We were underpaid and over-opinionated, and wore cocoa-stained company T-shirts. I guess that’s what made us rebel baristas. It was late-1996, and there were three of us at the Kensington branch of a burgeoning coffee chain: Katya, who could flirt irresistibly in six different languages; Ishi, who’d roll into work still tripping from the previous night’s party; and me – 21, slack-jawed, but adept at creating perfect-density milk froth, in the precise proportions that distinguished a dry latte from a wet cappuccino. Such details kept our regulars sweet.
Our store manager, Josh, would usually materialise in Duffer casuals, to cash up when the day’s work was complete. "Crucial meetings with Head Office," he’d insist, while our hours of unpaid overtime amassed. Until one day, Ishi told us: "We could bring this corporation down, from within." He was sticking a memo that read: "ishi is god" onto the espresso machine as he spoke.And so a plot brewed, in roughly the same time as the Arabian java filter coffee-of-the-day.
In Josh’s frequent absence, we would counteract our training.
Phase One was to reverse the company’s loyalty card system; from now on, purchasing one coffee would entitle the customer to ten free refills. Phase Two: never charge for "extras": whipped cream, additional shots, gourmet syrup flavours on the house! This proved very successful, although several customers were vividly sick on grande quadruple-shot raspberry-vanilla mochas (extra whip).Phase Three involved trashing the anodyne easy listening tapes issued by Head Office, and sneaking on our own music soundtracks.
Ishi’s favourite compilation album, "The Sound Of The Hoover", was played on a continuous loop. I was sorry to lose some of our amiable regulars, who used to drop by to sip coffee and rifle through the papers; however, at least it repelled the snotty Kensington clans who never said "please" or "thanks", and always left piles of soggy rubbish in their wake. Our tourist clientele didn’t flinch, perhaps assuming that the noise was a London quirk. And we seemed to gain cred with Kensington Market traders.
It was a couple of weeks before Josh addressed Katya, Ishi and me. "Takings are down, guys," he frowned. "Are you remembering to ask if customers want anything to eat? Are you remembering to smile?"We beamed in response. Because we had already commenced Phase four of our plan: subliminal messages in milk foam. I’d whip up a semi-solid froth (hold jug at a 45-degree angle, steam jet just beneath surface, heat to 110 degrees centigrade), and Katya would inscribe multilingual words onto individual drinks with a swizzle stick. Because the cup sizes left little room for expression – and perhaps because caffeine made Katya tetchy - most of our hot beverages just stated: "cazzo".When an espresso shot is extracted from ground coffee, it starts to expire after 25 seconds.
Our scheme developed rapidly: Ishi applied for a transfer to the flagship branch in Bank, aiming to extend our service to City high-fliers; we swopped our name badges for birthdate-serial numbers (making me 061975). But it expired swiftly, too – when Katya and I arrived for a Saturday opening shift, and found two Head Office suits and a policeman waiting for us. While my face wore its usual indolent expression, my thundering pulse almost drowned out what the taller suit was saying: "…change of store manager… possibility of fraud… have you been aware of unorthodox muffin orders?" I moved my head dumbly, while Katya replied with beguiling charm: "Josh took such care with the accounts… for months?… how awful!"
We were told to always keep up the company’s high standards, reminded that name badges should be displayed, and that happily, twelve new branches were set to open soon, with many exciting opportunities. Our DIY revolution dissolved, insipid against the company’s flow.Katya decided that she’d much rather study theatre design than pour coffees. Ishi just disappeared, without contacting anyone; I think I spotted him once, in a dry ice haze at Bagleys warehouse. I thought I might make an honest living as a music journalist, so I worked my final shift at Kensington.
Walking past the store – now one of dozens in London alone – always triggers an uneasy nostalgia. Eventually, I succumbed, stood on the other side of the counter and paid one pound eighty-five for a double-tall latte. It didn’t taste of anything. I looked very closely, but it didn’t say anything, either.