We’ve all been there (probably). The doors are about to open, but you’re a man down. In the frantic atmosphere of the setup, the message has been missed about a sudden illness. In your haste to be fully prepared for the waiting public, you now realise that that haste is for nothing.
You try the rest of your team, riddled with guilt (hopefully) at the thought of calling them in and ruining their plans for a day off, only for your calls to go (predictably) straight to voicemail as they mute their phones until you stop bothering them.
Or maybe you run a threadbare crew and everybody’s already working?
Either way, you’re gonna need somebody and there’s only one option left:
It’s time to call in the outsider.
This is a scenario I remember all too well, unfortunately.
As a savvy operator (read: cheapskate) back in the day, I liked to keep my squad list to a minimum, the reasons for which were twofold.
One, it meant that I could give people a real job with consistent hours and not a part-time gig which messed with their lives too much. And two, I famously hated people and the thought of conducting interviews terrified me to my very core.
At the time I could see nothing but benefits to running things this way. I’d been that barista trying to scrape together enough money for rent from a meagre offering of shifts and having any sort of routine ruined by a sporadic work/life balance. The thought of having a steady paycheque was the stuff of dreams!
I’d never seen the benefit in having an ever-chopping, ever-changing roster. For the employee it meant that their lives were at the whim of whichever manager wrote the roster that week making planning ahead an impossibility.
For the employer it gave you a team of borderline misfits who’d never had enough time to gel together or get into a rhythm at work, stunting their development and widening the divide between workers and management.
I much preferred having a team that knew each other inside and out and I’ve gotta tell you, when that team was in full flow, it was like watching ballet (if Swan Lake had multiple shouts of ‘behind!’ or ‘backs!’ thrown in throughout).
Then one day, one of them called in sick.
And this was cafe work which meant that there was no time early enough to give proper notice (thanks a bunch, circadian rhythms). By the time I’d gotten the message it was usually already too late.
Frantic calls and texts were sent to anybody that I could think of—anybody who knew how to pour a rosetta or pull a clean spro.Thankfully, there is the concept of the celebrity shift that has come to my rescue more times than I can remember.
For the uninitiated, a celebrity shift isn’t when a famous person comes and works a shift with the common folk ala Paris Hilton & Nicole Richie in their classic tv show The Simple Life, or when Bill Murray hops behind the bar and serves exclusively tequila (regardless of the order) in those internet myths.
No, in this case it means a barista, or chef, or bartender from another establishment coming in and working a one-off shift in your place. We label it as ‘celebrity’ because of how it makes everyone else feel.
Do you have any idea how special change feels? Like, at its basest level as a concept?
In the repetitive landscape of a bog-standard weekday shift, the presence of an outsider behind the machine is a novelty on par with voice-controlled phones and the automatic tailgate on the all-new Kia Sportage (I find these things charming and exciting and there’s no amount of eye-rolling that can change this, so don’t).
You might say it’s similar to, I don’t know, meeting a celebrity?
The customers will come in and marvel at this new thing to look at and comprehend. Where once there was boring old me making their morning brew, now there’s this whole new person from the cafe down the street making it. They might even have a full head of hair and the ability to say ‘good morning’ without a hint of hate in their words?
Whatever the case, it creates a buzz that is rivalled only by the World Cup final and a royal wedding and no, I’m not exaggerating. I can’t get enough of it.
And I’ve been the celebrity too!
I’ve woken up to that desperate text from a cafe owner, asking if I’m working today, on a Thursday. And it’s because I’ve been on the other end of these texts that I know the absolute desperation behind them, meaning that there was no hesitation in saying yes.
To swoop in as the saviour, an hour and a half late, and rescue the day is a feeling that’s right up there with cracking open a double-yolker or winning a free regular fries in McDonalds Monopoly. It gives me life.You go through the shift, safe in the knowledge that you hold all the cards. Corners can be cut, questions can be asked, you’re golden. Professionalism and a lower sense of self-worth dictates that you’ll still try your best to show off and prove that you’re better than anything the boss has ever seen before.
But it’s such a low-risk time that just living in it gives you a rush, like jumping down two stairs at once, or winning an imaginary argument from four years ago in the shower this morning.
And then the day ends. The regular barista is okay to work tomorrow and your celebrity life is over, at least for now.
The doors close and the reality of the job hits hard as you lug out bins full of disgusting food waste. The rigmarole of closing down a coffee machine brings back pangs of discomfort from the past, back to haunt you when you thought you were but a distant nightmare, each grain of coffee grounds mocking you as you futilely sweep them away with an old paint brush. They’re never truly gone, only hidden until they choose to be seen again.
The usual thanks are given, along with the usual offers to do it again, any time. And then that’s it; everyone’s lives go back to normal.
You might be having a coffee in that place in the weeks following, and a regular customer might ask where they’ve seen you before. Try not to drag them too deep into your mindset with replies like ‘soaring on the wings of angels, my friend. Oh, it was a day for Kings, was it not?’ because there’s no way that they look back on your shift with the same fondness as you do. Best to keep it safe with something like, ‘maybe we were brothers in another life, kid,’ and then punctuate it with a sip of your long black that’s still way too hot to drink, but damn did it look cool.
You’ll know just what you did that glorious day, and that’s enough. That’s enough.
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