cycle began again.

It was humbling, but I found that learning is mostly experiential and you cannot truly know anything through watching or reading demonstrations or long-winded pontifications about a theory.

2. Systems are not that important
Editorial Credit: Sorbis /
Editorial Credit: Sorbis /

Self-initiative, incentives and supervision are keys to maintaining order.

There is a very loose production system in Starbucks, somewhere along the lines of “if you notice a problem, go fix it yourself.” I noticed this as soon as I stepped into Starbucks. Nobody ever told me what to do. I was expected to observe whether there were enough paper cups, sugar packets, syrups, etc. Whoever notices it first will be the one in charge of that particular task. Whoever calls out a paper cup first will make that drink.

You watch, learn and ask “Is there anything else I could do?”, to which the answer is usually “Find out yourself.” Surprisingly, this flexible, liberal, initiative-based system works. It’s because every Partner has a familiar vision of what the store should look like: clean, fast-moving and joyful. We are incentivized to do the same because everyone else is as well.

That’s what teamwork should constitute. Not systems where tasks are delegated robotically, but where each member initiates his or her own tasks in accordance with their visions on what success looks like for the team. So how a leader/manager conveys this vision to the team determines the success of an enterprise.

3. Waste management is a literal nightmare in Malaysia

Literally a nightmare. One of my fondest memories at Starbucks was my first pre-midnight ‘closing’ shift, where my co-barista Nicole and I walked to the back alley of the mall dragging ten bags chock-full of unseparated rubbish, getting catcalled by random workers around us. “Ignore them-lah,” Nicole said as I rolled my eyes, “I’ll protect you!” We laughed, and literally flung the rubbish, shot put-like, into the back of the humongous dumpster. Four out of five times, the rubbish bags didn’t land atop the abysmal one-story tall dumpster. I had the sudden urge to go dumpster diving.

It was horrendous. Many times a day I would quip to the upper management that “We should have start to recycle our waste!” or “Why don’t we recycle?” and I would only get a few impatient, quizzical grunts in response. I read about it before, but being a direct contributor to the waste chain, I was growing seriously worried about the sustainability of this nation – and this world.

I started to wonder about sustainable management and how it can be implemented in F&B chains. Simply separating our waste to be able to be recycled will help reduce landfill almost infinitely. Used coffee grounds and expired food items can be recycled into bioplastics and manufacturing material. Setting up food redistribution channels will reduce edible food wastage and feed hungry stomachs. If ‘corporate policies’ or laws are the reasons why we are dealing so poorly with waste, this raises a serious question of organization credibility.

4. The window-washer is treated worse than the barista is, even if they are the same person
Editorial Credit: Sorbis :
Editorial Credit: Sorbis :

People either care too much about you or not at all, depending on who you are at the very moment. There is a hierarchy in Starbucks that determines how customers will treat you. On my first day of work, when I was making drinks at the bar, a few customers excitedly asked to take a photo with me (LMAO I really still don’t know why to this date). All the customers were pretty nice and respectful. The next day, as I was struggling like crazy to clean windows – something I sheepishly admit I’ve never done before – people gave me a quick look of disregard and walked past loftily. The same people would smile at me at the cashier or as I would be making drinks.

What stops people from acting the same on people serving lower-level tasks? Yes, maybe the nature of being at the bar or being a cashier affords more opportunities to interact with customers, but it’s the dismissive microaggressions that matter: unpleasant gazes, scoffs, etc. In the context of power relationships, when one feels one has more power over people from other social groups, one would act accordingly to the power gap – which is how microaggressions surface.

It had only just then occurred to me that you could suddenly belong to other social strata simply by performing different tasks or wearing a different uniform.

5. There is never truly ‘a recipe

Your drinks can vary wildly barista to barista. I did what I called the Asian Dolce Taste Experiment and ordered an Asian Dolce Latte at five Starbucks chains – including my own. I found that the taste varied from sickeningly sweet to heartbreakingly bitter. Either I was tasting the genuine mistakes of some human baristas, or these were their own takes on the drink. I realized that when I made my own drinks; there is no perfect ideal and the ideal drink will vary from context to context.

6. I Killed Many Hearts at Starbucks
mangpor2004 /

I realized how ignorant people were of the health consequences of consuming frappucinos. One grande-sized frappuccino. I almost wanted to apologize to the people I made fraps for. I saw regular customers coming in for a frap every afternoon – to clear out the hot air, I suppose. “Wait, sorry, don’t drink this, you’re going to die from this.”

I’m surprised there still aren’t any laws banning the consumption of Frappuccinos. It’s not a company secret that a grande-sized caramel Frappuccino contains 400 calories and 65g of carbohydrates, 63 of which are added sugars. You’re only supposed to consume 25-35g of added sugars a day. With this frap, you’re already consuming 2.6x a number of sugars you’re supposed to in a day. Add in the sugar donut most people have with frappuccinos and the three other sugar-filled meals you have in a day, and that’s murder.

I know it doesn’t take working at Starbucks to realize that frappuccinos are outrageously unhealthy, but when you’re the one pumping blended syrup and chocolate chips and sugar-added mocha into a frappuccino and serving diabetes on a plate to your customers fifty times a day, you might start to feel the guilt of murder on your whipped cream-stained hands. Cue Lady Macbeth: “Out, out, damned spot!”

It’s imperative that nutritional labels be available on the menu itself is not just Starbucks but other F&B chains. It’s very, very concerning how unconscious people are about the grub they let into their body (I’m not taking the moral high ground; I’m also one of those people.)

7. RM5.00 an hour (USD 1.23/hour) is no joke

When I showed my first pay-check to my parents, they laughed so hard they fell off a chair. I’d worked for an entire two and a half weeks at Starbucks, only to earn RM51.98. That’s abysmal. It’s funny when I (a relatively privileged, middle-class college student) earn less in two weeks than the amount I pay for just food in a day.

But it’s not funny when a single mother, supporting an entire family of five, earns the same amount as I do when her entire household’s livelihood depends on RM5.00 an hour (this was one of my coworkers). She had to work through her Raya holidays just because she couldn’t afford the leave, and pay is doubled during holidays.

I was just beginning to see how the poverty trap is so profoundly inextricable for some families.

8. Human Interaction is at the Core of Everything

Fast-forward a month and I would say that my Starbucks experience has been difficult, to say. But there are a lot of redeeming things about working at Starbucks, which mostly include communicating with your fellow co-inhabitants. I learned a lot about setting a culture for your business: that’s something Starbucks does very explicitly and it’s made very clear to each customer, employee, and manager. Starbucks values human interactions. It’s as simple a statement as that, but it’s very powerful when it comes to how it shapes the general perception towards Starbucks, as well as how passionate employees feel about advocating this culture.

You might not agree with Starbucks on many fronts, but its aim to encourage the value of the human connection is commendable, and, in some ways, minutely impacts many lives.

Cindy Leow ?? is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia . She’s a part-time fashion, health and travel blogger, freelance writer and full-time activist. Cindy was the KL Executive Director of the 24 Hour Race,...

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