Mom & Pop Coffee ShopJuly 13th, 2009 at 14:22
Unschooled and free-schooled kids, required at an earlier age than most to start charting their own life course (at least in terms of educational direction), tend to become more entrepreneurial as adults and less inclined to work for “the man” as they say. I have not seen statistics proving that out, but certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence. It certainly seems to be playing out in my own kids’ lives (both unschooled during normally high school years), with my 23-year-old son Eric a year into a small business venture, and my 19-year-old daughter Emma two years out from finding her first job at a small woman-owned café in the neighborhood.
Emma, I recall, had just turned seventeen when she started her initial job hunt. Some of her friends already were working as baristas at Starbucks and other chain coffee places, but none of them were having good experiences. A consistent issue was with what I would call “the governance process” at these corporate-run businesses. Who were the decision-makers, what role did the worker-bee baristas have in that process to at least give feedback, if not be decision-makers themselves.
At Starbucks there seemed to be the issue with shifts that were always too short and disconnected, making it hard to build any kind of cohesive weekly schedule for school and whatever else in your life while trying to get your work hours in. Rather than being able to sit down (in a circle of equals) with the rest of the store staff and come to consensus on a shift schedule that better met the local staff needs, they were instead on the bottom of a hierarchy with mandates on shifts coming down from corporate decision-makers that the local store staff had no access to.
Emma, on the other hand, was determined to find a work environment on a more human scale where she would have more of an opportunity to participate in the “governance” of the store. Checking out all the neighborhood coffee places, she focused in on a funky little one called “Perks”, and chatting with the young baristas there, that it was owned by a woman named Gayle and was a nice place to work. Emma filled out an application and went back several times to follow up and after several months finally got an interview and was hired.
“Perks” differed from Starbucks or Coffee Bean in that besides the typical range of coffee and smoothie type drinks and pastries; they also served a small selection of Panini, Crepes, soups and other cooked foods. This made it a bit more challenging since it was a small place and the barista had to double as a short order cook.
I remember it was frustrating at first for Emma to get up to speed (literally) on the job, initially having trouble blending the drinks and grilling the Panini fast enough. It was about six weeks into the work before she started to feel like she had the routine down to an acceptable pace.
The big benefit for Emma was that being such a small place with a small staff, she had the opportunity to learn every aspect of the business, including ordering, stocking, cleanup, and cashing out. Gayle the owner would also have regular meetings with her small staff and took their suggestions on improvements in the work process. Toward the end of her year there she was even doing a few shifts as the manager (of a staff of one other) and helping with the training of the newer staff.
I recall my own experience some thirty years earlier at age twenty working as a cook at “The Cottage Inn”, a family owned restaurant in my home town of Ann Arbor where I worked side by side with one of the owners in the kitchen and was treated more like a colleague than just another worker-bee. Besides learning how to prepare and cook food and clean a kitchen from top to bottom, I learned the basic “critical path” skills necessary to have a table’s food all come up about the same time (by analyzing the order and starting the items that took the longest first), skills that would serve me well later in my project management work. Being comfortable and effective working in a kitchen is a useful and self-esteem-building skill for just about anyone, and certainly was for me and for my daughter.
I cannot say too much about how important it is for an older youth or young adult to have the experience of being able to work side by side with adults in a collegial environment where the young person can demonstrate their mastery and earn the respect of those adults as peers, and not be seen as the lowest strata of a large hierarchy, topped by remote and never-met decision-makers. Particularly so when most conventional activities – school, team sports, camps and lessons – that older youth partake in today, involve adults only in the superior role of instructor or coach, rather than as peers.
Life takes on a much more promising and positive complexion when, as a young person, you reach a point when you are no longer intimidated interacting older adults in real-world situations. My daughter Emma’s confidence and self-esteem soared during that year working at “Perks”, earning the respect of the owner Gayle and her mostly older colleagues.
With that experience under her belt, Emma researched, found, and now had the previous experience on her resume to get her next job working for another woman-owned business, “The Baker”, a very popular bakery restaurant. This time she was waiting on table, a challenging job mixing organizational and people skills along with physical stamina. With tips, she was taking home some real money, twice as much she was making as a barista. Waiting table and later as a manager there as well, every day she would have to learn to provide consistently good customer service, including dealing effectively with difficult customers. Now just about to turn twenty and full of confidence, she continues to this day to be a respected staff member, including manager most Sundays, at “The Baker”.