SEA: Has Your Coffee Left Your Possession at Any Time?

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This morning found me standing in line -- a regrettably long line -- in the quest for an americano at Sea-Tac Airport's N-terminal Starbucks. Airport coffee, if you don't know, is an experience all its own; a separate coffee subculture, consisting of epic lines, rushed people, and crazed baristas. Particularly before morning flights, people pile into lines by the dozens, already listening to their names being last-called at their gates, but so desperate for caffeine that they're willing to risk it. It is almost excusable that you can count on getting crappy coffee.

As far as Seattle is concerned, I think this cultural disintegration is a shame. Airports are both the first and last impression many people receive of a city, and as the coffee metropolis that we are, I think putting some decent coffee options into Sea-Tac would behoove us.

I love airports. I always have, ever since I was a kid and security was so lax you could walk in and right up to a gate, just 'cause you felt like it. I love to travel, particularly by plane, and whereas many people prefer non-stop flights, I am all about the multi-stop meander toward my destination. For one, it's usually the cheaper option. For two, airports offer endless entertainment (unless you're flying through somewhere like Minneapolis, then... well, sorry, you're out of luck). If TSA wouldn't put me in jail for suspicious loitering, I would totally choose the airport as a studying destination. Except for the coffee.

The worst coffee I ever had (and that's saying something) was at the airport in Charlotte, NC. I almost swore off airport coffee forever. But even as I recall this, I know I am on my way to Portland, where people get almost as excited about going to the airport as they do about leaving it on their trip, because there is a Coffee People there. And only there. I'm from Portland, and I remember the day that Coffee People ceased to exist, bought out by a certain other large corporation which people were still bitter with for its Torrefazione deal. I have actually heard friends say, recently, that they need to be early for a flight so that they can go to Coffee People.

Portland is a sentimental city, one prone to rally or protest at the drop of a hat, and one ardently committed to its identity as a city of small, local businesses. Inconsistently, but ardently nonetheless. Coffee People in the Portland airport is the Portlander's last hurrah. A chance to stick it to the man, even though the coffee isn't technically roasted locally, probably isn't still owned locally, and isn't really that amazing. It's the principle of the thing, goshdarnit. And if people are going to fly through the city of Portland, they're going to get a chance to see Portland proudly thriving on something an evil empire tried to eradicate. So there!

Seattle, on the other hand, will just give you coffee--if you're lucky, and make it through security with enough time to spare to also make it through the line for coffee. Also, if some other rushed passenger doesn't abscond with your beverage, as someone attempted to do with mine today. Single tall one pump vanilla Americano with extra room. Tall nonfat mocha. It's all the same, right? Well, no, it's really not.

As a barista, one of the most frustrating daily struggles is found in trying to get people to take their own drink and not someone else's. The ability of your average human being to be the 10th person in a line of coffee orders and then automatically assume that they will be the 1st person whose coffee is served is uncanny. As is the ability of so many people to forget, between the time they order and the time a drink is called, what they initially wanted. Twenty ounces, twelve ounces--apparently, to some of you out there, it does not make a difference. We've even tried adding names when we call orders. But as it turns out, if you're not paying attention, you're not paying attention, and if you're likely to pick up any ol' drink that comes by, you're the same amount of likely to do so whether or not your name is Jim and the barista calls it out "for Allison."

This has led, on occasion, to some hilarious and irritating showdowns at my own coffee shop of employment, when, for example, somebody named Greg has ordered a double 12 oz shot in the dark, two or three people ahead of somebody named Aaron, who wants a single nonfat 16 oz latte with seven pumps of caramel in it. Imagine me, setting the first beverage on the bar, and entering into a subtle game of tug-of-war as I attempt to get Greg's attention and talk Aaron out of Greg's coffee, while appearing both friendly and patient. "... for Greg? For Greg. This is a shot in the dark? FOR GREG. Hey, look buddy. Are you Greg?" Really, I'm just trying to be helpful, I'm not trying to wrong you. I know you need coffee, but you really will be so unhappy if you take this coffee... Although, in all fairness, sometimes people pick up the wrong beverage and actually do walk out of the store drinking it, absolutely unaware. I don't understand how, but that's the fact of the matter.

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This morning, somebody ordered a tall nonfat mocha right ahead of my americano, and I have to say that the barista actually called the beverages backwards, so it wasn't the lady's fault she took off with my drink. And I successfully chased her down with her mocha before she started drinking my beverage, so no harm done (except that her coffee hadn't been made as ordered). But it really is the oddest feeling to see somebody walk off with something of yours without even flinching. Excuse me, Ma'am? Ma'am? Did you pick up an americano by mistake? Trust me, yes you did, here's your coffee, now give me mine back, please, I have a flight to catch.

As far as airport coffee goes, Seattle probably has one of the better attitudes nationwide about customer service in dealing with the lines of frantic people, because we understand that people, 1.) NEED their coffee, 2.) need THEIR coffee, and 3.) need their coffee NOW so that they can get wherever they're going. Lines are placed well, expedited quickly, and cheerfully managed. Drinks are called enthusiastically (if occasionally incorrectly), banter appropriate to the time of day is kept up, and though finesse and flavor are so often lacking, the coffee is usually drinkable.

But here's a what if: What if there were two or three more options for coffee in the Sea-Tac airport? I contest that several things would happen instantly with the introduction of a couple new, non-Starbucks/Seattle's Best coffee shops: Lines would shorten, being better distributed. Wait times would be drastically cut as a result. And coffee quality would skyrocket, due to competition. People would get to their flights on time (if not early, à la The Coffee People Effect seen in Portland), less frazzled. And best of all, the first/last impression of this coffee city would be one of... good coffee. Imagine that.

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Think about it, Sea-Tac.

Just think about it.

 
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