Workers Reveal What It's Really Like Working At A Starbucks Drive-Thru

In many places across the United States, it can feel like it is impossible to drive more than half an hour without seeing a Starbucks. That's for good reason. According to Statista, there are around 15,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S. alone. A significant number of those shops offer a drive-thru option, which often feels like the easiest and quickest way to get a cup of coffee (or whatever specialized caffeinated drink you wish) in your hand.

Only, that's not always the case, according to comments that Starbucks drive-thru employees and former workers have posted online. In fact, the drive-thru can be a huge pain, especially for the workers. Starbucks drive-thru workers encounter rude and errant customers, annoying menu items, wild animals in passenger seats, and a slew of afternoon coffee drinkers who just can't decide on an order. All this and more add up to quite the work experience, though it's not entirely bad. Drive-thru workers are also uniquely positioned to make a customer's day and pet some friendly dogs.

Here's what it is really like to work at the Starbucks drive-thru, according to public posts by employees themselves.

Starbucks drive-thru workers are constantly multi-tasking

Depending on the Starbucks location, working the drive-thru simply means working all of the jobs plus the drive-thru. In a Reddit post that reads like a cry for help, one newbie employee asked for tips on how to handle their first drive-thru shift. Commenters said that they should get ready to wear many hats.

Workers who take the orders through the drive-thru are also usually the ones working the register, according to one employee who replied to the post. Another advised that drive-thru workers should help the second customer in the short time it takes for the previous customer to drive up to the window, then balance payment, input a new order for a different customer, and pass along the first customer's order at the same time. Though, as they cautioned, preparing a drink or grabbing one from the other side of the store can slow things down. That process continues until there aren't any more customers left to tackle or your shift is over.

The people working the drive-thru always wear headsets, but if you've ever seen a busy Starbucks, you know there are lots of people wearing headsets. According to another employee who posted on r/Starbucks, that's because "it's really helpful to have a lot of people wearing them," just in case someone needs help with a busy drive-thru full of cars.

Working the Starbucks drive-thru can feel like a fast food job

When you think of Starbucks, you probably think of coffee. There's a good chance "fast food" isn't the first thing that comes to mind or even the fourth or fifth thing that occurs to you when you're contemplating the coffee chain. America is a fast food nation, but Starbucks doesn't fit neatly in that category, even while it offers a classic fast food drive-thru option. Yet, for some Starbucks employees, a few locations of the coffee chain get closer to fast food territory than the franchises that lack a drive-thru.

On Reddit, one employee posted a complaint that drive-thrus make them feel like they "might as well be working at McDonald's or Taco Bell." Instead of being a coffee shop where people could meet up with friends, they argue that drive-thrus have made Starbucks feel like it is "trying to be fast food while not really having a fast food product." the poster said.

Others replied to the employee's post with similar feelings. One person wrote that fast food restaurants prep much of their food, while Starbucks takes many custom orders, and that it's not possible to be a specialty coffee shop while also having a fast drive-thru. Another employee added a comment that distilled the issue down to its most essential terms: "Drive-thrus simply aren't the place for seven-step hand-crafted beverages and warmed breakfast foods."

Starbucks drive-thru customers expect workers to move quickly

In 2016, QSR Magazine reported that Starbucks was the number two quick-service company in the United States, but found itself in the bottom half for drive-thru order accuracy. In fact, it was at the bottom of the heap with the lowest ranking in drive-thru speed of service. So, if you've ever been idling in a Starbucks drive-thru wondering if things were really going slowly inside or if it was just your warped sense of time, there's a good chance it was not on you. And it's drive-thru employees who have to deal with the people who need to quickly get their coffee and go.

Though Starbucks has worked on its store-wide drive-thru times, this issue still plagues the company. All you have to do is take a look at the complaints on Twitter, like one person who says they waited 15 minutes in the drive-thru and were even shamed for their drink order. Another customer noted that it took them 10 minutes to get through a line of only three cars.

But, while some Starbucks employees on Reddit feel that it is attempting to become a fast food place as much as a coffee shop chain, there's no getting around the fact that custom coffee is at the heart of Starbucks. This means employees just have to deal with the customers who are often frustrated that they can't just pick up their drink and leave as quickly as possible in the drive-thru.

Starbucks employees get shouted at by drive-thru customers

Drive-thru technology is, in many respects, pretty wonderful. It allows people to order through a speaker and have their food ready why they get to the end of the drive-thru lane, all without leaving their vehicle. Technology can also be a pain, as any Starbucks worker who has donned the drive-thru headset knows. One of the biggest reasons: volume control.

On Reddit, Starbucks employees agreed that the worst part of working the drive-thru was surely being screamed at because you didn't hear a mumbling customer's order. One worker wrote that "being able to understand customers that mumble is like learning a different language."

Some customers are harder to deal with than others, employees agreed, including shouters people with loud diesel trucks. Mumblers and screamers make the drive-thru all the more stressful, one commenter replied. "I started my training today, and my trainer took me for a spin on drive-thru. It was by far the most stressful/confusing component almost entirely because of mumbling customers."

Morning customers are easier to work with in the Starbucks drive-thru

There are two types of people in this world: morning people and night people. Employees who work the Starbucks drive-thru can separate it a little differently: morning Starbucks drinkers and afternoon Starbucks drinkers. The former, it turns out, are much easier for employees to work with than the latter.

"In my experience, the mornings are crazy busy, but the customers are generally easier to handle because they know exactly what they want and how to order," an employee wrote on Reddit. "It's the afternoon and evening DT [drive-thru] customers that make me want to smash my head through a wall. Too many 'uuuuuuuhhhhhhhh........... can uhh..... can I get a...... actually hold on a minute. Ya know what? I'll have one of those cookie frappe thingys. The extra large.'"

Others concurred that the afternoon and evening customers are typically more difficult. The worst, however, is dealing with a drive-thru customer in the afternoon during Pumpkin Spice Latte season and beyond.

"Christmas season begins and the 7 rings of Hell slowly open to let through all the angry Christmas catastrophes that somehow are always the local barista's fault," one employee wrote in reply to the original morning versus afternoon customer debate. "Straight up brings out the worst in people. Tips get better though, so there's that at least."

Starbucks drive-thru employees see the strangest things in people's cars

Plenty of people bring their dogs with them as they go through the Starbucks drive-thru, but there are also folks with pets that are less traditional road trip animals. Sometimes, those animals ride along on their person's next Starbucks run.

"So there was something weird in a car's passenger seat as it approached," one drive-thru worker wrote on Reddit, "and I thought it was a kite or a large painting or something but it turned out to be a PARROT and when I gave the driver her order he screamed and ripped the banana nut bread bag out of her hands and started chowing. Pretty memorable."

Other Starbucks drive-thru workers report having seen animals as exotic as giant lizards that the owners held up for employees to pet, as one Reddit post confirms. Another employee said that they were confronted with a small monkey leaning out of the car window, as well as a more familiar cat who was being held by a passenger in the same car.

Animals aren't the only thing drive-thru workers see in people's cars. Employees on a Reddit thread dedicated to the topic listed some of their favorite weird things they've witnessed while working the Starbucks drive-thru. Ultra-caffeinated kids, a regular who always offers marijuana, and cops watching TV on a laptop all made the list.

Starbucks drive-thru workers receive fewer tips than in-store employees

When someone orders a drink inside a Starbucks, they're often face-to-face with a tip jar that can't be ignored. Yet, despite drive-thru workers doing nearly the same numbers of tasks as those undertaken by employees who work at the counter, tips don't flow freely in the drive-thru lane. It doesn't help that tipping is already a tricky proposition for food service workers in the United States.

On Reddit, one drive-thru worker asked for suggestions on how to get more tips at the high volume Starbucks where they work. The average total was only 50 cents an hour, they said, regardless of how personable they are with customers. Another employee suggested handing the customer's cash back to them before handing over their change. The employee claimed that about half of people will say to just keep the change.

Employees further noted that they don't really expect tips except for large orders or on major holidays. "I would say on holidays consider throwing in a tip," one worker explained. "On major holidays (in my area) the tips only go to the baristas who worked that day. We typically do expect higher than normal tip rates which is why we work instead of chilling out with family."

Despite it being a drive-thru, a Starbucks is still a Starbucks order after all. Many argue that, if tips go to the baristas in the cafe, then they should go to those working the frequently hectic drive-thru.

Starbucks drive-thru employees get to pet plenty of dogs

When a worker posted about the worst part of working the Starbucks drive-thru on Reddit, one lighthearted sentiment struck a chord: "Not being able to pet all the cute dogs that come up to the window!"

Maybe this shouldn't be surprising at a coffee shop that offers "puppuccinos", which Starbucks Secret Menu reports are just cups of whipped cream with no coffee included. For employees, one of the perks of the Starbucks drive-thru job is all the opportunities to pet other people's pups.

"I pet the cute dogs. I pet ALL the cute dogs," one worker wrote in response to the original post. "Then I actively, loudly, vigorously, wash my hands right after so no one can accuse me of being unsanitary. But chyeah, you expect me to look at an adorable little bowling ball of a french bulldog and not put my hands all over that?"

Even people who aren't working the drive-thru get to join in on the phone sometimes. "I'm usually on bar, but I have a hard and fast rule that I must be alerted of any dogs at the window so I can pop my head in to fawn over them," an employee wrote in the same thread. "It becomes part of the numbers for me, like we had a blahblah window time and blahblah cars last half-hour AND I SAW THREE DOGS!!!!"

Some Starbucks managers expect drive-thru workers to make small talk

People like to eat and drink at places that make them feel comfortable. For some Starbucks managers, that translates to making employees act more personable with each and every customer. even if it's just done through the drive-thru speaker.

On Reddit, one employee who has long worked the drive-thru said that their manager wants employees to "connect," even "if it means forcing a 5 minute awkward conversation if the wait time goes up." Other workers responded with complaints that this sort of awkward banter fades into awkward silence a lot of the time, especially in the early morning. 

Exactly what greeting a worker uses can change. On Reddit, one Starbucks drive-thru employee noted that their greeting is "Welcome to this town's Starbucks what can we get started for you today?" A reply to this comment noted that they often forgo name-dropping the town they're in because, "if you're driving a car and don't know where you are and that you've reached Starbucks, I feel like you shouldn't be driving." However, it should be noted that other employees replied that, far too often, they do indeed have to let people know they're at a Starbucks and not at the nearby burger joint.

Starbucks drive-thru workers say some managers don't always have their back

In 2019, a curse-laden video made the rounds on Reddit showing a drive-thru employee who got into a heated argument with a customer. The yelling escalated, insults were tossed, and it all culminated when the customer hit the employee. When the video was posted in r/Starbucks, it kicked off comments sympathetic to the worker.

"This is sorta an unpopular opinion, but corporate usually never helps the barista," one person commented. "They're all about brand recognition. They don't care when partners get abused day in and day out." Another commenter noted that the video appeared to show someone who experienced verbal abuse from the customer before and that the worker "hit her snapping point because her SM [stage manager] and/or DM [district manager] wouldn't support her when she reported this customer."

Though the video showed an extreme example of what can happen between rude customers and employees who deal with rudeness whenever they go to work, it exemplified a bigger problem according to some workers in the Reddit thread. "I say it all the time; corporate does not care about the employees," one person posted. "They care about money, and PR."

Starbucks drive-thru workers can help make a customer's day

While it is undeniable that there are some insufferable, demanding Starbucks drive-thru customers out there, it is also true that there are customers who are the polar opposite. And drive-thru employees have the chance to make the day for those customers when they need it most.

In a Reddit post titled "A lil thank you to the drive thru worker," one customer explained how all it took was a little kindness. The poster, who was pregnant and had recently lost both of her jobs, was in the middle of filing for unemployment. The poster pulled into a parking kit and promptly dropped her coffee. When she went back through the drive-thru for another order, the employee asked how her day was going. Obviously, the answer was not great, and the worker responded "well at least you have your coffee now!" And when the customer attempted to pay, the worker said, "oh hun, this one is on us."

"I know it's your job to make customers happy, and she probably didn't think about that past that day," the customer wrote, "but that seriously made such an impact on my day and it made me feel so much better to know someone cares, even a little bit." They also added: "Thanks to ALL of you who do this job [...] you really do make a world of difference for some people."