How Peet's Starbucked Itself 

The iconic East Bay company that pioneered gourmet coffee with a small business ethos has grown increasingly like its mega-chain offspring.

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Managers — many of whom climb from the bottom of the ladder and have no financial or business background — are tasked with simultaneously increasing revenues and keeping their employees happy in the face of mounting pressure. "You're paying these people basically just above minimum wage, and you're asking them to bust their ass — to raise the numbers but also have the product stay the same and the customer service stay the same," Wheeler said.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Bodeanu. "They used to be very flexible. But almost right after I got to West Portal [in 2009], there was a lot more emphasis on the boss to make money and hold us accountable," she said of one of the San Francisco stores. That meant moving to the same time-clock and workforce management system that Starbucks uses, and implementing a points system for lateness — each time an employee was late, he or she would receive a point, which added up to various disciplinary actions. "So you're allowed a certain amount of leeway, but in a way it doesn't matter if you have extenuating circumstances," she said. "It used to be on a more case-by-case basis, but now there's no room for management judgment or a human component — it's all automated."

These increasingly draconian tardiness policies have resulted in higher turnover — which means a steady stream of new employees. "You basically have a bunch of people who are brand-new and don't know how to run a coffee shop," an employee said. "It's chaos."

Furthermore, in its quest to drive down operating costs companywide, Peet's has cut back on staff: Last quarter, total operating expenses decreased by about 2 percent, which a company press release attributed in part to lower payroll costs in its retail stores.

Meanwhile, employees say they're now expected to make drinks faster than ever before. In every Peet's store, there's a computer screen above the espresso bar that's linked to the cash register. The computer displays six boxes, each corresponding to a drink in the queue. Three minutes after being rung up, the box will turn blue, and after five, it goes red. A machine records these numbers and a series of reds can, at the manager's discretion, become a disciplinary problem.

Though the system has been in place for a while, Wheeler said he scarcely paid attention to it in his day. But about a year ago the rules changed. Where baristas had previously been instructed to make drinks before the screen turned red, in July 2010, employees say a new edict came down: All drinks were to be made in less than three minutes.

"So really, they changed nothing about how the drinks are supposed to be made" but increased the speed, said a former employee. "You're pumping out a higher quality product, but faster and with a bigger smile on your face. But at the same time, they're giving you no incentives in terms of raises or better benefits." Or in the words of another employee: "We are continually working harder, faster, and with more discipline."

All the pressure to be fast has some very real consequences for the company's army of young, often inexperienced, non-unionized employees. Peet's baristas are now working harder than they ever have before, and many say they've seen a commensurate increase in repetitive stress injuries. Though OSHA provides specific guidelines and employees say Peet's purports to follow them, they also say it's all but impossible to think about ergonomics when the clock is ticking and lights are flashing.

This is especially dangerous at the espresso bar, where hundreds of drinks are made every hour and the pressure to be fast is thickest. The employee handbook instructs baristas to use both hands while pulling espresso shots, but employees say that given time constraints, they're forced to jerk the filter holder in and out of the machine with just one hand in a wrenching motion that can easily strain the wrist. "It's not like they tell you to break the OSHA guideline, but you just can't do it with two hands," one employee said.

At her store, she said, about a third of the baristas have repetitive stress injuries so severe that they either wear wrist braces at the bar or have stopped making espresso drinks altogether, while another 40 percent experience less severe wrist, arm, and hand problems on a regular basis. (Many of them opt to continue working through the pain rather than ask to get taken off the bar, which often means a reduction in hours.)

Other employees report a similar preponderance of repetitive stress injuries, and another said he's seen an increase in other problems — shoulder injuries, slips and falls, cuts and scrapes, burns from hot liquid and equipment — over the past several months, which he attributes to the breakneck speed at which he and the other employees at his store are expected to work.

"These are people who are 21, 22, 23, and their bodies are literally breaking down because of how hard they're working," one employee said.

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