In 2008, Emma Bell Bern had just graduated from college and was ready to start living on her own. Leaving behind the rural college town of Galesburg, Illinois, she set off for Chicago for her first big-city experience. She got a job as a barista at a Peet’s Coffee and Tea on the city’s North Side.
Bell Bern liked working at Peet’s. Founded in Berkeley in the 1960s and known for its laid-back atmosphere, the company encouraged her to develop in-depth knowledge about their selection of coffees and teas from around the world, taste everything she could, and develop her palate.
“It was a little bit of a culture cult, but it spoke to me,” Bell Bern told me. “I like to learn, and I'm attracted to specialty knowledge, so I thought, ‘This is something I can excel in, that not everyone knows about.’ I was into it.”
Bell Bern kept her job for several years, eventually becoming a shift manager and one of the longest-tenured employees at her store. She wasn’t without complaints, but she enjoyed her work, liked her coworkers, formed relationships with regulars, and made enough money to get by.
But a few years later, in its efforts to secure an almost $1 billion acquisition, the company started looking for ways to cut costs and began making operational changes, some of which frustrated Bell Bern and her coworkers. At her store, she says, the manager cut the morning-rush staff in half, and a shop that once allowed for detailed conversations with customers about the minutiae of coffee now had lines snaking out the door. Meanwhile, a screen behind the bar tracked the time between a drink order and its completion, blinking from green to red as minutes passed.