Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why is it so hard to buy coffee?

(This post resurrected from a long-ago archive. Originally posted June 27 2007. I no longer work in New York. Sugar people are still insane. I have since re-arranged coffee service counters at places without asking management permission first.)

I live in Pennsylvania, and I work about 3 days a week in Manhattan. Yes, that’s crazy. I’ve been doing it for 11 years, and there’s a few things that I, like all extreme commuters, do to ensure that the morning commute is as short as possible.

My outfit for the day is ready to go, hung in the bathroom the night before. Everything from underwear to belt is ready to go. At night, I fill a “morning basket” in which I’ll find my wallet, keys, bus tickets and anything else I need to have for the morning. At 4:30 AM, it’s impressive enough that I can remember how to walk without breaking something, much less remembering where I left some envelope I needed to mail. All of the preplanning I can do to make the amount of time it takes to get out the door shorter – even by 2 minutes – matters a lot. When you commute 74.5 miles, each way, a day, you learn all about “the butterfly effect” and how a 30 second delay at 5:12 AM can translate into being an hour late for work.

So that’s why the sugar people – and by extension the store owners who enable their sickness – make me insane. More on them in a moment.

 The process of selling brewed coffee comes in two varieties – served (like a Starbucks) and self-serve. I’m interested in the self-serve model. First of all, some observations about serving coffee to yourself. First - nobody ever puts the lid on the cup before pouring the coffee. Never happened, never will. Why they set up stores so that the lids are next to the cups is utterly beyond me. Second, nobody puts the creamer in first. Why is the creamer with the lids (which are with the cups) in so many places?

Just this morning, I stopped in the Au Bon Pain store at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC. Here’s a rough diagram of their coffee service area:

Pink = Cups
Yellow = Creamers
Blue = Lids
Brown = Coffee Urns

It's a mess. The result is you get a traffic pattern that requires you to fight through the exiting traffic, get to the coffee cups, double back for a lid and creamer, and struggle to get past the insane sugar people who are ALSO at the lids and cups array. I have often asked the manager why they don't fix the layout of the coffee service areas to be more rational - like this:

That way the normal people (blue path) don't have to interact at all with the insane sugar people.

OK, I guess it's time to explain the "insane sugar people" part. In an optimal-coffee-layout store (like a WaWa store, which is a local gas station/convenience store) I can prepare a 16 oz coffee with half and half in under 12 seconds, without spilling anything. Most normal people can. But have you ever noticed the people who put sugar in their heated caffeine delivery products?

They take between 10 and 20 minutes to do it. They get the sugar packet, and shake-shake-shake the packet with a flipping wrist motion. Then they shake it some more. Then they s-l-o-w-l-y rip open one packet and gradually pour the packet contents into the cup, all the time stirring, stirring, stirring, stirring. Then they do it again for another packet.

 It's like watching a sloth eat a peach.

Now they have to contend with the mass of trash they have just created. The empty packets, the tiny plastic sticks, and the inevitable wet napkin from the spills from all the stirring. They wander about, seeking the trash can, which is actually right next to them. Then, like a deer stunned because it was just struck by a car, they wobble off in search of the register, never taking a direct path, and often bumping into other people in the store.

My solution for the insane sugar people is to make a store layout that lets normal people avoid them entirely.

Create a "sugar corner" where they can spend the whole morning if they want, just stay the hell out of my way. OK, I'm going to go have another cup of coffee now.