My Year as a Barista: An Ode to Smith Bros. Coffee House and the Beauty of Community
By Mary Boyle
Long before the pandemic, I was working from home with first one child and a dog, then added another child, then just two children for a time and then, about a year before the pandemic hit, I threw a new puppy into the mix. Needless to say, working from home was not very productive, but there was one place, if I could manage to get away from home, where I loved to work: a coffee shop. Depending on who I was meeting or what other errands I needed to run, I had a list of favorite shops throughout Oz where the baristas knew my favorite drink and, because community building is my jam, would discuss the local happenings with me. A coffee shop is the thinking person's pub; a social equalizer where both the wealthy and poor, old and young, and every affiliation or label you can slap on someone can gather and mix without raising an eyebrow. One of my favorites was Smith Bros. Coffee House in downtown Port Washington, because it was in walking distance to my house, had beautiful Lake Michigan views, and the people that worked there never failed to make me smile.
Then, the pandemic hit. The pandemic hit right after my husband and I moved our two children and our puppy out of Port and into the woods of Little Kohler (about as far north west in Oz as you can go and still be in Oz). After a few months, the cabin fever set in. While I at least occasionally went to the grocery store, the kids were just stuck at home almost entirely. Like many, we were desperate to get out and do something that felt normal. Our first journey was to Smith Bros.: we ordered curbside, piled in my little car with the puppy and made the drive into Port. Even though we weren't able to go inside, it was so lovely to see Anna, the manager, when she handed our order through the window, and to have our favorite and familiar treats. Such a simple joy; it was heaven.
By the end of the summer, I was desperate to get out of my house, but there were still no coffee shops that had indoor seating. That's when I came across the ad for a barista at Smith Bros. I thought to myself: What would it be like to work on the other side of the counter? Baristas are so cool, with their tattoos and colored hair and piercings...was I too old to be a barista? I'd spent years drinking the lattes, Americanos and cappuccinos, but I'd never actually made any of them...how cool would it be to learn how? Besides, it was the only way I could get back in to a coffee shop. So, I applied, I interviewed and, to my surprise, I was hired and put in training with largely a bunch of people who were 15 to 20 years younger than me (and two who were Seniors in high school, like my daughter).
Now, two things happened pretty quickly: everyone realized I knew how to "people" really well, so they often stuck me in front of the register; and, I quite lovingly became known as the cafe mom (What can I say? I was a professional nanny for almost two decades.). Here are just a few things I learned:
However, the most important things I learned were not about business, economics or barista skills, they were about people. I learned more about the people I worked with (Anna, Kaylen, Mikey, Susie, Kat, Stacy, Noah, Joey, Nathanael, Hanna, Paige, Ciara, Gabby, and Maddie), who are like another family to me, as Smith Bros. became another home in an even deeper sense than it was before. I never dreaded coming into work because I enjoyed being with all of them so much.
I learned about the people in our community — some who I know by their drink: white mocha frappe, no whip, guy; bucket of jade cloud tea lady; extra scoop hot chocolate guy; iced king caramel kid; large coffee with 1 or 2 ice cubes guy; large lakefront fog lady. Some I know by other characteristics: Bailey the dog's person; skull and crossbones tie gentleman. For some, I've learned their name and drink: Janel (whatever), Amy (skim java chip frappe, no whip), Josh (extra small Americano with room), Cal (large iced king caramel), Bob (medium mild coffee), Kyle (4 shot medium oat boi), Melissa (large shoreman's fleece and a large iced white chocolate mocha with whip), Sarah (espresso shake), Lindsay (large lakefront fog), Howard (creamsicle), Fred (skim cappuccino), Brian (large vanilla soy chai latte), Gracie formerly of the Green but now of the Black (lake effect, but it used to be a king caramel), Jim (latte), Ryleen (vanilla white mocha), Joey (large hazelnut breve), Aaron (small caramel frappe), and the one who I will miss most of all, because he passed away just recently, is Clem (sugar free lake effect).
We didn't just sell you drinks and tasty food, we traded laughs, stories, news and wishes. We picked on Mikey together. You brought us gifts. When Ryleen saw me dressed as a taco for Halloween, she brought me her candy cane costume to wear for Christmas and we had a blast with it! I made a butterbeer just for Kalyn, a banana smoothie just for Ty, and I have no idea how many grilled cheese sandwiches Jackson might have eaten. I never figured out why Port's City Administrator goes as Paul in our shop, but I will miss seeing him every week. I will miss our adorable Cintas lad, Bryce, who brightened every Friday. I will miss the Duluth Trading Co. people like Bill (chicken sandwich with cheddar and a coke), Sheree (lake effect), Joey and Bob (arnold palmer with a shot of blackberry). We built a community within a community. I can't tell you how glad I am to have had the chance to be on the other side of the counter.
I had only planned on staying a year before I went back on my writing way, but I hadn't planned on Smith Bros. not still being there for me after I left. These last days were bittersweet: I sold the last black bean burger, the last two chicken sandwiches, and the last oat boi (to Kyle, in fact, which was just perfect). I ate way too many salmon wraps and savored every bite, especially when Mikey wrote yet another name that rhymed with "Mary" on the outside. There were high fives and hugs; there was an outpouring of concern and love. I stopped in and got one last coffee - a lake effect - on the very last day, but I couldn't bear to be there when they closed the doors for the last time.
I'm a writer, so this is how I process the hard things. I hope it helps those of you who were maybe feeling a bit sheepish about the hole that opened up in your hearts when you heard that Smith Bros. was closing — don't feel silly, the loss is real. The most important thing I learned about working at Smith Bros. in a pandemic is that people need each other. We should be proud of the little community we all had a part in building. We will find new ones, I promise, but it's okay to take a moment and acknowledge that this one...well, this one was special. I will miss you all — yes, even you, skull and crossbones tie gentleman.
I apologize to anyone whose drink I messed up and who didn't have the courage to tell me, or those who hoped to talk but I was too busy with a noisy blender. I apologize if I missed calling you out in this article. Most of all, I apologize if I spelled your name wrong. Truly, I can't thank everyone enough for making a tough year so much brighter. Goodbyes are always hard, so I'll just say see you later. Hit me up for coffee if you need to chat — I know some good places.
9/9/2021 05:05:48 pm
The closing of this place just breaks my heart. Harry's had been my original Port hangout, but that place, with it's inherent friendliness and comfort food disappeared in a cloud of development. And while Smith Bros. Coffee House isn't the only coffee shop in town it was very much a part of the several festivals that Bounding Main had performed at. Now, two of those festivals are, themselves, gone - signature marks on the city that represented vitality, history and character. Those events and food venues are gone now, seemingly without replacement. I will certainly still come back to town for Yummy Bones and the Port Exploreum but I keep looking over my shoulder for something that is missing in this sweet little town on Lake Michigan.
9/12/2021 09:11:00 am
There's nothing like a local coffee shop and the community they have the power to build.
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