Pumpkin Spice Panic
It’s a Saturday and the town is full of noise. The line out the door is bustling with chatter. There is a breeze outside, sometimes gusting, but from behind the counter, we can only see little tornados of leaves picking up past the front windows.
I stand at the till—there is no time to sit. Our customers are bundled in flannel jackets and sweaters while we run around in tank tops and shorts, fans blowing the hot air around the cramped room. Order slips stack up on the counter behind me and my coworkers rush to complete them: coffees, macchiatos, and lattes alike—sandwiches, quiche, and baked goods too.
I ask the woman at the counter how her day is. On a slower day, I would listen to her answer, but today I’m just stalling. An extra ten seconds goes a long way.
Metal steaming canisters bury Madi behind the bar as she pumps out drinks. Brie runs past me, juggling three boxes and a latte. Jade creates a mountain of dishes in the sink between making sandwiches and soup and salads.
I am covering for Brenn—and extremely grateful I don’t normally work Saturdays.
To make things worse, my bosses decide right now is the best time to bring in our new shipment of supply. In the small kitchen, we trip over boxes on the floor. My boss thumps a glass bottle onto the counter with the label: pumpkin spice.
As autumn graces our sights with falling leaves and the incessant pouring of rain, what could bring you fall-time spirit better than a pumpkin spice latte?
In every cafe and coffee shop at this time of year, there is one fear that strikes every young barista: the demand for pumpkin spice this, pumpkin spice that and the look of disappointment on the faces that hear “SOLD OUT!”
I don’t understand the craze. Pumpkin spice is not the best thing on the menu. A warm, foamy chai with cinnamon is more my speed. Or why not try a London fog with a pump of lavender syrup? I suppose it does get you into the holiday spirit, but what about a shaken oat espresso instead?
But the chaos of coffee shops goes deeper than pumpkin spice demands.
Between unrealistic expectations of management and flirtatious thirty-year-old customers, teenage baristas put up with a lot more than is fair for a minimum wage job.
When I applied at Java World in the spring of 2021, I was ecstatic. Finally, a paying job with consistent weekend hours—at least that’s what I thought I was getting into.
My first day was chaotic.
Right away, I was put on till to count change at the drive thru. Having had the worst grades in math, I was immediately overwhelmed.
I wasn’t given an apron so I kept a ratty, stained hand towel in my pocket to “dry” my hands every time I washed them. No one told me there was bleach in the wash bucket, so by the end of the day, my hands were cracked and burning.
The next day, my eyes teared as the senior barista explained over the phone that I was too slow and needed to learn how to count change effectively. Also, I needed to be faster at washing my hands.
At the time, I thought this was just how work is—you have to earn your place. I kept my mouth shut and carried on through the day. But it continued for months. When I joked and laughed about my experiences with friends and family and they stared back at me with horrified expressions, I began to realize that this was not normal.
I thought about Starbucks, how my friends that worked there were treated fairly (certainly by comparison). But when I came across my friend Sarah—in tears in her car during her break—I couldn’t believe it was like this everywhere. Because even though she has requested time off for her anniversary months in advance, she was still scheduled. And it wasn’t the first time.
Another friend, Brenn, who had worked at Duncan’s Coffee on the Moon for a handful of years, explained how it was no different there. Her boss let the doors open to people that made her uncomfortable, and when she had surgery on her achilles’ and couldn’t walk, she was fired.
When I started to make drinks a couple months into Java, they would only let me on the bar when it was slow. They didn’t think I could keep up in a rush, but I hadn’t been given the chance to try yet.
One morning, I arrived for the opening shift and walked in to my boss lecturing Courtenay about a toonie he had found in the quarters tray. Courtenay had been working at Java World for six years and had never had any problems counting change, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He didn’t stop his rant when I came in. I washed my hands, tied my apron around my waist, and awkwardly washed the dishes until he was finished—about five minutes later.
When these lectures started happening more frequently to me and the other girls, I decided that it wasn’t worth staying.
I quit at the end of the summer. I knew there was no way I could live with the stress of first year university and this job.
I was devastated to leave Java and the friends I made there, but it felt like I was being released from a jail sentence.
For the following year, I worked in a grocery store deli. It was a nice change of pace, but I missed making dumb, overly complicated and sugary drinks (like a blended iced matcha with chocolate sauce for one of our regulars).
Beans, foam, and pumpkin spice aside, it was about making someone happy. There’s nothing better than sharing a smile when you remember someone’s drink.
I believed that it was my job to make someone a drink that they just couldn’t make at home. Those few good customers reinforced that belief and I missed them. Working at a grocery store, I was a statistic without a face. At the coffee shop, I had a purpose
I always thought about my time at Java fondly, despite the circumstances. Like a toxic affair, I still really loved the job.
The first time someone asked me to make a pumpkin spice latte, it wasn’t even autumn yet.
Three pumps of pumpkin spice syrup into the 16oz cup. Nutty espresso beans are ground—press and pull the shot. Smooth, beige bubbles of creme spill from the spouts of the espresso machine and into the curved metal shot glass.
This is the perfect shot—not too watery, and not too dark.
Oat, almond, soy, or regular cow’s milk—steamed to 70°C—is poured with gentle care as it flowers into a creamy design.
Ready to serve with a sleeve, I place it in the customer’s hands. They take the latte with a smile and rush back to their car.
In the deli, I started seeing old regulars from Java World and I yearned for that personal connection between customer and server.
In the fall of 2022, I decided to go back to the barista life (but not to Java World).
When I was hired at The Tin Cup Espresso Bar, the air in the room was different. I had been free, but it felt wrong.
I was at first uneasy, unsure, and untrusting.
At Java World, I had only made drinks when it was quiet, but two weeks into the Tin Cup, I was a pro. I showed them how I steamed the milk and poured my shots, and even though it had been a year since I had been trained, it all came back.
In three weeks, I could make three drinks at once with a breakfast sandwich on the stove: steam the milks, pour the espresso, steep the tea bag, flip the eggs.
It came to me with ease.
And I was appreciated there.
I started remembering every regular’s drink. I could recognize someone by the brim of their hat or the tufts of their hair as they walked past the front windows.
Some were as simple as a coffee with double cream while others were more detailed—three iced caramel macchiatos with oat milk and an extra shot of espresso (but two of them only half sweet).
The reason why the Tin Cup was so great was because it gave us freedom. We cleaned, ate, and worked when we needed to. If we wanted to take a break, we could, and if not, we were still paid for the hour. We were happy to do extra cleaning without being asked, because it felt like what we did mattered.
The freedom encouraged us to work harder because we enjoyed ourselves and really cared about the work.
But things started to change—almost as though the owners changed their minds about how they wanted us to work. It felt like they were losing respect for me.
I was into my second year at university when they started scheduling me during class time. I would come in one or two hours after my shift was scheduled to start. My boss asked me where I was, and I would remind them, “My class goes until 1 pm—every Friday.”
I had always told them when my schedule was changing—I included photos of my school schedules and point-form dates and times. There was no excuse for it.
The girls and I would come into the shop in the morning to see notes taped to the fridge. They detailed how if we made one mistake we would be emailed a warning, and if we did it again we would be “terminated.”
“Things are different now,” Madi, who was in her second year working there, would say. “They’re not how they used to be.”
They gave my shifts to new employees, and I started working less and less, even though I had been promoted and had asked for full time through the summer to support me during the school year.
The owners started to pick on new employees and we began to lose staff hired only a few months prior. The baristas stopped wanting to come into work, and the ones that stayed stopped wanting to do anything extra.
Our hearts weren’t in it anymore.
My confidence at work started to fail. I started to stutter and I dropped dishes. I would make drinks wrong after a year of always making them right.
In late August 2023, I took a short vacation. It was just one week, but everything fell apart.
I received a phone call from Jade, the current manager, upset because Madi and Brenn’s hours were cut during a heat wave. The girls had asked to close the Tin Cup early for two days—with no air conditioning, it would have been sweltering behind the counter. Our boss agreed, but without asking, cut their hours in half for the rest of the week because he assumed it would continue to be that hot. I explained that the girls would not be able to pay their rent with their hours cut and requested he change them back. He refused.
Madi quit that night.
And I started to consider quitting too.
When I came back from my week off, I started feeling more apathetic everyday.
A customer’s attitude can make or break your ability to make a sale. In customer service, we’re expected to pretend like the customers are always right. We are expected to know what they want even if they don’t say it. And I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
The expectation to serve customers even after closing hours became a trend. My bosses couldn’t turn people away so I would have to explain, “I’m sorry, we closed at 5:00,” at 5:15.
I became sick of asking what size of drink people wanted, annoyed when people didn’t put away their dishes and garbage, and downright pissed off when a customer asked me what goes into a latte. I never wanted to make another sandwich or latte ever again.
Photo By: Jenaya Shaw
I hated going to work. Every morning, I wanted to cry. My boyfriend dragged me out of bed by my ankles every Sunday at 6 am.
As the leaves turned, the Tin Cup started to get busy again like at the peak of summertime and I knew that the fall would make things worse. Busier hours, crankier staff.
If I was already sick of asking what a customer meant by “regular size” coffee, I think I would have actually lost it if someone was upset by how we made our pumpkin spice lattes.
Old staff from years before were rehired to their previous positions, and all of my friends had quit. My era at the Tin Cup was over.
My last day was September 3, 2023.
I have graduated from the steaming hot hellscape that is working in a coffee shop, but it still haunts me.
Current staff walk the halls of the university and I have to decide to avoid their gaze or smile and own it. I try not to have hard feelings, but it felt like the blessing of the Tin Cup became a curse over the summer.
My biggest struggle is that I still love the job. I love being a barista—I love making coffee.
But it wasn’t worth the heartache and frustration. The stress from how the shops are run turns this love of work into an unbearable enemy. Many of the girls I have worked with also share this sentiment—they love the work but the business management always ruins it.
Taking a break this last month has been healthy for me. Of course, I miss the regulars. I miss seeing my mom coming in for a coffee. I miss having a nice place to study.
Coffee shops are important spaces that bring together all sorts of people: students preparing for an exam, moms and daughters buying smoothies after dance class, grandparents and retired folks visiting with old friends every week.
But it feels like the owners of these shops have forgotten or have never known what it’s like to be the barista—to care about the people we serve.
Even now, when I go into coffee shops I try to be as simple as possible. And when I do ask for a complicated drink, I apologize in advance. When the debit machine doesn’t work, I empathize. When there’s a line, I’m patient.
After my experiences working in coffee shops over the past few years, the only thing I want is to have a space where baristas are respected and can love their job. Eventually, I hope to invest in a space of my own, so when someone asks me if I own the place, I can proudly say yes.
Maybe then, I won’t hate pumpkin spice lattes so much.
Jenaya is a multi-genre writer and artist in her third year as a Creative Writing student. She spends her free time building a portfolio of tattoo designs and dreams of studying in Australia and Taiwan, publishing novels and tattooing.