Barista to Businesswoman: What I Learned Behind the Coffee Bar

As promised in this post, I’m officially publishing one of the “scary” posts in my queue!


I’m putting a pretty big secret out into the world by writing this post, but I think I’m far enough past it to write about it. The secret? I worked as a Starbucks barista when I couldn’t find a full-time job in my field. My freelancing hours weren’t enough, so I picked up the barista job. Now that I’m in my full-time position, I’ve heard that a lot of other over-qualified people have had to take jobs with less pay and less prestige during the bad economy. But you know what? I decided to give my best to that job, even if it was a temporary bump in my road to success.

In addition to learning to make some of my favorite menu items, I also learned a lot about dealing with people. The ability to make observations about people has been a transferable skill for my current job, where I deal with a lot of different personalities and perspectives. Starbucks helped me understand people’s buying habits, priorities, and often, their whole outlook on life. When you serve the person that is always on their cell, and just slides their card across the counter, it says something about them. What about the person who comes in every day to work on their laptop? You learn to take visual and audio cues differently, and process the information at a much faster pace. Business is the same way… can you figure out who’s the most senior person in the room? Can you tell by the tone of voice when the negotiation is going sour?

You wouldn’t think it’s a great networking opportunity, but I did manage to make quite a few connections. The craziest connection I made was with a VP at one of the largest technology firms in the world. She came in every day, impeccably dressed, and always in a hurry. She ordered the same coffee, the same way, and one of two pastry options, every day. She walked fast, talked little, and moved in and out with efficiency like you’ve never seen. Half the store was scared of her, but I wanted to be her. I did manage to talk to her a few times, and found out a little about her job and rank through these conversations. I talked with a fellow under-employed co-worker (she had a nursing degree but couldn’t get hired in CA) about somehow finding a way to network with Ms. VP. The day before I gave notice at Starbucks, I gave her a hand-written note that said, “I know this might seem a little strange, but from what you’ve said about yourself, you seem to be exactly where I would like to be at the peak of my career. I know you’re very busy, but would you have time to let me buy you a cup of coffee? If not, I completely understand, and I won’t bring it up again. If you do have time, please feel free to contact me at when it is convenient. Thanks, Ashley.” I was shocked, amazed, and excited to receive an email from her that evening, offering to set up an hour to meet! On the day of the meeting, I showed up with her coffee and pastry, just as she always ordered. She turned out to be very down-to-earth, and gave me an open invitation to contact her any time. My crazy networking risk paid off, and I’ve never regretted writing that note. I was also able to have several discussions about advancement into the corporate level with our district manager, who was happy to send along my resume if a corporate position opened up.

Finally, I learned a lot about managing people, inventory, and cash when I became a shift supervisor after 2 months as a barista. Starbucks is such a fast-paced environment, so every decision is spur of the moment. You can try to plan, but every minute brings on a new situation. And, when you’re in charge, you can’t freak out… even if you’re 10 drinks behind, you spill a drink all over yourself (thus putting you 11 drinks behind), one staff member is due for their Federally-mandated lunch break, AND there’s no milk in the fridge beneath the espresso machine. Again, what can be transferred to business? When the big presentation that’s due tomorrow isn’t finished, do you cry or pull an all-nighter to finish it? When you stand in front of an important client for the biggest pitch of the year, are you shaking or confident? Can you juggle 20 projects with the same deadline? I thought I could do a lot of these things before, but being front-and-center with customers who haven’t had their coffee yet and a staff that’s been up since 4:00 am teaches you a thing or two about yourself!

So now you know… my deep, dark, professional secret was the time I spent as a barista at Starbucks. But you know what? I learned a lot about myself, customer service, managing people and priorities, and how to make a great latte! What more could I ask for from a bridging-the-gap job?

3 thoughts on “Barista to Businesswoman: What I Learned Behind the Coffee Bar

  1. Sounds like you made the best out of what could have been a very discouraging situation…I don’t think you should feel ashamed or want to hide this experience at all. In fact, I’m impressed…so many people I know just wallow in underemployment or unemployment…my advice would be to take the barista job for sure (heck, food service or retail is definitely on my options list for my year of freelance).


  2. Thanks for the encouragement Angeline! And, if you end up needing to pick up food service or retail, I actually highly recommend Starbucks 🙂 If nothing else, you stay well-caffeineted!


  3. Pingback: Transparency and Credibility Part 3 » Consciously Corporate - When business is your life.

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