Wednesday, August 5, 2015

adventures in Morris: the Common Cup.

When I was in college, I only spent one semester without a job. It was my very first semester, and I thought I could get along just fine without one.

Until I realized that life costs money.

Sure, I had a meal plan, but if I wanted things like snacks or pop or late-night toast at Don’s, I needed spendin’ money. I used most of my high school graduation money to buy a laptop, but the leftovers held out until the end of my freshman fall semester. After that, it was time to get a job.

My then-dear-friend-later-boyfriend-now-husband James had a work study job at Media Services on campus, and he offered to get me a job there. Which he did. If only real-life jobs were that easy. I worked happily at Media Services until the end of my junior year. Due to an uptick in crop prices, I found out I was no longer eligible for work study. Yay for farmers, boo for me and my job. Which I loved.

By then, having a job wasn’t just a question of having enough money to buy toast and beer. I had moved off-campus when I was a junior, and I now needed money for rent and utilities. So job = essential.

I secured a ten-hour-a-week job working for the on-campus Center for Small Towns. My job was to collaborate with the Morris Movie Theatre in order to write an operating manual for everything from the concessions stand to the film projector. It was kind of awesome.

However, ten hours a week at minimum wage wasn’t enough to pay the rent. It was time for me to venture off campus.

The first (and only) place I stopped for a job application was a little coffee shop downtown called the Common Cup. 
I filled out my application and was called back for an informal interview shortly thereafter. I sat down with Sue, one of the managers, and she asked me about my availability and previous food service experience. Thanks to four summers working in a camp kitchen and three summers working at various ice cream establishments, I totally had that covered. At the end of the interview, I expected to be thanked for coming and to be told that they’d let me know. Much to my surprise, Sue instead asked me to come in at 6 the next morning to get started on my training.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being hired on the spot, which is a rare nowadays. (Yes, I said nowadays.)

I began my barista training bright and early the next morning with Rose, the other manager at the Common Cup. The Common Cup opened at 7, so there was plenty that needed to be accomplished in that hour. I can still remember that opening list:

·   brew the house coffees
bake muffins
bake cookies
bake coffee cake
fill the front cooler with beverages and refrigerated desserts
grind espresso
start the soup
buy a copy of the Star Tribune from the machine outside
open doors

The Common Cup smelled just delightful every morning: brewing coffee + baking muffins = cozy. I loved to bake the muffins: they were monstrous, and I got to choose the day’s flavor. I was (and still am) a big fan of blueberry, especially since making the blueberry muffins involved using huge scoops of real blueberries in the homemade batter.

The muffins and coffee cake were made from scratch each morning, but the cookies were a tad easier. They – like the muffins – were also gigantic, but the cookie dough was premade into little frozen balls that you just put on a cookie sheet and baked. Rose was the cookie master, and she was the only one to make the dough. The cookies always turned out perfectly soft and as large as a saucer.

(I have to interrupt myself for a minute here and talk about Rose’s desserts. During the fall and around Valentine’s Day, she’d fill the dessert case with pumpkin bars and little cheesecake hearts, respectively. I have never had – and probably will never have – chocolate cheesecake better than Rose’s. I had died and gone to dairy heaven. It’s been more than six years since I’ve had that chocolate cheesecake, and I still dream about it.)


By the time my opening list was done, it was just in time to open up the doors.

My class schedule dictated the hours I could work at the Common Cup. During that first semester I worked there, I had about an even split between opening shifts and closing shifts – never the mid-shift, as my class schedule had almost no breaks. The Common Cup was closed on Sundays, so I did work an odd Saturday here and there. The closing shifts were the best – I would get there after concert band rehearsal ended at 5, and the coffee shop closed at 8. There wasn’t much traffic at night, so we were welcome to bring our homework and work on it in a booth when business was slow. I wrote a whole lot of art history and English papers in a little booth at the Common Cup during my senior year.

After some practice, I really got the hang of espresso drinks. I learned the difference between an Americano and a breve, and I learned how not to explode scalding milk all over my face. (That totally happened once.) I learned the importance of keeping chilled shots of espresso for iced drinks and lament the fact that so few coffee shops actually do this. (You know when you take a drink of your iced latte and it’s warm? That’s because it’s a hot espresso shot. If the whole drink is cold, the coffee shop used a cold espresso shot. Because when I ask for an iced coffee, I want it COLD, dammit.)

But you know what I never learned? How to properly make a wrap.

The Common Cup served lunch, and every now and again, my shift would overlap with lunchtime. The menu was mostly made up of salads, sandwiches, wraps, a soup of the day, and the daily special. I was fine with all of it… except the stupid wraps. I could never figure out just how to fold the wrap and make that nice little pouch so that its contents didn’t ooze out into the customer’s lap. Some things are beyond my capabilities, and I think wraps may be one of them.

If I worked the opening shift, I was given the dubious honor of writing the specials on the board. Each day had an entrĂ©e, which was chosen by Rose. There was also the day’s soup and the week’s specialty espresso drink. It was while writing one day’s special that I learned a very important lesson: though brisket rhymes with biscuit, it is not spelled as such. Having never encountered brisket before, I wrote it as “briscuit.” My, how quickly did I learn.

The soup of the day once saved me from an entire torturous Saturday of concert band rehearsal. It was an October weekend, and I was scheduled to work at the Common Cup in the morning. It was the same weekend as the Festival of Bands, so we poor concert band members were expected to rehearse all day Saturday with the visiting bands, and then perform in concerts on Saturday night and Sunday morning. My shift at the Common Cup was almost over, and I had to high-tail it to rehearsal. Just a few minutes before I had to leave, I was dishing up some chicken tortilla soup for someone – and I spilled the blisteringly hot soup all over my hand. Smooth.

But hey, I thought – maybe I could still play my clarinet. I scooted to rehearsal on my bike, trying to ignore the searing pain in my hand. By the time I got to the rehearsal hall, I couldn’t even move my fingers. I showed my bright red hand to our director, sheepishly inquiring if I could maybe sit the rehearsal out. He sent me straight home, instructing me to take it easy on my hand – for we had concerts coming. I was in good enough shape to play the two concerts, and let me tell you, I sure enjoyed my afternoon off. Aside from the minor burns, of course.

My class schedule changed during the spring semester of my senior year, and so my Common Cup schedule followed suit. I had a rough (well, relatively rough in college student world) schedule that semester: class at 10:30am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and class at 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I had made it through seven semesters without the dreaded 8am class, and here I was: at the finish line, and I had my first 8am class. For a college student, any class before noon basically spells death.

Wondering how on earth I was going to find time to work, I delivered my class times to Sue at the Common Cup (who made the schedule). She said, “No problem!” and scheduled me to work the opening shift (6am – 10am) on Mondays and Fridays.


So every Sunday and Thursday night, I would grudgingly try to go to bed early. (Which was very difficult, considering that Thursday night was Quarter Taps and everyone I knew was out at the bar drinking glasses of Hamms for a quarter.) As a non-morning person, I never got used to getting up early in order to be to work by 6. Especially during the winter. Trudging through the snowy streets of Morris long before anyone else was up was not my idea of a good time. But there was something peaceful about it – it was kind of nice having an entire hour to myself in the Common Cup. It gave me time to take care of all the opening stuff, and it gave me time to wake up enough to be personable to the customers who would walk in the door when we opened at 7. That wake-up time was very important.

In between opening and the end of my shift, I made coffee beverages and breakfast foods for happy Morris residents on their way to work or class. Rare was the occasion that I had a grumpy customer. Even better? James came to visit me during each and every shift. What a guy.

When my shift ended each Monday and Friday, I would make myself an iced chai and a breakfast sandwich to go. I’d hop on my bike (weather permitting) and skedaddle to my 10:30 art history class. Don’t get me wrong: I adored all three of my art history professors, and I loved my art history classes. But when you’re sitting in the back of a huge classroom that is warm and dark and you’ve already been up for five hours, it’s damn hard to pay attention. I still have my notes from that class, and I can tell exactly where I started to drift off. But I still got an A in the class, so there you have it.

Before I knew it, I had graduated college and my year at the Common Cup was over. It was the one and only food service job that I’ve ever actually enjoyed, and easily one of my favorite part-time jobs. After all, customers have a hard time being crabby with you when you’re handing them coffee.

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