Coffee, Ho‘ohana, and Syncopated Rhythm

I love watching work done well.

This morning I met a prospective client at a Starbucks known as one of the busiest ones here in Hawai‘i, and at their busiest hour: the 7am to 9am coffee crunch time.

Come to think of it, with all the traveling I do, and all the coffee I addictively drink, it may well be the busiest coffee joint I’ve ever been in. I’ve gone there often, and it’s always like that. The line grows to about 18 people indoors, and then it starts to snake outside in the ever-warming island sun. Yet even when you drive up and see the line is already out the door, you near-dutifully park your car and get in line instead of going elsewhere, for they have a reputation for moving that line at as fast a clip as you’ll ever experience in any other coffee place.

Same espresso machine as in every other Starbucks. No gleaming monster with some mega advantage. In fact, an extra cash register feeding the barista with orders much faster than usual. So how do they do it?

In a word, Peter.

I’m not sure if Peter is the manager, and if not, this story is even better.

That Starbucks hums with polished precision and performance beauty in the pulse of Peter’s passion. Pretty tempting to say Peter Piper is picking a peck of coffee cherry in the back room, huh. Actually, Peter’s piping is part of the formula.

In those critical coffee crunch hours, Peter is the barista, and he keeps a constant chatter going, confirming orders with those who order them and with the customers picking them up, ensuring the right drink goes to the right person. His voice is strong and clear, and at the perfect decibel just a notch higher than the perfectly chosen music waking the room in full Hawaii-in-the-morning new dayness. Peter isn’t singing, but the energy of music and voice blend with an amazing precision.

In between the orders, Peter is training everyone else, and we customers are made to feel like we are privy to magic in action. It sounds like this:

To everyone else working,
“Grande percent latte, no foam. Key word?”

“________” another voice volunteers the answer.

To the customer patiently waiting, “Good morning, tall chai latte, extra hot.”

To everyone else working, “Vente Americano, with room. Key word?”

“________” voices in unison volunteer the answer.

To another customer, “Here you go, hot chocolate for you. Will warm you right up!”

An early riser this morning, I got there about 45 minutes earlier than I expected my companion to arrive, and before the line began to snake through the room. Peter had been quieter then, calm and gracious. But the line seemed to be fuel for his energy, and as it grew, so did his presence and his command; that room was his.

To everyone else working, “Tall mocha, extra shot, no whip. Key word?”

“________” another voice volunteers the answer… wrong this time, and Peter responds,

“Not really Jace, but that would taste great too! What an idea!”

To everyone else working, “Tall mocha, extra shot, no whip. Key word?”

The right answer in unison this time, and Peter responds, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

To another customer, “Our green tea Bliss for you, bliss for your morning. Mahalo for being here.”

I couldn’t make out most of the answers from where I sat watching all of this with amazement (thus my blanks), but Peter could. Every response was a positive one, no beat ever lost, energy and rhythm fused with listening and learning. With vibrant life. With the dynamics of coffee passion and tea serenity.

The line was long, but once they were in it, people didn’t notice. Everyone tuned in to Peter’s voice, staff and customer alike.

As customers in line we learned each employee’s name, and we watched them work in the highly efficient, syncopated rhythm of green-aproned oompa loompas in a modern-day coffee factory. It was mesmerizing. We were witnessing work at its best and we all knew it.

There was none of the nervous idle chatter you’ll normally see staff exchange with each other with self-protective preoccupation when they know customers are impatiently waiting in line; there was no room for nervousness or avoidance in the rhythm Peter drummed out. In between the Starbucks Latte Lingo Peter brilliantly orchestrated, the staff had to focus on toasting their bagels, restocking the bottled juices, blending those new green tea and melon bliss frappuccinos, and pumping in the vanilla, hazelnut, chai spices and everything else those “key words” only started a chain reaction for. They had to focus on the customer, matching up to Peter’s energy smile by smile. However there was room for wonderful, worthwhile, gets-your-juices-flowing work.

And more smiling, and laughing, more learning, and mostly right answers, and aloha.

in all its glorious action. What a beautiful thing.

Related link:
The Starbucks Latte Lingo


  1. says

    It’s amazing the energy of one person can do for a whole team, eh? I love it when leaders lead by example. It’s like watching the symphony, or the likes thereof.

  2. says

    You are so right Maria. Watching Peter was like watching an orchestra conductor. The tone and sound of it all made such an impression on me, where he was so conscious of the rest of the room where we already had our coffee and were steeped in conversations with each other, reading, or doing the wireless laptop dance, for he wasn’t entirely dominant. However if you were working with him, or in that line, you felt like you were on state or had front row seats to the performance.

  3. says

    Rosa, at the same time on Friday I was at another Starbucks in Hawaii, the lowkey one with the cozy fireplace (that’ll keep our Mainland friends guessing where it is). I was musing about years ago having read “The Great Good Place”, and how fortunate it was that Starbucks recreated that for all of us on such a grand and trustworthy scale. Your post reminds me that the magic of a gathering place would not be present without the people present–their attitude, their customer orientation–as much as the people behind the scenes designing the physical space and services. My VP Sales always calls the villas we sell “widgets”, which is his subtle way of reminding us that we aren’t selling four walls and a roof, we are selling a lifestyle, an experience that begins with us. Sounds like Peter knows the coffee has to be what is promised, but the coffee is just the widget.