Five Black Fridays at the mall food court

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

The Gloria Jean’s in the Eastview Mall food court.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

From 2010 to 2014, I smelled like caramel all the time. Not like I used a caramel-scented body wash or ate a lot of Twix, but like the artificial, amplified smell of bulk-ordered caramel syrup was as much a part of my body as my hair or my skin.

It was gross, but it was good. As anyone who has worked in food service can tell you, there are worse things to smell like (I’ve also, at other times, smelled like eggs, burritos, ham, and dishwater). Plus, it reminded me of the thing I loved most in the world: the coffee shop in the food court of the Eastview Mall, off Route 96 in suburban upstate New York.

In general, I don’t think the idea of “loving what you do” is very helpful. The sentiment is often used to con people into accepting unfair working conditions, and ties their self-worth too tightly to something that they are first and foremost doing to make money to buy food.

But from age 16 to 21, I loved what I did. I loved making coffee. I loved refilling things. I loved faxing orders to vendors for more milk and shitty danishes. I loved complaining to the ladies who worked at JCPenney about how the mall was changing, they were putting in too many fancy stores, they were taking out too many hamburger places, and wasn’t it just so ridiculous that the construction on 490 had it down to two lanes?

I loved, most of all, working on Black Friday, and I did it five times.

Working on Black Friday is, culturally and historically, horrible: Workers are given little or no choice about the shifts they get, which commonly cut into family celebrations; they can be asked to handle extreme spikes in business and customer stress levels without additional resources or compensation; they’re asked to perform the emotional labor of making the holiday season feel special for others, setting aside whatever they might personally be feeling in the midst of a commercial hellstorm.

Worst of all, this is framed as an inescapable evil. Macy’s can’t not have doorbusters; Walmart can’t not intrude on its employees’ Thanksgiving dinner; Panera Bread can’t keep its doors closed when the mall is flooding with sleep-deprived families whose bodies demand carbohydrates.

This is bullshit. On the macro level, Black Friday is a cultural ritual we collectively, accidentally allowed to mutate to this extreme. On the micro level, there are still ways to make working retail on the day more humane, like by giving employees tolerable hours, siding with them in the face of awful customers, and generally treating them like people who deserve to have enjoyable holidays themselves. Like, for example, by doing things the way they were done at a mall food court coffee shop not so long ago.

Gloria Jean’s is a predominantly Australian coffee chain, somewhere between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks in price, probably most closely aligned aesthetically with Coffee Bean, and best known for a short-lived controversy involving the fascinating (and troubling) mega-corporation known as Hillsong Church, as well as for a highly caloric rotation of bizarre seasonal lattes and blended drinks. (It got one trend piece in The New York Times in 1991, for leading “the specialty coffee stampede.”)

During the holiday seasons I worked there, the star was the Sleigh Ride mocha, which came hot or cold, blended with or without Oreo cookies, always with real chopped-up peppermints and between two and four tablespoons of white chocolate powder.

By the time I showed up in 2010, the 12-person staff of the Eastville Mall food court Gloria Jean’s was a mix of over-eager teenagers, lightly unmoored 20-somethings, and one imposing 50-something artist named Ruthie, who was the only person permitted to ask for Black Friday off. (She just did not feel she had the temperament for it, and this admission was respected!)

Chetan Patel, at Gloria Jean’s in 2013.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

My boss, Chetan Patel, was an engineer who emigrated from India in 1985 and worked, unhappily, at Xerox for 16 years. He finally quit in 2001, fed up with the bureaucracy and gloom, and tried working at a startup, which promptly failed. Obligated by the forces of an unfamiliar job market to try something different, he rented the corner spot in the food court and became a Gloria Jean’s franchisee, despite knowing nothing about the coffee business when he started.

We loved working for him. Chetan was not our dad, but we bickered with him when he snapped at us for texting behind the register, and we complained about him playing favorites with the good shifts, and we trolled him each time he dyed his grey hairs black. And we all loved working on Black Friday, which had the weird, special, harmless-emergency feeling of the power going out in elementary school, mixed with the irresistible magic of watching twinkle lights and monster-size poinsettias go up everywhere overnight.

I called Chetan recently to refresh my memory about how Black Friday typically went down. He was surprised that my phone number was the same, and I was surprised he picked up on the second ring.

“I say to my friends, my employees were so excited about Black Friday, we always enjoyed it and it was a fun day to work,” he said. “I still talk about you guys so much, and some of you guys were awesome, awesome, awesome.”

The mall wasn’t open on Thanksgiving, so the Wednesday night closing shift was preparation time. First, the three of us on the shift would stand at the back counter and talk about boys, while we unwrapped 1,000 diner-counter Starlight peppermints into an enormous glass jar — to save time twisting the wrappers off during the rush on Friday morning, when we’d make hundreds of Sleigh Ride drinks.

Then we’d measure out, into stacks of filters, the first 50 or so pots of coffee, grinding five pounds at a time into a Home Depot bucket. We’d also make Black Friday T-shirts, with the fabric paint and t-shirt allowance Chetan provided every year.

Black Friday T-shirt decorating in a Gloria Jean’s employee’s apartment in 2012. Her carpet was ruined.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

“My biggest concern, you can see, for Black Friday, would be if our espresso machine goes down,” Chetan says, laughing at the sheer horror of such a possibility. “I always prayed to god, everything else can go down but not the espresso machine.”

In the 22 hours the store was open — from 11 PM Thursday to 9 PM Friday — we’d serve around 1,200 people at an average pace of about 30 seconds per customer. (Faster than Starbucks, he’d perennially point out.) Most of our shifts were five or six hours long, but moved along at the clip of a soccer game.

We typically used 100 gallons of milk that weekend, he estimated, though the refrigerator in the back of the store could only hold 44, and the milk delivery man would only come once. Chetan made up the difference by driving over to the BJs on the other side of the mall plaza and carting back about two dozen gallons at a time. We’d also use so much ice that the ice machine wouldn’t be able to keep up, so he’d call other mall food vendors in advance and ask for access to theirs.

We’d beg our friends and family to come in, so they could see our point-of-sale response times and how gifted we were with a chocolate syrup drizzle. One year when I was home from college, I worked Black Friday and convinced a boy I had a crush on to come in for coffee. He showed up near the end of my shift, when caramel syrup had matted the side of my hair and there were tiny blisters of white chocolate drying in my eyebrows. He was wearing a leather bomber jacket and looked warm and perfect. He was really very unstimulating, so I don’t remember what he said, I just remember being proud that I smelled so good.

For lunch on Black Friday, which took place around 9 in the morning, Chetan ordered us fancy Italian subs and brought in a tray of baklava, a never-explained pairing that was the culinary highlight of a suburban teen’s November. We made mix CDs of the Christmas songs we liked best so we wouldn’t have to hear the repetitive WARM 101.3 rotation playing out in the broader food court, and we too were in good moods, making about 10 times our typical hourly tips. (So, around 10 dollars an hour instead of one.)

In all, on Black Friday, we’d handle around $10,000 — about a sixth of the store’s entire income for November, the second biggest revenue month of the year (after December, obviously). It was weirdly thrilling to touch so much money? We were teenagers! Maybe we’d been lightly tricked into seeing work as a party, but did that matter, if work felt like a party?

“I think Black Friday was important in terms of the money, but we never had any door-buster sales or those kinds of things, we just served the customer,” Chetan says. “Everyone on our team enjoyed working on Black Friday because we were so much like a family, we knew each other so well. Even customers notice that and it’s different than what we feel but I saw it, customers were so excited about the way we were working.”

When I met my former coworker Abby, who now manages a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for drinks recently, she asked if I remembered how rude the rich suburban mall shoppers were. I guess I’d blocked this out, but it’s true, a lot of them were bad people.

Chetan remembers a customer berating him after she dropped a cup of coffee on her own coat, demanding that he replace it, screaming even after he told her he would give her money for dry cleaning. We all remember a woman who threw a water bottle during a particularly confusing altercation — part of the store’s basic lore.

Mopping, on a summer night in 2012 when probably four customers came in.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

They were few and far between, but there were Black Friday customers who shattered the entire goodwill and cheer illusion with sharp, thinly-veiled reminders that we were only the arms and legs making their coffee, and that they didn’t have time for our humming or chatter.

There were even some who would pause their interactions with Chetan and slide their eyes toward me, as if his accent were so hard to understand that I ought to step in and save them from the burden of communicating. Black Friday was a day of dealing with people who weren’t regulars, who no one had gotten a chance to charm, and who did not want to feel anything for us.

Now, malls are venues for nostalgia about community space, but they have never been wonderlands — even with glitter snowflakes hanging from the beams. They are places where dozens of businesses are packed in together, their questionable labor practices on full display even through panes of deal-stickered glass. The department stores in the mall often opened at 6 pm on Thanksgiving, which Chetan refused to do but plenty of other business owners did not.

“The saddest thing was all of the mall employees rolling in at 3 in the morning ordering a large iced cappuccino with three extra shots in it,” another former coworker, Danny, said to me over email. “And then they would tell me (a high schooler) how they were working a double shift at Macy’s or whatnot.”

Chetan was already greying when I worked for him, and his kids were already wrapping up medical school, but he hasn’t retired. He has a new engineering job in Delaware, he tells me. His coffee years are over — he sold the store only a few weeks after my last shift there — but he talks about Gloria Jean’s all the time.

“You can make money anywhere. Gloria Jean’s is the best thing I did in my life, honestly,” he says. “That’s the best thing I did in my life.”

Gloria Jean’s employees celebrating the end of holiday season shifts in 2012.
Audrey Buechel

The margins for profitability on this store were so, so thin, which I know for a fact because Chetan typically left me in charge of the banking when he went to India for the month of January each year.

Some days I’d open the store, work alone for eight hours, then hand the register off to the closing team knowing that I’d not sold enough coffee to even cover the lights I’d had on, let alone what Chetan would later pay me to have stood there, reading Game of Thrones and playing my Jack’s Mannequin CDs over the sound system. It wasn’t my fault that malls were dying, obviously, but I do think about this arrangement every time a CEO blames his failing business on his employees, or when missed revenue targets are cited as reasons for layoffs and slashed benefits.

The service sector makes its money off the warmth and charisma of the people who staff it, which can be gross and exploitative, but is also what can make being one of those people bearable. Gloria Jean’s was the best job I ever had, because it was the only time I felt like there was community to be found in an unnatural environment built solely for the purpose of buying things. I care more about the women who worked there than I do, no offense, about anyone I met in school or from Twitter — certainly more than anyone I met working at some horrible, now-defunct literary magazine. Probably as much as my past five love interests put together.

On Black Friday, our shifts were short because the work was tiring. Except Chetan’s, which was 12 hours long. The week after, we got holiday bonuses in cash. It’s almost as if there’s really no need to treat workers like dirt on Black Friday or ever, and bosses who say they have no choice are lying.