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I Live in Fear Jay Will Quit Starbucks

This coffee shop traffic cop keeps order and stays cordial

Patrons waiting in line at Starbucks

The Starbucks in my Manhattan office building is pretty much like most others. It’s big. At least it feels big because the ceilings are high. It’s a busy location, so it always looks a bit unkempt. The staff are in constant motion taking and filling orders and during peak hours don’t always have time to clean up after messy customers. During the morning rush, the milk bar is covered in Splenda packets torn open in haste, used stirrers that missed the trash receptacle, and a fine coating of sugar, cinnamon, and spilled milk, whole, nonfat, and 2 percent.

Thanks to the Starbucks app, I don’t have to go near the milk bar’s detritus. I don’t have to wait on line to order. (New Yorkers have been waiting on line and not in line since before the internet.) I know exactly when during my morning subway journey to place my order so that once I arrive, my morning beverage of choice is usually waiting for me. It is hot. It is prepared exactly the way I like it. I pay a hefty sum for it.

New Yorkers love convenience. Anything that speeds us on our way is welcome. That’s one of the reasons we get frustrated with tourists. We’re walking down the street, swiftly and with purpose; tourists are gawking, walking slowly, and using their phones as either a camera or a map. They get in our way. Given our focused and speedy nature, many New Yorkers embrace the Starbucks app.

Each morning when I exit the subway station and walk the seven steps to Starbucks, I am joining a crowd that has the same bright idea. We are on our way to work. We have not yet had caffeine. We are cranky. We are in a hurry. And we want the Starbucks we ordered in advance. Now. Ten to 20 of us wait in a confined space several rows deep. Patiently. Quietly. Just like the fire drills in elementary school when we were quickly admonished if we spoke or misbehaved. We are good soldiers awaiting our fix. This aggressive, in-a-hurry, easily frustrated group of people — did I mention we haven’t yet had our caffeine? — has been temporarily transformed into an eager yet compliant and orderly swarm of humanity. We are all waiting for that personal nod from Jay that our order is ready.

Jay looks to be in his late 20s or early 30s and of some Asian descent. Without his Starbucks apron, he’d easily pass as a hipster. Average height and average weight, he sports round, dark-rimmed glasses, facial hair, sometimes a plaid shirt, and always a slouchy beanie covering his longish hair. If I saw him in one of Brooklyn’s newly gentrified neighborhoods, I might expect him to brew his own beer, make his own pickles, and be able to opine intelligently about the pros and cons of at least 10 different brands of beard wax.

Most Starbucks have a rack on which they place orders ready to be picked up. During the morning rush, this Starbucks does not. The volume of mobile orders is so big that there is not enough space on any racks. Instead, a large counter had to be allocated from a workspace usually used by staff for prep. Beverages and the occasional food item are delivered to the counter in a continuous stream from different staff members. Jay presides over the counter, putting the finishing touches of sleeve and stopper on hot drinks, straws with the cold ones. Jay sees every order on the counter. Jay sees every customer.

Like an air traffic controller, Jay’s keen and warm eyes are in constant motion. He surveys who just walked in and who has been waiting patiently for their order. He sees the items ready to be picked up. The key to Jay’s success in this role — and what is so unexpected in this city of 8 million coffee-slurping souls — is that Jay knows the name and usual order of almost everyone there. As he scans back and forth between crowd and counter, he is playing a mental match game between customer and order so he can pair them up, get them on their way, and make room for the never-ending stream of new orders.

The key to Jay’s success in this role — and what is so unexpected in this city of 8 million coffee-slurping souls — is that Jay knows the name and usual order of almost everyone there.

“Here you go, Carol,” as he passes a cup to a waiting customer. “Ed, here’s your bagel. Your drink should be up shortly,” he says to another as he hands them a small bag. Most of the time, Jay makes direct eye contact. If it’s particularly busy, he is surveying the crowd while he talks to you and hands you your order. He is always alert. He often smiles. It is a bright and genuine smile.

I know the drill. I enter. I never get too close to the counter because my order might not be ready. I do know, however, that all I have to do is make eye contact with Jay. That is enough. He knows I’m there. He knows without looking if my hot grande Americano with extra soy milk is on the counter yet. If it is, he will hand it to me as soon as he has registered my presence with a friendly, “Here ya go, Matt.”

Sometimes it’s not yet ready. If Jay sees that I have been waiting more than a few minutes, he will leave his post briefly to scurry to where the baristas are furiously preparing drinks, pick up whatever is waiting for his counter, and inquire about my order. He comes back either with it in hand or a “They’re working on it now” update. I don’t know that everyone gets this treatment. I think part of the reason is that I speak to everyone who works there. I know most people’s names, or at least what they have chosen for their nametags, which I say when greeting or thanking them.

I remember when Jay started working at this location. It was before mobile ordering got popular and I spent more time in the store. I would usually come in twice a day and, because I try to get to know the names of the staff, was often greeted with a “Hey, Matt” simply by walking in the door. Jay was happy to jump on the bandwagon. He was solicitous when I came in, energetic. I half expected a high-five from him.

When mobile ordering launched, it was not presided over by any one individual. There was a small ledge on which orders were lined up — no rack or counter space. It was almost an afterthought, and regular customers knew to sneak a peek at the ledge and grab their order if they spied it there. Once mobile ordering took off, however, they started using the counter. Then they put Jay in charge. He has never left that post.

One day Jay did not have his glasses on. I noticed and asked him about it. It wasn’t busy, so he took a rare pause from scanning and scurrying to tell me how he left them on his nightstand, and because he doesn’t need them all the time, he sometimes forgets to put them on in the morning. We chatted for a few moments about what he could and could not see. He handed me my coffee and went back to his post.

It’s not just me. Jay knows virtually everyone who comes through the door picking up a mobile order. By name. By regular order. He greets everyone. I don’t know how he does it. If he doesn’t recognize someone, maybe a nonregular, he will ask their name. Sometimes he already knows their order is on the counter, that matching algorithm in his head constantly running, and Jay will hand it to them without hesitation. He knows exactly where on the counter it is. I like watching these people and the surprise on their faces; Jay didn’t know them yet seemed to have already been expecting them.

The high volume of mobile orders would easily choke another location and its staff. But not here. With Jay in charge, everything runs quickly and smoothly. The normal state of near anxiety with which New Yorkers operate slows down for a moment here. It is the calm before the storm of their coming workday. And, most importantly, it all runs with a personal touch. With Jay’s personal touch.

I think everyone wants to be a regular somewhere, a place “where everybody knows your name.” You want a place where when you walk in, they ask, “The usual?” For me, it’s the Starbucks near work, and it’s Jay in particular. I don’t know what I’ll do if he ever leaves.

Matthew Grob headshot

Matt is a coffee-swilling, born and bred New Yorker. When not spending time worrying about First World problems, he is multifaceted, like a gemstone. If you hold him up to the light at a certain angle, you might be able to see your reflection. If you do, there will be six more weeks of winter.
Greater New York Mensa | Joined 1996