About a year ago, I was walking in the East Village when I ran into Cindy, a former customer I hadn’t seen in years. Though I had been determined to find a friend’s coffee shop so I could use the facilities, I wanted to catch up with Cindy because she was the kind of customer I’d always imagined hanging out with outside of work. I walked to the train with her and we exchanged condensed versions of our lives for the past five years. I asked her why I stopped seeing her.
“I moved to the West Village,” she began. “Not super west, but enough that the East Village was a bit too far off the path for me. I’ll probably have to start coming back, though.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
She bit her lip and responded, “I went on the worst date and had the worst sex with the morning barista at my regular shop and I can never, ever go in again.”
Cindy’s self-imposed exile made me seriously question the dynamic between barista and crushtomer. A certain degree of familiarity and friendliness is undoubtedly a good thing for the communal nature of the coffee shop; there’s no harm in a mutual flirtation that makes both parties feel sexy and doesn’t hold up a line of anxious and tired regulars. What happens, however, when the attraction is strong enough to move beyond the counter? Should the crushtomer always represent forbidden fruit, or is it okay for a barista to write her number on her crushtomer’s to-go cup and take it from there?
First, we must have a working definition of crushtomer. A combination of the words “crush” and “customer”, the word’s earliest appearance on the internet is an Urban Dictionary definition from December of 2008, around the time that I became aware of the term. User RaeganMT defines crushtomer as “A regular customer at your workplace who you find attractive or take a liking to. Usually associated in a customer service environment like a coffee shop.” Frequency of patronage seems to be key in defining a crushtomer; the dude you go home with after his first visit to the shop isn’t so much a crushtomer as he is a really thirsty patron.
One recurring theme in my discussions with baristas was the ranking of crushtomers. Almost everyone kept a top three or five list with a definitive number one and some equally sexy also-rans whose rankings changed based on positive or negative interactions. Crushtomer ranking was serious business for me when I was working at Everyman Espresso, and I had major delusions of finding a husband at work. On days when Crushtomers 1-3 would all come in I was in the zone, sporting erect posture, firing off a few carefully constructed witticisms, and making sure to recall important details about their jobs or personal lives. I figured that if I put out enough charm and interest, one of these guys would ask me to be his permanent home barista. Reality set in and I found love elsewhere, but my heart occasionally still raced when engaging a crushtomer in small talk.
While crushtomer interactions can be a daily high for the barista, they can also result in extreme anxiety. Jan, formerly a barista at a popular cafe in Washington D.C., relayed to me the story of one of her coworkers who had an all-consuming crush on a woman who came in to the shop every day. One day, the coworker had a painfully awkward exchange with her crushtomer. Jan later found the coworker in the backroom breaking biscotti as she said, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
While Jan’s coworker faced disappointment by flubbing with her crushtomer, moving to the next level can also set up the barista for an uncomfortable situation. Marcia, a barista at a popular New York cafe, stepped out from behind the bar to go on a date with a crushtomer last year; the results were disappointing. At an awkward dinner, they discovered that they had nothing to talk about. “It was miserable because we both wanted to leave but were too polite to end it early,” she recalled. “It got even more awkward afterward. We would barely speak when he came into the shop and then he just stopped showing up.”
Marcia’s unfortunate situation with her crushtomer begs a discussion of ethics as well as economics: does moving a relationship with a crushtomer out of the shop mean you’re risking lost revenue if things go south? Greg, a manager of a Manhattan coffee shop, refers to the move from crushtomerhood to dating as “making the conversion.” Having tried it himself to varying degrees of success, Greg said of other employees making the conversion, “It’s none of my business as long as nothing unprofessional goes on during operating hours.”
Indeed, some barista’s sex habits may drum up business. Bobby, a former coworker of mine and admitted lothario, was particularly active in the fall when coeds were moving into the NYU dorms. Young women would frequently come to the shop and ask if he was around or when he was working. If he wasn’t, some of them would buy drinks and stick around for a few hours, perhaps in hope that he might show up. Of course, these women weren’t Bobby’s crushtomers, as they almost never turned into regulars. A portmanteau for a customer’s barista crush has not yet made it into the mainstream, though I am very fond of one a friend came up with: barlusta.
And then there’s always the exquisite pain of wondering and longing. On my semi-permanent final day at Everyman, Crushtomer #1 came in looking particularly handsome. I gave him his cappuccino and he handed me a parting gift. It was an aged paperback of a Jack Kerouac novel with which I was unfamiliar. While I’m not a devotee of the Beat Generation author, the book’s tagline immediately stood out: “A new and hauntingly different novel about a morphine-racked prostitute.” I looked up at him in a daze. As much as I had often fantasized about interactions with my crushtomers beyond the standard “How’s the day treating you?” or the hopeful “Would you like that to stay?” I was shaken by this exchange of goods and what it said about our relationship: this guy really got me.
I was left wondering if everything had aligned and we were both single at the same time, could we have been something more? And if we had made the conversion and it didn’t work out, would we be able to keep it cordial, or would he be just another Cindy with a longer morning commute, left to wander Manhattan in limbo in search of a caffeine fix and another barista who likes trashy dimestore novels? Ultimately, I’m okay with the fact that it was all tension and no release for us. I saw him recently at one of my first shifts back at Everyman and we shared a loud and slightly painful high-five. When he walked away, I purged the steam wand for good measure.
Doodles by Zachary Carlsen.