Starbucks baristas reveal what they think the company needs to fix

Starbucks is facing backlash from its baristas who say that they’re overworked, understaffed, and underpaid.

While the coffee giant has recently launched an initiative to improve customer service and better support in-store staff, many baristas say that Starbucks has refused to address underlying issues. They say that they’re more strained than ever due to an uptick in orders coming from the coffee giant’s mobile app and drive-thru, as well as an ever-changing menu of hard-to-make drinks.

Business Insider spoke with a dozen current and former Starbucks workers under the condition of anonymity in an attempt to get to the bottom of what in-store employees think Starbucks needs to fix. Starbucks says they are talking with partners, the company’s term for retail employees, to improve work conditions.

“Over the years, one of the strengths of our business has continued to be the connection we have with our partners,” a Starbucks spokesperson told Business Insider. “We know we are not perfect, but we are regularly engaged in discussions with the over 160,000 partners who wear the green apron in the U.S and continuously work to make their experience even better and more valuable. We know when we exceed the expectations of our people, they — in turn — exceed the expectations of our customers. To us, every voice matters.”

Here’s what Starbucks workers believe the company needs to fix, in their own words.

“It’s frowned upon if I stop to have a conversation with a regular.”

“They’d rather us be machines. They are, whether they like it or not, a fast food chain with lousy food that I am required to push on people.

When I started in 2010, we had partners who had been there for 8+ years. The customers were like family. We had seen their children grow. Now it’s frowned upon if I stop to have a conversation with a regular I haven’t seen in a while. …

It has kept me alive, to be perfectly honest, to know that so many people have been touched by conversations with me. And it has sapped just about every last ounce of my energy to know that I am now a hindrance to the [S]tarbucks (corporate America) agenda.” — Current Starbucks employee of seven years

(“I think a key differentiator for Starbucks is that emotional connection our partners have to what we stand for, and the fact that we are in the business of human connection,” CEO Kevin Johnson told Business Insider in an interview in March.)

“We’re running around like crazy.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that we’re the most important part of the company… I almost wish they would read that same letter they read to us, to the board, so they could know why they need to change the pay scale. If we’re the most important part of the company, and our connection is that important, [they shouldn’t be] paying as little as they can get away with paying. …

“Managers say… we need to do a better job at connecting. Obviously, we’re not connecting because we have mobile here, and we have drive through here, and we’re running around like crazy.” — Current Starbucks employee of more than five years working in Florida

(Starbucks has said that the company is working to provide better solutions for mobile ordering, and that mobile should not prevent workers from establishing an “emotional connection” with customers.)

“It’s a cult that pays $US9 per hour.”

“At first, you watch all these videos about how wonderfully you’re treated and all the great benefits, your manager will tell you that your store is like another home, your partners are your family, and you should always feel comfortable there. First Taste, the initial coffee tasting, definitely makes you feel like you’re valued and welcomed. It all also feels genuine and unique when you’re going through it.

The problem is that it’s not unique. Managers literally have a guide on how to onboard new hires in such a way that they learn to love the brand and feel valued. The First Taste experience is not a unique experience between you and your store manager — it is a carefully detailed and structured activity with a checklist and steps the manager follows, given to them by corporate.

Every single thing you experience that makes you love the company is designed to manipulate you into doing so. It’s not a company, it’s a cult that pays $US9 per hour.” — Former Starbucks employee, who recently left the company after working in Florida for roughly a year

“My team wants to be able to afford rent and groceries.”

“The company tries to sell the total pay package to partners, but that does not speak to the younger generation which is what most of our teams primarily consist of. My team wants to be able to afford rent and groceries.

The company offers free college, which at a base level is an amazing benefit, but I can guaran-damn-tee you that if you had asked partners if they could have the option for higher pay or the college achievement program, somewhere around 90% of all partners would have asked for increased pay.” — Current Starbucks employee

(According to Glassdoor data, baristas are paid $US9.50 an hour on average. Starbucks emphasises that the chain offers benefits beyond hourly pay, including college tuition assistance, 401(k) matching, and the ability to purchase Starbucks stock through the Bean Stock program.)

“The stress is overwhelming.”

“It’s exhausting being the only one on the floor and having to do register and hot bar and customer support while you’ve got a medium-volume drive-thru and your [drive-thru] person is taking orders, paying people out AND running cold bar.

Nothing gets cleaned. Nothing gets stocked. We’re getting screamed at by customers for not being fast enough so we try to go fast and we mess up the money or we mess up the drinks and then we get yelled at for messing up the money and messing up the drinks. It’s all incredibly tiresome. Just ONE more person on the floor in the afternoons and evenings would be incredible. …

“There is no customer connection when we’re as busy AND understaffed as we are. Again, put another person on the floor and we can talk. I’ve had people call the store to complain that we seemed rushed and upset. The stress is overwhelming. A four-hour shift is too exhausting at this point because there’s nobody to help us.” — Current Starbucks employee

(A representative from Starbucks said staffing concerns were overblown and that regional leaders haven’t seen a need to make changes.)

“Starbucks demands that we do several tasks at once.”

“Most stores are understaffed and I believe that’s the way corporate wants it. Store managers would rather be shorthanded rather than pay a penny of overtime. …

As far as connecting with customers, what do they want? Do they want to ring as many customers through as fast as possible (yes!) or do they want us to chat (yes!). Impossible to do both at the same time.

[Customers] want their latte 30 seconds ago and they’re irate when they have to wait or wait while we’re making small talk. The glares we get are not friendly ones.

Starbucks demands that we do several tasks at once so how can it be expected to ‘connect with customers.’ When I’m making drinks I barely make eye contact with customers when handing off drinks, I’m just calling names out.” — Current Starbucks employee from Illinois

“It’s hard to tell the truth.”

“Starbucks has this website called ‘partner perspectives.’ [I]t’s basically a website where they survey their partners about their experiences.

I and so many other baristas don’t feel secure in our [roles] enough to tell them how we actually feel because it is not anonymous. You have to log in with your partner numbers and name and it’s just hard to tell the truth when you don’t know how they could retaliate.” — Current Starbucks employee

(Starbucks executives say that they encourage in-store workers’ feedback through a number of platforms.)

“Starbucks has a tendency to use people up and spit them out.”

“Even four years ago, the corporate mantra at Starbucks was heading in the path your recent article was touching on. ‘The customer is always right, even when they are obviously wrong.’ …

Stores were being slowly, carefully de-staffed, creating real problems during peak business hours. Customers would comment on the hurried, frantic pace behind the counter, and managers were instructed to respond with a cheery retort and then berate the staff to work faster with less space, more products, and smaller time windows. Timing devices were added to the drive-thru lanes so that everybody could see how long it was taking orders to move out of the window. …

For all the bluster and braggadocio, Starbucks has a tendency to use people up and spit them out. Fair compensation, appropriate staffing, and true cooperate support would be wise problems to fix BEFORE attacking other problems that have been solely created by those three shortcomings.” — Former Starbucks employee who worked for the company for three and a half years in Kansas

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