The Joys of Minimum Wage: What I Iearned from my two year stint as a barrista

I write a blog post this cloudy Monday morning as I’m camped out with my laptop at Bare Bulb Coffee. Although this may sound pretty typical to you, today marks a big change for me. For I have spent the last two years opening the doors of Bare Bulb Coffee every Monday and Wednesday before the sun comes up to brew up some Joe and bake muffins and cinnamon rolls for the hungry people of Middle Georgia. It was an unlikely turn for a middle aged woman with a master’s degree to take a food service job for minimum wage. Barrista certainly never made the list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. But the job made sense at the time. I had been a stay-at-home mom with my kids during their preschool years, outside of teaching one of two classes of yoga a week. Once the kids got in their elementary school routine, I found myself a little restless (and the money in our checking account felt small and lonely). I wasn’t quite ready to take a full time or even demanding part-time job as I wanted to be there for the kids whenever they might need me, but it was getting clearer and cleared that I needed to work more. So when I heard my friend talking about needing more barristas for her church plant coffee shop, I thought, “Why not?” the joys of minimum wage

Although I initially took the coffee shop job because of the money (every little bit helps), I kept it these years for a host of different reasons.

Below is my top five tribute to the barrista life.


1) A little hard work never hurt anyone.

Freud said that “love and work are the cornerstone of our humanness.” I have to say he has a point. I was surprised by how good it felt to come home tired at the end of a work day. Anyone who has worked a job where they sat at desks all day or otherwise didn’t use their hands to create/fix/serve anything can relate to the frustration that comes with never seeing a real fruit from your labor. Ministry was definitely like this. Motherhood is much the same.  What could I point to as an accomplishment of being a stay at home mom other than the continued existence of my kids? In stark contrast, at the end of a coffee shop shift I could point the the half dozen cinnamon rolls I had made and served with my hands, as well as the empty plates I had washed with my hands after my happy customers left. My tired arms and feet were a testament to all I had accomplished during my five hours of work. It was a strangely satisfying experience.

2) I need people

My other big surprise after a couple of weeks at the coffee shop was how much this introvert enjoyed being around people all day. Honestly, this is probably due to the fact that my conversations with people behind the counter were always short and therefore not exhausting. But still, I was talking to perfect strangers and liking it. I began to understand after a while how much I actually need and enjoy having people in my life. I loved having co-workers again. I got to know our regulars and looked forward to seeing them come in the door each day. I even enjoyed the small but affirming exchanges with people I had never met and may never see again. Humans simply need connection with other humans.

3) Other people needed me

I’m convinced one of the reasons coffee shops have regulars is because all of us are more lonely than we would like to admit. I found myself privileged to be the breakfast companion of widows and widowers who had no one left at home to eat with, awkward teenagers gathering their strength before school, and scores of other people who for some reason made the choice to come in and sit down among people instead of driving off with food in their cars. What’s more is I found if you talk to people a little, they will tell you their stories. Sad stories, funny stories, beautiful stories all. One of the things I’m most grateful for as a barrista is that I had the opportunity to stop and bear witness to the stories of so many people’s lives.

4) People Need to be Valued

Much as people need to be seen and heard, they also need to be treated as someone with value. There were days when I was tired and cranky and struggled to honor my customers as much as I should. Working for tips taught me to smile and be kind even when I didn’t feel like it. But the tricky thing about that is that after you smile and are kind long enough, you begin to feel pleasant and kind. Action precedes emotion. And if I began to forget how important it was to treat others with value, all it took was an unnecessarily rude and demanding customer to wake me up to that need. No one likes to be treated like crap. Especially when they are working their butt off for minimum wage. If food service taught me some things about customer service, it taught me loads more about being kind to the people serving me while I am out in the world. I now always try to smile at my server or cashier and say thank you as much as I can. Even if things are not perfect, I try to exercise patience and grace as much as possible.

5) People are Funny

We barristas always enjoyed customers who would tell us a joke or otherwise make an attempt to brighten our day. But even when people aren’t trying to be funny, they are still really funny. During my coffee shop time I got to witness dozens of first dates, play dates, study sessions, meetings and even some break-ups. On any given day people never ceased to bemuse and delight me. We are all such strange and beautiful creatures. When we stop taking each other so personally and just enjoy each other for who we are, we can bring each other unending amounts of joy.   So thank Bare Bulb for all you’ve taught me. I will be stalking you with my laptop and ceaseless need for tea I am sure. And to all my other coffee shop loving friends, enjoy your cup of sunshine, tip your barrista, and for God sakes, don’t bring a cup of Starbucks into a local coffee shop.   Do you have a favorite memory of a job that taught you far more than the minimum wage you were paid to work it? I’d love for you to share them in the comments below.]]>

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