Where are you from?
“I was born in Amarillo, Texas. There’s a reason it’s called “Amarillo” which is Spanish for “yellow.” It’s one of those places that you only find beautiful if you were born there. I know people who have moved there and they’ve been like, ‘This is the ugliest place ever!’ and people who have lived there, like myself, I’m like, ‘No, it’s got a certain charm. It’s pretty. It’s our home.’
When my dad and my mom divorced, my dad veered hard-left; not a Christian anymore. At my mom’s, I was exposed to this very religious Christian world and at my dad’s, it was not like that at all.
I went to a private Christian school growing up, so I’ve kind of led this double life. At school and at my mom’s, I was Christian, conservative – but at my dad’s, I started to see this other side to things.
I knew I wanted to see more of the world. I remember very distinctly seeing this statistic around the time I was 16 that was, ‘If you’re 16, there is a 70% chance that you’ve already met the person you’re going to marry.’ I just remember being like, ‘Oh, my god. I hope not. That’s a horrible thought. I gotta get out of here.’
By the time I was in my teens, I was tired of living that double life. I just wanted to find out who I was by myself. I knew that most of my friends from school were going to be going to the local community college or university and I was like, ‘That’s not for me.’ Everywhere I applied was pretty far away.
I actually didn’t get into any colleges the first go-around. So, I did have to go to community college. So, I went there for a year, got my degree and went to apply and my dad kept being like, ‘You should check out Penn State.’
At first, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do that. It’s a big football college. Whatever.’ Then, I thought about it and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. I would like Pennsylvania and to see living up there.’
What makes Starbucks unique compared to other customer service jobs?
“I think a lot of it has to do with the top-down recognition that there’s all kinds of different people that work at Starbucks and that we need to make this welcoming environment. It doesn’t just extend to customers; it extends to partners too. This is my third place.
I think you can see it in the handbooks and the partner manuals and the barista training modules on the computer. The kinds of people they portray is a pretty good representative sample. They’ll have older people, younger people, some people with tattoos or piercings. Some people look really clean-cut. I think that’s really interesting to see from a company perspective.”
How would you say the cultures differ between Pennsylvania and Texas?
“The Texas store I worked in was in Dallas, so it was a pretty big city. It’s actually kind of interesting because the big take away I got out of that was to not put people in boxes. I almost expected to see a lot more really conservative customers or people that were coming in and ordering sweet tea.
I went there and I was blown away about how wrong I was. It was a very diverse population that would come in. A lot of customers would be waiting in line and would just be chatting with their neighbors and I thought that was really cool. Clearly, they don’t know each other; they’re just in line.
I don’t see that up here [State College] as much. At the end of the day, you still have a lot of people trying to do good things for other humans. We never saw this [in Dallas] because it wasn’t a drive-thru store, but up here, almost every day, people will be like, ‘I’ll pay for the car behind me’ or ‘Here’s $20, pay for the next couple of drinks.'”
What trends or patterns do you see in the type of people who work at Starbucks?
“It’s interesting because you see a lot of people who are younger, people who are trying to work this around another job. A lot of people that work here are pretty passionate if not about coffee, the food or merchandise we have. It’s rarely just a job for a lot of people that I’ve trained. It’s usually like, ‘I’ve always kind of wanted to work at Starbucks’ or ‘It sounds like a cool place to work.’
That’s a big part of it, that there’s this interest in Starbucks and in coffee but it’s also pretty well-known at this point that Starbucks is an accepting company. We get a lot of people who feel like they wouldn’t be accepted at other places. I think that’s [the new dress code] made it more welcoming too. Things like tattoos or colored hair that shows off your personality more allows you to see the personality of the baristas. It feels more welcoming. It looks more human.”
What do you think Starbucks represents and means to its fan base, coming from someone who studies psychology?
“A big part of it is branding and consistency. Starbucks is really good about wanting to have as consistent of an environment as possible. If you go to this Starbucks or you go to one in Buffalo or in Dallas, you’re pretty much going to see the same look, the same feel. They have the same standards pretty much across the board.
You expect to go into a pretty clean cafe; they have some nice seating; nice artwork. They do a really good job of branding Starbucks as this luxurious experience on the cheap. You can have this really fancy coffee experience and have a nice environment and not have to drop a whole lot of money on a coffee or feel like you don’t know what you’re ordering.
Another big thing is baristas have been trained to make the experience as welcoming as possible. Everybody has a friendly face, we’re more than willing to give you recommendations and remake drinks.”
You had mentioned spending one summer in Taiwan. What brought you there?
“I went and worked over there for about three months the summer before I started at Penn State. I worked at this company called ORTV, which produces English language learning magazines and television shows and different resources for Taiwanese people who want to learn English.
They were the first company of its kind in Taiwan and they’ve been around since the early fifties. I lived in Taipei. They taught me a bit of Chinese while I was there and put me up in housing with the other interns.”
How does the culture differ in Taiwan?
“It’s one of the most Westernized countries in eastern Asia. They overwhelmingly love the U.S. It’s very fast-paced because it’s a big city.
Food is a big deal. I had someone tell me, ‘Taiwanese people love to eat.’ I was like, ‘I can see that. The food is amazing here.’
Then, he said, ‘You have to understand. Americans don’t like to eat.’
I was like, ‘I don’t know. We have an obesity problem. We pretty much love eating.’
He was like, ‘No, Americans don’t love eating. If they loved eating, you wouldn’t have an obesity problem.’
I think I kind of understand what he’s saying. Food is just something that we [Americans] have to consume to keep going. Whereas, in Taiwan, the process of making food is something that is important. Where it comes from, how you eat it. If you’re doing anything, you’re going to be eating food while you’re doing it.
Taiwan is also going through their own generational divide because there’s still a lot of traditional ways. You can see it in the older generations, especially if you leave Taipei and go south. Smaller communities are a lot slower-paced. You go over to someone’s house and they’ll make you tea in the traditional manner of making and serving tea. It’s like, a two or three-hour process.
It was interesting because the first time I went south with my uncle, we had to stop and get his car worked on. My uncle, my cousins and I went to this mechanic. The mechanic who owns the shop was like, ‘I’ll have my son work on your car. You all can come in.’ And he made us tea.
We sat there and just had tea with the owner of the mechanic shop while they fixed our car. It was amazing tea. He was like, ‘I grow this in my backyard.’ That’s not something that you see here.”
What was one of the most impacting experiences you had in Taiwan?
“The interns, we were all around the same age. Most of the interns spoke English and Chinese. We were all kind of teaching each other our languages and we got really close and did a lot of things together.
Towards the end of my time there, we had a party. We called them ‘mango parties’ because we would go buy mangos and they were the size of a football. We went out and would buy a bunch of different food to bring back to the apartment. We made a bunch of food and put on some movies and it was almost like a weird Thanksgiving dinner-esque kind of thing.
That was one of the best dinners I had ever had in my life. I was like, ‘This is what I want. This is what I want out of my life.’ Just to have a lot of parties with my close friends, come over, have food and just hang out and enjoy our time.
It wasn’t the perfect party. It was really informal and we had moments where we were almost burning the food. I just thought it was really fun to share food with people.
I think that’s influenced my time at Starbucks because when I came to the company and they said, ‘In some of the training materials, sharing a cup of coffee with someone is part of the welcoming experience.’
I was like, ‘I get that.’ I get sharing tea with somebody or sharing coffee. There’s something very primal and almost intimate about sharing food with somebody.”