What I Learnt Working at Starbucks for a Month

When I told people I’d just started my first day at Starbucks on my Snapchat, the reactions I got ranged from the speechless “Wtf” to the incredulous “You just graduated from the IB and you’re already working at Starbucks LOL #successstory.”

I took up a part-time barista position at Starbucks that I was probably under-qualified for, partly because I wanted to — Nickel and Dimed-style — comprehend what earning minimum-wage (RM5.00/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 makes Starbucks so successful.

TLDR: non-systems, learning about learning, unsustainable resource management, recipes, murderous frappuccinos, culture

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 every 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 spilt the milk on the counter. Had to wipe it. Served it without a hot sleeve, so it burnt the customer’s hand. Disastrous. 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

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 to their visions on what success looks like for the team. 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 in 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 organisation credibility.

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

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 to 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 realised 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

I realised 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 the amount 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 in 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 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 in 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 learnt 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 human connection is commendable, and in some ways, minutely impacts many lives.

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(Post originally published on ThePavlovicToday)

The Education Bubble

Originally transcribed as an impromptu speech at my graduation ceremony, and published on ThePavlovicToday here.

Being valedictorian means nothing if I sacrificed my humanity and spirit of learning for it. 


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Honourable principal, distinguished teachers, parents, the graduating Class of 2016:

It is of utmost irony that I am able to stand here today to address you as valedictorian, because the only reason I have been able to attain this award is that I have been deeply misguided about my values and my need for social validation. All I hope is that these — albeit raw, sometimes painful — feelings will resonate with you… and that you will find salvation as I did.

What Education Meant To Me

It is 6am and my alarm is blaring and I had only slept for two hours and my eyes are red and blurred. I wait for them to refocus — my lens moving in and out — but my vision doesn’t clear. I drive to school, nearly crashing on the way.

It is 8am and I was hunched over a laptop typing notes on Google Docs as my Biology teacher is droning and I almost fall asleep on the floor.

It is 12pm and I skipped lunch to study again, alone in the prep room, for my next test.

It is 10am and I receive feedback for my English essay. A B again. My teacher says, “Be more concise. Syntax.” Be more concise? Syntax? Got it. Got it. I almost nod off.

It is 2pm and I have just received my Harvard rejection letter. Tears well up in my eyes again as this has been my only goal and driving force through the two years — my one and only marker of accomplishment — I have to run out of class to see my counsellor. I cry in her lap.

It is 4am and I am still awake, working on my extracurriculars. Yet again.

Hard work and persistence are meritable things.

Pushing yourself excessively past your body and your mind’s limits, putting your physical and mental health at stake, in pursuit of meaningless goals — goals that are forced upon you — are not.

I speak not just for myself but for all of us who have felt the same oppression. I hungered to be categorized as ‘smart’, ‘brilliant’, and ‘academic’ amongst my peers and teachers. I thirsted for external validation in the form of praises, compliments and college acceptances. Who was I?

For years, I floated around in a vacuum like a hamster running on a wheel: all I wanted was more external rewards, but I was lost, ungrounded, and had no self-value — who was I? What do I want? Do I mean anything? I became a hollow shell, surviving on ‘good grades’, people telling me how smart they thought I was, and how they oh-so looked up to me. I was so self-absorbed even if that means I had more faith in my LinkedIn profile than my personality. At my most frenzied period, I lost most of my friends because our values were so mismatched and I’m so sorry that happened.

Like I said, I’m not the only one with this experience. Millions of high school students all over the world, where rote learning and exam pressures are high, are even worse off.

Being valedictorian means nothing if I sacrificed my humanity and spirit of learning for it.

I began to question my sanity and life goals. I’m glad to say, after a constant state of meditation, that I escaped the bubble and vicious cycle.

What completely changed my mindset was 1) realising how useless and ephemeral the information I rotely memorized was to me and 2) locating myself within the larger sphere of life. I realised, during my time at a youth-led NGO, how small and insignificant I was — how test scores meant nothing for those who barely have enough to survive another day, or those enslaved in chains. I realised how little all the things I cared about meant. I realised how little I — life —  meant if I continued to stay within my bubble, my vacuum, my hamster wheel.

Breaking out of the “Education” Bubble

I decided life meant more than this, that life was full of spontaneity and passion and warmth. I decided being valedictorian is not worth the sacrifice. It is an empty award, designed to perpetuate the role of rote learning in our lives and the notion of exclusivity and peer competition.

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Education isn’t the Hunger Games. Education isn’t 2400 SATs or 36 ACTs or 45 IBs. Education is, at its core, learning how to learn so you can impact yourself and impact others. Education is learning how to be compassionate, aware and informed, so you can make better decisions, which will then create a waterfall effect that will help others who don’t have the same privilege as you do.

Education, according to philosopher Tariq Ramadan, is “giving individuals the tools they need if their minds, being and individuality are to be autonomous… allowing human beings to become the true subject of freedom.”

This is a war cry: one that will remind you all that we set our own standards, not the ones that an arbitrary exam board sets for us. No. It’s time for education to stop stifling our curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge.

So travel far. Read books — because you like them and you want to. Find meaning and application in your studies. Study for self-growth, not for improved grades. Become free in your intellect, and become free in the acceptance of yourself. Seek no validation.

It begins with how we see ourselves, and it ends when we define ourselves by external standards.

Congratulations, Graduating Class of 2016. I take my hat off to you.

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