Tears for Sous Vide


There should be a word for marketers’ use of foreign or foreign-sounding words to create favorable impressions. The luxurious-sounding “Haagen Daas” is one famous example, but Starbucks’ Sous Vide products are another. To an American ear, the French words give off an air of old-world quality and charm; and these delicious egg-based concoctions are served to customers piping hot, in brown cardboard containers perfect designed to evoke associations of environmental virtue. So imagine how dismayed I was—during my brief stint as a barista in the fall of 2019—to learn that sous vide means under a vacuum, and that these tasty treats are vacuum-packed in thick plastic.

Plastic that it hurts to tear open if you’re developing tendonitis—as I was after a few weeks of the fast, repetitive motions this ergonomically terrible job required. Plastic that was discarded at my store (as I expect it is at all of them), adding to the plastic pollution, that—as we now know—has each of us eating a credit card’s worth of plastic, on average, every week. Plastic that Starbucks customers, of course, never see.

I went to Starbucks looking for decent and affordable health insurance—a characteristically American quest. I was willing to work half-time for four months to qualify for it, because it could cut my family’s monthly premium nearly in half, from the $900 after-tax dollars we were paying. While my European friends were baffled that I could find no better use for my Ph.D., Americans completely understood. The LinkedIn post in which I announced my new position was viewed by 17,000 people, and some of them told me they’d thought about making the same move. Starbucks has cultivated an image as an employer of not-so-bad last resort. It lives in our imaginations as a place we could work and still be treated decently, still be taken care of, even if our white-collar careers fall apart.

As customers, of course, being cared for is what we go to Starbucks for. The company aspires to be a comforting “third place,” in addition to work and home, in its customers’ lives; and Freud could have a field day with the fact that the main thing it sells, in countless combinations, are caffeine and warm, sweet milk.  Starbucks is the corporate mother, the commercial source of nurturance, that keeps the global elite soothed and energized, and able to play its role in the capitalist machine. The company’s approach to coffee sourcing fits into this too. The first issue I worked on in social investment, in the early 2000s, was a low coffee price that was causing misery among small farmers around the world. A series of articles and studies released over the last few years showed that despite two decades of hard work from advocates, severe problems remain for coffee farmers, as well as those who produce cocoa and other commodities. It’s a fundamental, structural problem: we in the West pay too little for most things we buy from the developing world. But Starbucks tells customers it sources 99% of its coffee “ethically.” In other words: There’s nothing to worry about. Treat yourself. Relax.

At first, I was excited to work at Starbucks. I liked my coworkers, and I liked the customers. I didn’t mind cleaning, or making drinks, or taking out the trash. But I found I was hungry a lot. I got only one ten-minute break in any shift under six hours—and even that’s not required in my state of Massachusetts, I learned. It was Starbucks’ choice to give me those ten minutes—and I had to spend six or seven of them, on average, taking off my apron and joining the customer line to get my one free food item per shift. It’s a clever policy, I realized, to make workers shift back mentally into the customer perspective, distracting from their experience as employees. I was also hounded to “keep myself busy” if I ever seemed to pause for longer than three seconds at a time. (No, I am not exaggerating.)

Starbucks culture creates the illusion of human caring—smile as you hand off that drink, use the customers’ names—while maximizing industrial-style productivity (make sure to keep both ovens busy, make at least two drinks at once, add the flavor shots to the cup while the espresso is being pulled). Still, I‘d have tried to stick it out, if not for the elbow pain that started waking me up at night, and that my co-workers told me was not uncommon. What’s the point of better health insurance, I reasoned, if your job makes you need more medical care?

So I quit, and went back to my white-collar odd jobs—taking an option that most of the company’s employees don’t have. And leaving behind the notion that a decent service job in corporate America might exist. That’s a fantasy, just like the slow-cooked illusion of eggs sous vide.

 ~ Kimberly Gladman ~