You know that secret Starbucks menu everyone is always talking about? The one that allows you to create a pink drink or an all-cream Frappucino for your dog? There’s another secret menu for employees, one that bends all the rules in the employee handbook without quite breaking them. It’s a menu that’s never been written down as far as I know, but instead is passed from partner to partner (the Starbucks term for employee), in the break room over broken pastries and marked out beverages. It’s a menu that I learned to exploit to my every advantage during my four years at the company: eating the refuse. 

During four years working as a barista, I learned how to view scraps of both the business and our customers as my main source of sustenance. My own fridge was often woefully understocked, and I had classes to attend and papers to write—and none of these things could be done on an empty stomach, especially when I’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. to help other people fuel up for the day. If I was going to be on my feet for a long morning shift, I was going to have to find fuel somehow. Leftovers were the way. 

The morning shift attracts particularly hungry people, both in the figurative and the physical sense. When we’d get there to set up each morning at 4:15 a.m., my coworkers and I would immediately start chatting about what we wanted to eat that day — pizza, hot cheetos, maybe a bagel. (We were mostly college kids, after all, and pre-dawn cravings are often for the most primal carbohydrate comforts.) I’d always volunteer to calibrate the machines so that I could drink the espresso shots I pulled to make sure the machine was working properly—my first act of stealing-but-not-really for the day. The shots I pulled while calibrating—a necessary procedure to make sure that the espresso for customers’ lattes and macchiatos was perfect—were sometimes really bad. They took too long to pull, or there was not nearly enough liquid in the glass, or the temperature was off, but I drank them anyway so that they didn't go to waste. This sometimes meant I was drinking upwards of 10 espresso shots each morning just to save them from the fate of the drain. It was part self-preservation (4:30 a.m. makes espresso shots particularly attractive) and part conditioning—I learned to like the bitter taste eventually, and I felt that it was a sign I could become accustomed to any other bitterness that may come my way. 

After we’d cleaned the counters and made sure we were set up to make drinks, we’d load the pastries and ready-to-go snacks into their cases. If any pastries were broken, or if any of the sandwiches or parfaits were expired, we’d “mark them out” as waste — we were supposed to throw anything broken or expired out, though we’d often put it in the back so that whoever wanted to could eat it instead. It seemed ridiculous to toss perfectly good food just because it didn’t look perfect or supposedly expired that day. When you’re a broke college kid, you don’t get too precious about the appearance of your sandwich. If we had time before our official open, we’d sit down to have a quick breakfast together before our first customer. Sometimes, a discarded, defective pastry at 5:00 a.m. would be the only thing I’d eat until I got home from school at 4:00 p.m. 

My most questionable practice was drinking unclaimed or rejected coffee drinks. This was something that the partner who trained me taught me, and I never looked back. During that budget-oriented time in my life, it seemed frivolous to me to pay $4-something for a latte when I could have an Americano for half that—basically the same amount of caffeine with water instead of milk. It was a luxury that I couldn’t wrap my head around, but if a customer rejected their coffee concoction because we’d marked the cup with the wrong milk choice, who was I to refuse? When someone sent back a drink, I’d often pretend I was going to toss it in the trash, but furtively steal some sips. There was dissension in the ranks about this practice — some partners staunchly refused, though they were mostly the older, higher-up partners. But I loved it — how else was I going to try all the weird, luxurious, frothy drinks? Sometimes we had meetings to try the holiday beverages, but the staples of the business — the real workhorses, like vanilla lattes and caramel frappuccinos — would otherwise go unsipped. I spent four years of my life doing this dance — the dance of giving customers what they want, while figuring out how not to pay for the same thing, albeit broken, rejected, or expired versions. When it comes down to it, no one is above free shit.