Beyond the Menu
In most restaurants, the menu is fairly comprehensive. Appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks are usually ordered as written, with only a simple variety available based on pre-selected side dishes, salads and soups. Guests of the average restaurant usually only become aware of any further choice if they are long-time patrons of an establishment or more commonly, fans of a particular chef. Beyond discounts, choice seating, extra portions, these kinds of patrons can often make requests for different ingredients, means of preparation, unusual side dishes, cooking methods, and even presentation, for example, if ordering dinner for themselves and a date.
In the past few decades, a new and unique phenomenon has brought “beyond the menu” to the chain restaurant. It is likely this type of regular customer benefit started with establishments in the 1950s and 1960s that catered to younger customers likely to popularize requests. If the “cool kid” ordered something unique, funny or just plain good, everyone else followed along, and soon the custom dishes were outselling the “official” menu. Anyone who has visited the In n’ Out hamburger chains popular in the Southern California area has likely heard of “The Animal” or the “Four by Four.” These varieties don’t appear on the menu alongside the “Singles, Doubles and Double-Doubles,” at the drive-thru but it is a near-certainty just about every person working at that restaurant, even the newest trainee, knows exactly how to prepare them, right down to the last tomato, piece of cheese and leaf of lettuce.
Coffee Culture: From Art to Science
What may have started as an art form in the age of soda fountains and tailfins on cars has become a science in the contemporary beverage business of popular coffee establishments like Starbucks. The average waitress of the 1950s would have readily agreed with the assertion that a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee, but in the 21st century, where the coffee varieties literally change by the hour, and where combinations of ingredients make dozens of possibilities available, half of which not only aren’t on the menu, but can’t be added because in any given restaurant, a customized drink variety might have one of five different names, exotic beverages outnumber simple cups of coffee ten to one.
Like any distinct culture, the drink business at Starbucks has its own language, complete with its own grammar, vocabulary and dialect. At Starbucks, baristas capable of making well over 100 drink varieties are required to interpret orders quickly and efficiently. Over time, as with most other languages, this leads to the development of colloquialisms, or “grammatical shorthand” for popular combinations of ingredients and popular drink varieties.
The grammar of the Starbucks order determines the correct order of choices, while the vocabulary might include completely new words like “half-caf, misto or chai.” There is even a dialect which can be a source of controversy, as in the differing opinions on the correct pronunciation of “venti.” Is it “ven-TEE” or “ven-TAY?”
Sometimes it’s just a cup of coffee
Do you know the difference between Mocha and Macchiato?
Naturally, with so many different kinds of coffee drinks available, and with the further barrier of having to learn a new language and its “slang,” new customers at places like Starbucks often find themselves unable to move beyond “just a cup of coffee.” At its most basic, this can be something as simple as not knowing exactly what they are ordering. What exactly is a Frappucino? What’s the difference between “mocha” and macchiato? For that matter, what exactly is espresso? For people who consider the ingredients for a pot of coffee a filter and a couple scoops of fresh grounds, anything more complicated might make coffee sound confusing.
Start adding options like “shots,” six different kinds of milk, a range of temperatures and proportions of drink vs. foam, and suddenly ordering coffee requires actual expertise, to say nothing of the difference between “tall, grande and venti,” and their correct pronunciations. There’s even a fourth size available, and depending on the type of drink, a venti might not even be a real venti. Even people who consider themselves to be truly sophisticated Starbucks experts may find they don’t know as much as they think they do.