Insane Tales of Baristas Working in Portland's Coffee Shops

coffee shop barista
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

As chipper as they may seem on the outside, your neighborhood barista is probably one of the most tormented souls you interact with on a daily basis. Between their perpetual hangovers, the crippling student loan debt they carry from their liberal arts degree, and the circus of weirdos they’re required to babysit, make no mistake: years of making half-caf single-shot 32oz soy lattes (Did I say soy? I meant almond! Oh no, you have to throw the old one away? Sorry!) is slowly crushing their soul. And although Portland is known to be the big leagues for aspiring baristas who show up from all over the country to step their game up and make a decent living while they’re at it, don’t think the high stakes of the scene mean the folks behind the counter at your local cafe haven’t endured some shit. We surveyed a handful of them and got some juicy stories about the lowest of lows they’ve encountered here in Coffeeland.

The wrong milk becomes a literal shitshow

"It was a busy weekend morning and I was on the espresso machine. I grabbed a new guy who’d only been there a couple weeks and asked him to help steam milk for lattes and such to expedite the process and get people’s drinks out a little faster. I hear a customer asking the girl at the counter to double check and make sure his drink -- a large quad-shot mocha with extra chocolate -- was soy. No problem, right? Well, the new guy is fumbling through the tickets coming down the line, and there’s some confusion over what type of milk he put in this guy’s drink. He added it to the top of two double shots, and we’re so in the weeds that I know having to re-make a drink with all those shots in it will totally ruin us. So I hand the drink off to the guy, assuming the added shots and chocolate will mask the flavor of whatever it’s supposed to taste like and he’ll be on his way.

"I was informed that the drink was NOT soy, and the proof was waiting for me in the bathroom."

Turns out the guy was hanging out for a while doing some work on his laptop. A couple hours or so later I notice him head to the bathroom with a bit more spring in his step than the average person who needs to hit the head. About 20 minutes later he heads back up to the counter to inform me that the drink was NOT soy, and the proof that it wasn’t is waiting for me to deal with in the bathroom. I put duct tape over the door handle and wrote OUT OF ORDER on a piece of cardboard and dealt with it after we closed. I gave serious thought to going to grad school and finding another line of work after that." - Evan, Alberta

Don't trust the yuppies with your Wi-Fi

"I helped open a coffee shop at the bottom of one of those ugly new apartment buildings that developers give cheesedick names like 'The Johnson' or 'Flats on 43rd' or whatever. There were only a few tenants in the building when we moved in, and most of them mooched off our Wi-Fi because Comcast was a month behind in setting up internet for the rest of the building. One of our first regulars was this real pervy guy who would walk by in the morning and only stop in if a girl was behind the counter. He’d sit in the corner on his laptop with a cup of coffee he rarely touched and watch who knows what for hours. One day, I’m pretty sure I heard some porn noises before he was able to plug in his headphones. I moved some tables around to make it so his porn corner was no longer inhabitable, and he stopped coming in as much. We then added a password to our network and he pretty much disappeared.

A couple weeks later we get one of those letters from Comcast saying illegal activity is happening on our network and we need to knock it off or they’ll hand us over to the CIA or whatever. Later that week, another guy who just moved into the building sees porn guy walk by the front door and is like, 'Ugh I hear the most terrible shit coming from that guy’s apartment next door. I don’t know how to tell him to use headphones without being able to look him in the eye ever again.' Just for kicks, we start turning the Wi-Fi off before we close every night. I ask porn guy’s neighbor if the noises have stopped after a few days, and he says it’s almost like the guy completely disappeared. Problem solved I guess?" - Rose, Hawthorne

The unintentional aiding and abetting

"We’re about to close up, and I see this tall skinny guy with a bunch of bad tattoos pacing around the front of our store. He comes in and starts bugging the few customers who are left in the store until I walk over and tell him to take a hike. I’m closing the shop by myself and was trying to get out of there as quickly as possible, but this dude was giving me a really bad feeling. He kept asking me to borrow my phone. I told him no over and over, and finally thought I could strike a deal and promise him to use the phone for a second if he promised me to leave right after. He said that was fair, so I handed him our cordless and told him he had to stay within a few feet of the register. He made a couple calls, the last ending abruptly when he screamed some f-bombs and ran out of the shop.

"This guy used our phone to call his dealer and the cops were onto it."

"I carry on with closing the store until about half an hour later when the cops show up. They say a call was made from our number to a number that was under indictment -- so basically this guy used our phone to call his dealer and the cops were onto it. I just smoked a bowl in the back and was freaking out because I couldn’t remember if I put it away or not -- this was back before it was legalized. I told them about the shady dude who used the phone, and luckily they believed me after I described him. I guess they’d seen him lurking around Pioneer Square earlier, so I assume they just went back there and nabbed him." - Keith, Downtown

The mystery of the $2 bills

"The store I used to work at was pretty close to a church that had AA meetings, so we’d get a small rush of that crowd every now and then before the meetings. Our boss was on vacation and forgot to stock us up on change, so we put up a sign asking for small bills. One of our regulars was a dancer at a popular club that’s known for stocking their ATM and bar with $2’s, and she offered to sell us a bunch one day. A lot of customers got weirded out when I handed them a stack of $2’s as change, for obvious reasons, I guess, so I started sandwiching them between other bills so they wouldn’t notice unless they counted. One of the AA guys came in for a small coffee, paid with a $20, and I jammed a bunch of the $2’s between a pair of fives. He walked off and that was that.

"The thing with regulars is that you don’t really miss them when they’re gone until you see them a while later and wonder where they’ve been. Well, I ran into the guy at a strip club a few months after that, and he was not in good shape. I asked him why I hadn’t seen him at the shop anymore, and he told me his girlfriend lost her mind when she found a bunch of $2’s in his wallet one night. He said he couldn’t remember where they came from, but she assumed they came from a strip club. He then took them to a strip club and got 'biblically shitfaced,' as he put it. I offered to give him a ride home right then and there, but his turn for a lap dance was up so he walked off with a stripper and I have not seen the guy since then." - Karen, North Portland

Absolutely not the next foodie trend

"As goes the neighborhood, I’ve watched my shop get overrun with the kind bougie new-age people that make shopping at Whole Foods the most painful experience ever. This one regular would always come in and ask us about the nit-pickiest details of our food -- whether or not the tomatoes in the soup were organic, the washing method of our single origin beans -- and obviously this woman was gluten-free for no good reason. It turns out she was pregnant for most of the time when I first started noticing her, because she resurfaced a month later with a baby strapped to her chest in some kind of handmade sash she bought for $200 off Etsy. This woman was always bugging us about our alternative milks, none of which were up to her standards.

"This was the most unsanitary thing anyone has ever asked me to do as a barista."

"She asked for a latte one day, and before I could ask her if she wanted to give our hemp milk a look she started to slide a mason jar of off-white fluid across the counter. It was breast milk. It took everything inside me to suppress the urge to jump into traffic and politely tell her that this was the most unsanitary thing anyone has ever asked me to do in my long life as a barista. She was pissed, and I haven’t seen her since then. Good riddance!" - Steve, Kerns

Next time, leave the dog at home

"For some reason, people in Portland think it’s OK to bring their dog into places if they’re only going to be a few minutes. If you’re reading this, take note: it’s NOT OK to bring your dog into restaurants, and here’s why. Some lady brought her Border Collie puppy into my shop while I was still training, and everyone thought it was way too cute to kick out on the spot like we normally do. It was a busy Sunday morning shift -- I was stuck running dishes and being the lackey for most of the day, and didn’t want people to think I was a monster for kicking out this cute little puppy that was basically just sitting in the corner doing nothing.

"If you’re reading this, take note: it’s NOT OK to bring your dog into restaurants."

"Apparently no one noticed the thing leave a dump on the way out, because a few minutes later a guy leaves with an Americano in one hand and his phone he’s staring at in the other. He steps on the mess and slips immediately, spilling his hot coffee all over his pants and his phone. Guess who had to clean all this up? DON’T BRING YOUR DOG INTO COFFEE SHOPS. EVER." - Lauren, Richmond/Sunnyside

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Pete Cottell has been on the barista grind (zing!) for 8 years now and could easily fill several lengthy tomes with harrowing stories from front lines of the caffeination war. Follow him at @vanifestdestiny for even more complaining about the life of a service industry drone.