Thanks A Thousand
1 The Barista and the Taster Thanks for Serving Me My Coffee
I’ve decided to do this project in reverse, starting with my local café and working my way backward to the birth of the coffee. My coffee shop is a block’s walk from my apartment. It’s called Joe Coffee and has survived for twelve years, despite two Starbucks within a three-block radius.
On a Thursday morning, I get in line, prepping myself to say the very first “thank you” of Project Gratitude. While waiting, I force myself to stash my smartphone in my pocket and actually notice my surroundings. The act of noticing, after all, is a crucial part of gratitude; you can’t be grateful if your attention is scattered.
On the wall, there’s a photo of a pink Cadillac that, for some reason, is perched on top of a tower. There are moms pushing strollers, dogs tied up outside, the frequent hiss of the espresso machine. Glowing indigo lamps the shape of doughnuts hang from the ceiling. That indigo light is lovely, I think to myself. You don’t see enough indigo lamps.
I get to the counter and am greeted by my barista, a twentysomething woman with hair gathered in a ponytail atop her
head. She hands me my order—a small black coffee, the daily blend.
“Thank you for my coffee,” I say.
“You’re welcome!” she says, smiling.
And there it is. My first thank you. It’s fine, but no lightning bolts yet.
I slide my credit card to pay the three-dollar fee. (Three dollars is, of course, ridiculously expensive. But in a weird sense, as I’ll learn, it’s also wildly underpriced.)
I hold my cup of coffee and stand there, trying to figure out what, if anything, to tell the barista about my quest. I pause five seconds too long, somewhere on the border between awkward and creepy. I glance at the line of customers behind me and slink out.
A couple of days later, I’ve worked up the nerve to tell the barista about Project Gratitude. I asked her if she’d be willing to share with me a bit about what goes into making my coffee. She said she’d be happy to talk after her shift.
“Thanks again for the coffee,” I say, as we sit down at one of Joe’s small tables.
“Thanks for thanking me,” she says.
I consider thanking her for thanking me for thanking her, but decide to cut it off lest we get caught in an infinite loop.
She tells me her name is Chung. Her parents are Korean immigrants, and she grew up in Southern California before moving to New York for college.
“So . . . ,” I say. “Um . . . What’s it’s like being a barista?”
“It’s not always easy,” she says. This is because you’re dealing with people in a very dangerous condition: Pre-caffeination.
“You get some grouchy people?” I asked.
“Oh, they can be grumpy.”
Chung tells me tales of customers who refuse to even make eye contact. They just snarl their order and thrust out their credit card, never looking up from their smartphone.
She’s had customers berate her till she cried for mixing up orders (which she swears she didn’t). She’s been snapped at by a bratty nine-year-old girl who didn’t like the milk-foam design that Chung created on top of her hot chocolate. Chung made a teddy bear. The girl wanted a heart. “I wanted to tell her that she did need a heart—a real one.”
And yet, Chung says the cranky customers are the minority. Most folks are friendly, especially when Chung sets the mood by being friendly first. And man, Chung is friendly.
She is a smiler and a hugger. She’s like a morning-show host, but not forced or fake. To give you a sense: During our half-hour chat, Chung got up no fewer than five times to hug longtime customers and former coworkers.
“I first realized I might be good at customer service when I was working as an usher at my church,” she says. “I saw that it takes a certain personality.”
And like at church, when she’s at Joe Coffee, she sometimes watches as people are transformed, their faces lighting up when they get their cups. “I see my job as getting them coffee, but also making them happy.”
I ask her if she’s planning on being a barista for the long haul.
She shakes her head. “Actually, this is my last week.”
She’s moving back to California to take care of her parents. Plus, nowadays, she’s having trouble staying up on her feet her entire shift.
“Let me give you a visual of why,” Chung says.
She takes out her smartphone and swipes to a photo. It’s a startling image of her left foot, bloody, bruised, and with more than a dozen metal pins sticking out of it.
“A year and a half ago, I got hit by a bus,” she says. “I broke every toe, the heel, the ankle. The skin was gone.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.”
Chung says it’ll be sad to leave the regulars. She talks about Nancy and John, who arrive every morning as soon as the glass door is unlocked. “I always say, ‘How’s your day going?’ And John will say, ‘Now it’s going well.’?”
She’ll miss her coworkers, whom she says always have her back.
She won’t miss the occasional feeling that she doesn’t exist at all. “What’s upsetting is when people treat us like machines, not humans,” Chung says. “When they look at us as just a means to an end—or don’t even look at us at all.”
I thank Chung, and she gives me a hug (her eleventh of the day, by my estimate).
On my way home, I make a pledge. Though I probably won’t hug any other baristas, I promise to look them in the
eyes—because I know I’ve been that asshole who thrusts out the credit card without glancing up. I’m not sure if I ever did it to Chung, but I know I’ve treated many others—waiters, delivery people, bodega cashiers—as if they were vending machines. I sometimes wear these noise-cancelling headphones when running errands, so that just makes me look more aloof and unfriendly.
And this is an enemy of gratitude. UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons—who is considered the father of gratitude research—puts it this way: “Grateful living is possible only when we realize that other people and agents do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Gratitude emerges from two stages of information processing—affirmation and recognition. We affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about. In gratitude, we recognize that the source of goodness is outside of ourselves.”
From now on, when I have an interaction with anyone else, I’ll try to affirm and recognize them. I’ll try to remember to treat them as humans—at least until robots take over all service jobs. I’ll try to keep in mind that they have families and favorite movies and embarrassing teenage memories and possibly aching feet.
• • •
Chung served me my coffee—but who chose what type of coffee I drank? Who selected my daily blend from the tens of thousands of varieties across the globe? The answer to
that takes me one step back on the chain to a man named Ed Kaufmann, head of buying at Joe Coffee Company, which now has nineteen stores in New York and Philadelphia.
Ed agrees to meet me at the Joe Coffee Company headquarters in Chelsea. He ushers me into a back room with a round table.
“Thanks for my coffee this morning,” I say, making sure to look Ed in the eyes. I tell him I’d picked up a cup earlier at the Joe Coffee near my apartment and drank it on the way down.
“Did you like it?”
“What did you like about it?”
“Well, it woke me up. And it tasted good. Bitter, I guess? I don’t have a very sophisticated palate.”
“We’ll work on that,” he says.
Ed looks a bit like a young Elvis Costello, spectacles and all. He grew up in Montana, where his parents owned a restaurant at a ski resort. It’s there that Ed first fell for coffee. “As a teenager, my friends and I would get caffeinated up and go snowboarding.”
He can’t snowboard here in New York, but Ed tells me he still likes the bracing cold.
He’s a fan of ice baths, which he says give him energy. And every morning, even on seventeen-degree January days, he jolts himself awake by biking to work without a shirt. “Actually, now I wear a T-shirt,” Ed says. “I was getting too many stares when I went shirtless.”
But Ed’s true love is coffee. He’s smitten with it, head over heels. Some proof? He spent his honeymoon taking a five-day
coffee-tasting course in Massachusetts. On his days off, he goes café hopping and “gets wasted on espresso.” He talks about particular cups of coffee the way some people talk about long-lost girlfriends. “That was a meaningful cup of coffee,” he’ll say, about a cup he drank in Ecuador. He describes coffee with elaborate metaphors, sort of like an antic sommelier. “There was this one coffee—I call it the Wonka Coffee because it was like an Everlasting Gobstopper, flavor after flavor, just exploding.”
It’s only been a few minutes, but I’m grateful that Ed is so passionate about this brown liquid. I may not fully appreciate the subtleties, but on some level, I know that Ed’s wisdom in choosing the best beans benefits me. The very fact that Ed thinks so deeply about my coffee is part of the reason I don’t have to think about it at all. It’s a key reason gratitude is so difficult to maintain, and why it takes so much effort and intention: If something is done well for us, the process behind it is largely invisible.
On the table are seven brown paper bags, each labeled with a number. Ed doesn’t want to know where the coffees are from until after the tasting. He wants to be unbiased. The coffees come in from all over the world—Colombia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea.
“Okay,” he says, “here’s how you do it.”
Ed dips a spoon into one of the many coffee-filled white cups on the table and slurps the liquid. It’s a comically loud slurp, like the slurp of an Adam Sandler character sipping soup at a fancy French restaurant.
“You have to aerate the coffee so that it sprays all over the mouth,” he says. “There are taste buds everywhere—in your cheeks, even the roof of the mouth.”
I try slurping a spoonful myself, but my slurp isn’t nearly as loud—it’s more of a piccolo to his tuba.
Ed swishes the coffee around his mouth, then spits it into a black chewing-tobacco spittoon.
“What did you think?” he asks me.
“Pretty good. Maybe a little acidic?” I say, guessing.
Ed nods his head. “I tasted some citrus, but also notes of honey.” He’s carrying a Moleskine notebook and scribbles some words in it.
If Ed likes any of the coffees that we’re tasting, he might give them a much-coveted spot on the menu of the Joe Coffee chain. It’s a small but growing chain with a hipster vibe; it has lots of bearded baristas and socially conscious symbolism. The chain pays its farmers higher than fair trade prices. It markets itself as transparent, and you can often see a sign on the counter about the featured farm of the day.
I ask Ed if I can see the words he wrote down, and he shows me some. They are delightfully, hilariously specific: graham cracker, mandarin orange, pineapple upside-down cake.
Ed will describe a coffee as having notes of apple. But not just a generic apple. He’ll say, “This reminds me of a Pink Lady apple, or maybe Gala.
“I’m a sucker for baked peach and maple,” he tells me. “If I see that in my notes, I know I have a winner.”
Tasters like Ed are looking for several variables: mouth feel, a balance between acidity and fruitiness, aftertaste.
“You also want to avoid coffee that’s too vegetal or leathery,” Ed tells me.
“You don’t like leather?” I ask.
“Only on weekends,” he says, laughing. “I’m kidding.”
Like many coffee obsessives, Ed thinks Starbucks over-roasts its coffee. It’s too bitter. You can’t taste the fruitiness. “I only go to Starbucks in a coffee emergency,” he says.
Ed knows that not everyone is infatuated with the subtle flavors of coffee. He started as a barista at a coffee shop that was even more artisanal than Joe Coffee.
“People would come in and say, ‘I’d like a cup of coffee.’ And I’d say, ‘Okay, what are you looking for? What flavor notes are you interested in?’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t care. I just want my fucking cup of coffee.’?”
I understand that mind-set. Sometimes you just want the fucking coffee.
But I make a promise: I’m going to try to appreciate the flavors more. It only seems fair. Consider all the thousands of hours of attention that Ed and others around the world put into each cup of coffee—and yet, every morning, I guzzle it like a dog at a bowl.
It reminds me of a conversation I had when I started Project Gratitude. I’d called up author and researcher Scott Barry Kaufman (no relation to Ed), who taught a popular course on positive psychology and gratitude at the University
of Pennsylvania. I wanted a little background on the science of thankfulness.
“Gratitude has a lot to do with holding on to a moment as strongly as possible,” Scott told me. “It’s closely related to mindfulness and savoring. Gratitude can shift our perception of time and slow it down. It can make our life’s petty annoyances dissolve away, at least for a moment.”
The point is, it’s hard to be grateful if we’re speeding through life, focusing on what’s next, as I tend to do. We need to be aware of what’s in front of us. We need to stop and smell the roses, along with the graham crackers and soil and leather.
So today, while sipping coffee with Ed, I tried to practice what psychologists call savoring meditation. I let the coffee sit on my tongue for twenty seconds, which may not sound like a long time, but I don’t want to keep Ed waiting. (And twenty seconds can be powerful if you really make each second count. Quality over quantity, right?)
I focused on the viscosity of the liquid, the acidity, the bitterness . . . Was that apricot? I still couldn’t taste the distinct flavors, but I could see a way to unraveling the threads.
• • •
Ed and I sampled the seven coffees, sipping each of them three times—while hot, while warm, and while tepid. Different temperatures reveal different tastes.
At the end, Ed says there are no superstars in the bunch. He
feels the best contender is a coffee from Burundi that scored an 85 on a scale of 100.
But it wasn’t a waste of time. You never know where the next great coffee might come from, so Ed tastes anything sent to him. “People will send me a note saying, ‘This is from my grandmother’s farm in the Dominican Republic.’?” A couple of years ago, he was sent coffee with a note that said, “This coffee has been through war zones in Yemen and you can’t even taste the gunpowder.” Last year, Ed tells me, he was expecting a shipment of coffee from Papua New Guinea, but it never came because tribal warfare interfered with the harvesting.
Ed goes on an international trip every year to meet with farmers—to build rapport, sample coffee, and make deals.
“I’m going to South America in a few weeks,” he says. “You should come!”
He tells me that Joe’s house blend—which is what I order every day—contains beans from a small family farm in Colombia. He’ll be visiting that farm, and I can tag along.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s not easy to get to. A flight, another flight, and then a four-hour drive. But you’re invited.”
And just like that, I’m going to another continent.
• • •
After the tasting, Ed and I head out for burritos near his office.
“It’s kind of odd that you’re featuring me in your book,”
he says, as we sit down. “Because I’m usually more of a background guy. I’m a bassist.”
He means that literally. Ed plays bass guitar in a band called Erostratus, an alt rock group that sings songs about heartbreak and alcohol . . . “The usual,” as Ed says.
“I like being the bassist,” he says. “Everyone wants to be the lead guitarist or lead singer, and we need those. But we also need bassists. I’m necessary, but I’m background.”
On my subway ride home, I can’t stop thinking about Ed and his humble but essential bass guitar. It’s a wonderful metaphor for my project.
In our society, we fetishize the lead singers. And not just in music. The front people in every field—art, engineering, sports, food—get way too much attention. The cult of celebrity has spread into every corner. We overemphasize individual achievement when, in fact, almost everything good in the world is the result of teamwork. Consider the polio vaccine, which qualifies as a very good thing. According to the book Give and Take, by psychologist Adam Grant, Jonas Salk took all the glory for inventing the polio vaccine. He was on the cover of Time; he became the household name.
But the truth of the vaccine’s invention is more nuanced. Salk was part of a team at the University of Pittsburgh. There were six researchers who made major contributions, not to mention three scientists who figured out how to grow polio in test tubes, a crucial advance that made the vaccine possible. In other words, there were many bassists who helped conquer polio. And
they were overlooked, which they rightly felt bitter about. In a 1955 press conference about the vaccine, Salk neglected to thank his collaborators. Many of them left the conference in tears.
Psychologists have a name for this failure to acknowledge and thank collaborators: the “responsibility bias.” For one thing, it causes a lot of pain and resentment among the billions of unacknowledged bass players in our world.
But its long-term consequences might be even worse. By elevating individual achievement over cooperation, we’re creating a glut of wannabe superstars who don’t have time for collaboration. We desperately need more bassists in the world. We can see this playing out in many industries, but let me stick with science for a second. Your typical scientist craves the glory of creating a bold new hypothesis, instead of the equally important but less flashy task of replicating experiments to make sure the conclusions are true. This has led to what’s called the “replication crisis.” A shocking amount of our scientific knowledge may be inaccurate because we don’t have enough bassists in lab coats doing backup.
I’m not immune to the responsibility bias. This book has my name on the cover, but its existence is the work of dozens of people. The idea of a lone author warps reality. In a more accurate world, this book would have many names on the cover, not just mine. We considered it, but my editor, Michelle Quint—one of the best bassists in publishing—thought such a cover would be too confusing and hard to read, so here I am, perpetuating the lead singer myth.
At the very least, I can do what Emmons says is the core of gratitude: affirm and recognize what I didn’t do myself. So thank you to the cover designer, the marketers, the freelance researchers, the printing plant workers, the sawmill operators . . . as you can see, this could be its own book.