Working for a giant

As regular followers of this blog know, I have two jobs: freelance teacher and part-time barista.

I work as a humble part-time barista for the largest coffeehouse company in the world, Starbucks.

And I can´t deny that this results in mixed feelings.

I am older than this upstart of a company.

In fact, I am the oldest Starbucks employee in St. Gallen (3 locations) and possibly Switzerland.

It was founded in 1971.

My mother unleashed me upon the planet in 1965.

I am as Canadian as Neil Young, but working for an American multinational, founded in Seattle, Washington.

I work in two of its 23, 132 locations worldwide.

My homeland of Canada has 1, 416 locations.

The US has 12, 937.

The company has opened an average of two new locations worldwide every day between 1987 and 2007.

If Starbucks has its way, public interest will continue to rise in the coming years.

According to a Time magazine article from 2006, the company aims to open another 25,000 stores in the future, bringing the total number of Starbucks stores worldwide to 40,000.

That’s 9,000 more stores than McDonald’s currently has in operation worldwide.

I sell and serve hot and cold drinks, whole bean coffee, espressos, lattes, full leaf teas, juices, frappuccinos, pastries and snacks.

Being Xmas tis the season for toffeenut lattes, honey and almond hot chocolate, gingerbread lattes and snowball frappuccinos, to name just a few.

I sell and serve hot and cold sandwiches, mugs and tumblers and whatever new product idea that corporate Swiss HQ in Zürich passes on from Seattle.

I take the train to/from work, so even on days when I am not working at the Bahnhof location I still poke my nose inside to say “Hi” to my coworkers there and have a “dirty chai”(chai tea with espresso shots) to go.

I witnessed my first Starbucks Evening last night, accomplished professionally by Bahnhof shift manager Katy, promoting our various coffee blends and offering participants muffin treats.

My Bahnhof store manager Ricardo is proud to work at Starbucks.

He loves that he works for such a global presence.

Starbucks has made a point of being wherever you are.

They have a tremendous, almost inescapable, presence in countless, high-traffic neighborhoods.

Yet they’re also somewhat cutting-edge, not just in how they treat their employees (more on this later) or in their gutsy (if questionable) expansion tactics, but also in their efforts to stay relevant.

This is evidenced in such ventures as adding Wi-Fi connections for customers, building Starbucks Entertainment (film production) and Hear Music (music production) and, most recently, partnering with Apple to allow customers to download songs they hear in a Starbucks from iTunes.

As a rule, Starbucks stores are not franchised to private individuals, and the company has no intention to begin doing so.

The mentality has a lot to do with maintaining high company standards from store to store – standards that would be difficult to enforce if they were franchises.

Their “stores” are everywhere,  populated by coffee snobs on both sides of the counter.

Starbucks is indifferent to and beyond the reach of fluctuating economies.

They are accused of everything:

  • market saturation
  • making war on Christmas
  • deliberately writing customers´names wrongly for the baristas´private amusement
  • tax avoidance
  • questionable anti-environmental practices
  • using GMO (genetically modified) products
  • corporate social irresponsibility
  • opening without planning permission
  • not supporting soldiers in the Iraq War
  • allowing handguns to be brought into their US stores
  • supporting same sex marriage
  • unfairing pricing policies where a cup of coffee in one nation is more expensive than in another
  • promoting discussion about race relations
  • anti-competition.

Yet Starbucks — the world’s biggest coffee peddler — keeps on peddling.

Being only a humble barista I will not comment on these controversies as I do not create corporate policy and am not privy to these details, but of course I do read and am aware of how the world perceives Starbucks, whether positively or not.

I will say in Starbucks´defence, based only on my own personal experiences there, that it is an interesting environment to work in for its international mix of both staff and clientele.

Each working day exposes me to another aspect of that thing called Life and I find myself learning something new every day.

Some of the controversies, policies and practices found in the US are not found here in Switzerland or at least have evolved to a more Swiss-defined implementation.

I have heard nothing about negative market strategy here.

Labour disputes were highly discouraged in Switzerland long before Starbucks made its presence known here.

As Starbucks seems to survive economic difficulties wherever it sprouts up, most employees here are simply happy to have a job, especially in a country where foreign qualifications are often considered inferior by Swiss standards.

Thus every Starbucks I have visited in Switzerland seems sprinkled with a fair share of foreign nationals.

Are we receiving the same benefits as our American counterparts?

I am not sure, but I suspect not.

Starbucks seems to have a perennial spot on Forbes list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” but this has little to do with the weekly coffee or tea each “partner” takes home.

Starbucks calls its employees “partners” even though we hardly qualify as such in a true business sense, but the use of such a loaded word is meant to breed our loyalty towards the company.

In America, Starbucks offers an enviable benefits package.

Inspired by the childhood of Chairman Howard Schultz, who, as a boy, watched his father work low-paying jobs and retire with little to show for his life, Schultz wanted something different for employees of his company.

The result is a benefits package given to employees who work a minimum of 20 hours per week that includes health, medical, dental and vision plans, a 401k, and access into Bean Stalk, the company’s employee stock option plan.

If that weren’t already enough, those benefits extend to the opposite and same-sex spouses of these employees.

But either because I am a part-time employee or because Switzerland is not America, I have heard little discussion about these plans.

In St. Gallen no one has complained to us about our red cups and view the “War on Christmas” as much American ado about little.

Yesterday, store managers across Switzerland gathered in Bern, the Swiss capital, and had themselves a Christmas rave ringing handheld bells in the middle of town.

At the Bahnhof we offer a 10% community discount for those organisations that share our train station location, though privately I wish we extended this discount to those folks who in their roles as policemen or soldiers serve their communities on a far deeper level.

I have never seen a handgun inside a store, despite the fact that Switzerland is a heavily armed nation with regular compulsory military service for all Swiss-born males from 18 to 55.

We make no fuss, pro or con, about same sex couples or race relations.

Our general policy towards all:

If you pay, you can stay.

Could our environmental practices be improved at our Swiss stores?


I am no environmentalist, but I do feel we do produce one hell of a lot of trash on a regular basis and the word “recycling” does not seem to pop up much in conversation at work.

But again I may not see all that could be seen because I usually work only 20% of a fulltime work week there.

I do think we could do more towards the homeless in St. Gallen but I have been told that homeless shelters will not accept food beyond its due date, so what could feed the hungry instead is wasted.

My own private war against homelessness is limited to giving Bruno, the local street beggar, coffee whenever I see him.

What I do see is regular stress from management to staff.

Directives arrive from Zürich, as well as semi-irregular store inspections, that are strongly enforced to heavily promote our ever-changing assortment of products.

One week, we must heavily promote tumblers.

The next week, promote the coffee beans.

Ad infinitum.

The regular partners have been brainwashed into believing that their very self-worth hinges upon their sales performance.

And management encourages this.

Starbucks generates profits.

Our coffee is not 50-cent diner coffee, but rather highly expensive beverages of exotic quality.

Staff is constantly under pressure to produce as many sales as possible in the shortest amount of time as possible.

Every week our duties seem to increase but pressure still remains on completing these duties as quickly as possible.

My favourite contradiction I witness is the policy of selling, selling, selling right up to the last moment before door closing, then employees should have all other duties involved with running a cafe completed, exiting the premises ideally mere moments later.

Constant pressure from both management and clientele does not make for a psychologically happy environment despite what Forbes would have you believe.

In both stores where I work we operate on overlapping shifts, which should mean harmonious transfer of duties and responsibilities between the shifts.

The key word is “should”.

Tension and turmoil reign rampant and all is often not well in the relations between the personnel of the shifts.

Which, when the wife asks why I won´t work more hours than I do, is why I am happy to be involved as little as possible in these inter-shift civil war struggles.

Bluntly put, as long as the supplies I need to do my job are available I try to remain neutral to the politics that rage around me.

And will simply say that there is room for improvement…

(In fairness, I could improve as well and become a better barista, if I so desired.)

Starbucks was named for the first mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Its logo: a bare-breasted mermaid which has, over time, developed a degree of modesty that would please the Pequod’s first mate.

Initially, her hair covered her breasts, then they were cut out of the frame altogether.

The mermaid is the only thing modest about Starbucks.

That, and your humble barista.

(Statistical sources: Wikipedia / Ross Bonander)









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