I Worked At Starbucks. Here's What I Learned About It

Starbucks regulars have no doubt wondered what it is like to work behind the counter as a barista. Of course, there's plenty to remember, and it can get a little stressful at times, but it is also a delicious and enjoyable job. The baristas behind the counter at Starbucks tend to be very kind, compassionate coworkers. Between making lattes and shaking Refreshers, you learn about each other's lives and share stories and inside jokes to pass the time.

Though my days as a Starbucks barista ended over 10 years ago, I still look back fondly at that time as an opportunity to learn more than I could have ever expected. I gained much more than just friendships with some lovely people. Being a barista taught me how to communicate effectively and clearly with people and make connections in small moments. Plus, today, it sure helps me navigate that menu board with a fair amount of ease.

Baristas can see you at the drive through menu

When you pull up to a Starbucks drive-thru, you may assume that the menu board and speaker are just there for you to view the offerings and select your Starbucks drinks, but that's not entirely true. In reality, the barista on the other end can not only hear you but also see you, thanks to a small camera built into the menu board.

Starbucks places a strong emphasis on creating a personal connection with their guests, which is why being able to see the customer as they're placing an order can be beneficial. It makes the interaction feel more personal, rather than just communicating with a disembodied voice. This also means that whatever embarrassing things you may be doing while looking at the menu can be witnessed by your barista. So the next time you swing through that Starbucks line, remember to smile — because you are on camera.

Leftover pastries are donated

It's not hard to love the drinks at Starbucks. Given so many different options, you fall in love quickly with your favorites, and your palate grows exponentially the longer you work there. But one of my favorite parts of Starbucks is also the pastry case. The next time you order a drink, don't forget to check out those sweet treats beside the cash registers. The lemon loaf is one of my absolute favorites. Unfortunately, though, not everyone knows how tasty these treats are. As a result, at the end of the day, there are often a lot of pastries left over.

Often, stores will allow baristas to take some treats home to their families. Then, whatever is left over gets donated to local causes. In speaking with a barista recently, I found this is still the case, but the donation recipients vary from store to store. Sometimes, it will be a food bank; other times, those pastries go to other charity establishments with missions that help people find something to eat.

The Strawberries and Cream Frappuccino is one of the heavier drinks

Sometimes, the appearance of drinks can be misleading, resulting in customers who believe they are making a lighter choice when they aren't. A common example is the Strawberry Crème Frappuccino from Starbucks. Many people seeking a more delicate option gravitate towards this drink, perhaps perceiving it as a fruit-based beverage. However, the reality is quite different.

The Strawberry Crème Frappuccino is more akin to a strawberry milkshake than a fruit smoothie, making it one of the heavier drinks on the menu. Although it doesn't contain chocolate, it's still quite substantial in terms of calorie content and nutritional value. A venti-sized Strawberries and Cream Frappuccino packs 460 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, 66 grams of carbohydrates, and a whopping 65 grams of sugar. To put this into perspective, the saturated fat content alone accounts for over 55% of the daily recommended intake. If you do find yourself looking for a drink, but one that's still a little on the lighter side with that strawberry flavor, consider a blended strawberry lemonade or an iced tea.

Baristas hate making Frappuccinos

Working at Starbucks, I discovered that there were certain drinks I loved to make, while others were not as enjoyable. For instance, the layering effect in a caramel macchiato made them great fun to create. However, many baristas, including those at my store, often dreaded making the famous Starbucks Frappuccinos.

The process of constructing a Frappuccino is somewhat similar to that of a latte, with a specific number of pumps, milk, and ice. Yet, pouring them can be an entirely different challenge. Regardless of how carefully you handle the syrup, milk, and inclusions, some Frappuccinos have an odd texture, making them messy and difficult to pour into the cup. Additionally, you must apply any drizzles or sprinkles on top.

This entire procedure can be somewhat daunting, and since Frappuccinos are typically made in a separate area from the espresso machine, it might disrupt your workflow. If there are enough baristas on duty, one can focus on making Frappuccinos while another handles the espresso bar. However, when staffing is limited, you may juggle both tasks, adding a layer of complexity to an already demanding job.

The whipped cream is flavored with vanilla syrup

If you've ever ordered a drink with that luscious, pillowy white topping, chances are, you noticed that the whip at Starbucks tastes different than the whipped cream you can pick up from the store. This is because baristas regularly make fresh whipped cream to use in the drinks.

The process is pretty simple and involves whipping cream, CO2 canisters, and flavored syrup. For a basic whipped cream, baristas include several pumps of vanilla syrup with the whipping cream, screw on the top, attach the CO2 canister, and give it some good shakes. Most times, the whips are basic vanilla flavored, but every now and again, a specialty drink comes along that needs some different flavored whip. If you have a store that enables you to experiment a little bit, you may even find some delicious combinations to include on fun drinks specific to an individual store. My location, for example, enjoyed adding toffee nut and mocha syrup to whipping cream to make a deliciously Nutella-flavored topping. It was outstanding on mochas.

Baristas drink coffee all day

Next time you visit a Starbucks, look behind the counter and notice how many drinks seem to be pushed off to the side. There's a good chance these drinks are those of the working baristas. A huge perk I enjoyed while working was free drinks. While on the clock, baristas at Starbucks-owned stores can enjoy as many handcrafted beverages as they want. That includes Frappuccinos, iced teas, mochas, lattes, and anything else you can think of.

As a result, baristas are drinking coffee all day long. It's basically a steady stream of caffeine. And if you're not careful, it can be a little too much. On more than one occasion, I found myself enjoying too much caffeine on a single shift and struggling to fall asleep at night. Even still, with all of these handcrafted dreams, it also means that baristas are some of the best people to ask for drink recommendations. Not only have they tried all of the new stuff, but they've also played with a bunch of different syrup combinations.

Frappuccinos tend to separate quickly

While Frappuccinos can be inconvenient to prepare, they generally come together quickly. However, they also tend to separate just as fast. As a blended beverage, its components — ice, dairy, coffee, and flavorings — have a tendency to separate from one another as the ice melts.

To enjoy the best taste, I recommend you consume your Frappuccino promptly after receiving it, as the separation can make the drink less appetizing. To help maintain the beverage's consistency, you can try swirling it around gently as you drink. This might give you some extra time, but it won't prevent the separation entirely. That's why it's best to drink Frappuccinos soon after they're made. This is also a reason why ordering Frappuccinos via mobile apps might not be the best idea. If you're more than a few minutes from the store, your drink may already start separating by the time you arrive to pick it up, impacting its taste and overall appeal.

The food is mostly frozen

Starbucks is known for its wide range of delicious drinks but also its selection of hot breakfast items. Despite the fresh taste, these delicious items are, in fact, frozen and prepared before arriving at Starbucks stores. The barista's task is to simply remove the frozen sandwich from its packaging and heat it in a toaster oven for a specified amount of time. Once heated, the sandwich is ready for you to enjoy with its enticing aroma and warm, satisfying texture.

This pre-preparation method, however, is the primary reason why customizing the sandwiches can be quite challenging. Since everything is frozen together before cooking, making alterations to the sandwich components becomes nearly impossible. If you wish to remove or substitute any ingredients, you would likely have to do so after the sandwich has been cooked and served.

A separate barista also handles this cooking process (as long as enough people are working). Also, don't be surprised if your breakfast sandwich takes a little while to prepare. In the mornings, orders can create a long queue of sandwiches.

Baristas love making recommendations

Baristas, who receive free drinks while working and spend their entire day surrounded by coffee and tea, are well-versed in the best drinks Starbucks has to offer. Interestingly, some of the most exceptional beverages don't come from the elusive Starbucks secret menu but rather from the imaginative minds of your favorite baristas.

This is why baristas enjoy offering recommendations. I found one of the most satisfying aspects of being a barista is suggesting drinks to customers. I loved advising my customers on the best syrup to add to their beverage or which of the latest concoctions they might enjoy based on their current preferences. Baristas take pride in their knowledge and are always eager to share it with you. So, if you have any questions or concerns about the menu, don't hesitate to ask. Not only will you receive personalized recommendations, but you'll also be allowing the baristas to showcase their expertise and passion for the craft.

Drink recipes follow a pattern

Although the Starbucks menu is extensive, baristas can easily keep track of the recipes thanks to a straightforward drink-making process. In fact, most beverages follow the same basic progression. Syrup pumps for Starbucks hot drinks increase in increments of three, four, or five, while iced drinks require three, four, or six pumps. A useful hack for maximizing your Starbucks experience is ordering an iced venti drink instead of an iced grande, allowing you to enjoy more syrup in your beverage. 

Baristas also follow a similar pattern for espresso shots, with variations of one or two for each size in hot drinks and one, two, and three for iced. That's right: A venti iced espresso drink contains one extra shot of espresso and an added pump of sweetener. Plus, specific scoop sizes are used for the amount of ice included in a Frappuccino, depending on its size. If you're a fan of shaken iced teas or Refreshers, you may have noticed that baristas often use a separate glass to prepare these drinks. This glass features markings indicating the correct proportions for each component.

These standardized methods help ensure that drinks are consistent across different Starbucks locations. While some baristas might occasionally deviate from the standard approach, most adhere to the same methodology they learn during training.

The secret menu is just knowing how to customize drinks

The concept of the secret menu is a strange one. It's this bizarre idea that there is a behind-the-scenes menu that baristas keep close to their chest and don't share with the outside world. In reality, there is no official "secret menu." Rather, it comprises drinks that take customization to the next level and apply it to a specific theme.

These drinks are not listed anywhere for baristas officially, so if you approach a barista and ask for a Butterbeer Frappuccino, for example, there's a very low chance that they will know exactly what you are talking about, let alone how to make it. This can be frustrating for a barista because customers come in expecting one experience based on their perceived perception of the secret menu, but the reality is far different. On the other hand, if you wish to order a secret menu drink you have seen on social media, all you need to do is ask for the drink by explaining what it has in it. It's best to know the base drink and what additions and modifications it needs.

Working the bar can be stressful

Even though there are some absolutely wonderful things about working at Starbucks, it can get slightly stressful. One of the most difficult places to be in the cafe is behind the espresso machine, a position known as the "bar." Here, you are working with the espresso machine to steam milk, pull shots, and assemble hot and iced drinks. It's where most of the action takes place at Starbucks; between the noise, orders, and flowing lines of customers, a lot is happening here.

During hectic times, it's not hard for drinks to get backed up very quickly, and if you don't have quick reaction times or accidentally make drinks incorrectly, things can go south fast. On the other hand, if the cafe is just experiencing a very busy day, there's really no place behind the counter that won't feel at least a little bit stressful. Early morning rushes and lunchtime tends to be some of the busiest moments at Starbucks. During these periods, time moves quickly, but so do you.

Customers get cappuccinos and Frappuccinos confused easily

Of the drinks ordered on a Starbucks menu, Frappuccinos have to be among the most common. Not only do they look quite pretty with all that whipped cream and sweet, delicious additions on top, but they're also quite delectable. Another delightful drink, a cappuccino, is a far less common order at Starbucks. As it happens, I found that most people who ordered these drinks did so by accident. When you would present them with a hot cappuccino made with espresso, steamed milk, and foam, the customer would look at the drink with sheer confusion. In these moments, it would always dawn on me that they intended to order a Frappuccino rather than a cappuccino.

As a barista, you are fighting against a few things here. First of all, the two words sound pretty similar, so if a customer doesn't know the menu well, it's a fairly easy mistake to make. Plus, some gas station chains label their frozen drinks as cappuccinos. This creates quite the confusion for customers when they come into a Starbucks and expect a frozen drink like the one they enjoy at their favorite gas station, only to find out a cappuccino is actually a hot drink.

Baristas share tips

At every Starbucks cash register, you'll find a tip cup, and the app also allows you to leave a tip for your barista after placing an order. These tips may not amount to a significant sum, but they are divided among the baristas working during that time. While I found it may only average around $20 extra per week, tips can be considerably higher during particularly busy periods.

The accumulated tips are tallied each week and then distributed among the hourly working baristas. The division of tips is based on the number of hours each barista worked, but everyone receives the same rate of tip per hour from the collected pool for that week. This system ensures that all baristas are rewarded fairly for their efforts and contributions. Though the tips never made a substantial difference to my overall income, they did serve as a token of appreciation from my customers, and I always appreciated that little boost.