Did you know that you might find Starbucks “Holiday Helpers” inside a store?

It’s an amazing idea. It gives the store a little extra needed help on the floor and gives a partner (Starbucks calls their employees, ‘partners’) who doesn’t normally work inside the stores, a chance to experience the stores.

So what is a “Holiday Helper”? The “Holiday Helper” person might be a partner at the Starbucks Support Center (Starbucks calls their headquarters in Seattle the “Starbucks Support Center” or the “SSC”) or he or she might work inside a regional administrative Starbucks office. That person might spend a shift sampling coffee inside the stores, doing dishes, or wiping down tables.

The idea is this: The non-store partner gets to experience the stores. The advantages of this are enormous: It’s a benefit to the company to have their corporate partners really understand what’s happening on the floors. After all, if they are creating new beverages, promotions, in charge of looking at front line operations, or policies, they need to know how they will impact the stores. It is one thing to sit afar in an office. It’s quite another to put on a green apron, and work a shift in the shoes of a barista.

There is a flip side to this coin: During the holiday season when stores are extra busy, a Starbucks store gets an extra bonus person to help them out.

Starbucks’ headquarters is in Seattle. It is true you’re more likely going to find “holiday helpers” in Seattle stores, but they can pop up anywhere in the United States.

You might be wondering, ‘What’s it like being a holiday helper and what do you really do?‘ I decided to find out first hand. I wanted to be inside the store and experience what it’s like to be behind the bar or working a shift: I put on a green apron and went to work at the First and Pike Starbucks, which is a beautiful, large Reserve store near the entrance of Pike Place Market. Yes, I really put on a green apron and went to work for one shift only. I had a 3 hour shift, from 9 AM to noon. (No, I was not paid for the 3 hours.)

I got to my store a little early and admired the view:

1 - 1 - 20161219_083202 830 at Pike Place Market


At 9:00 AM, after a brief meeting with my new team, I was instructed to do the “order support” role. This is a person who stands behind the register person and does things like grab pastries from the pastry case, write up cups (including writing names on cups), get brewed coffee for customers, and assist with warming. I was up for the task. Thankfully, I already speak fluent cup codes:

1 - 1 - 20161219_094328 Melody writing cups

The store manager already knows me from being a customer and she took this photo:

IMG_25921 pic from Johnna


Toward the end of the shift, I made some Clover-brewed Christmas Blend to sample in the store. I needed help with the Clover brewer. Thankfully, store partner Esmeralda was a great teacher:

20161219_112714 cropped Melody making a Clover coffee

I had an absolute blast. No joke. It was fun from start to finish. I hope I get to be a “Holiday Helper” in 2017!

When I walked away from my shift a few things struck me. (Reasonable minds may differ).

  • I’d forgotten how tiring it is to stand on your feet for hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any job in retail. At one time (about 2004 – 2006) I worked part time at Eddie Bauer, but for the most part, I’ve had careers that didn’t involve retail. If I’d worked 8 hours instead of just 3, I think my legs would have been pretty worn out!
  • I was surprised at how many people eat cake pops. They’re shockingly popular. Obviously I knew people like them, but people * really * like their cake pops.
  • Not one customer was grumpy in the 3 hours I worked. Not one cup was overly complicated. The most difficult cup was a partner’s cup on her break.
  • Hot tea was a bit vexing. After one order of a Grande Earl Grey, I crossed my fingers that no more hot tea would come along. The entire delicate dance of trying to open tea bags and place in cups with a pair of tongs was beyond me.
  • It’s harder to hear than you might think. And it possible to brain-fart on names. I had a brain freeze on a cup for a “Sheila” and a cup for a “Jonathan” and so those customers got cups with names scratched out, and re-written with correct spelling. It looked like a bad test answer where you cross out one guess and go to the next guess. And I know how to spell pretty well. I just had a brain freeze.
  • The whole thing was amazingly fun. I totally enjoyed every moment, from start to finish.

I am sure I was a little overly exuberant at the chance to be a partner for 3 hours. I greeted a number of customer with Sharpie in hand, a huge smile, and the phrase, “Can I get a delicious, hand-crafted beverage started for you?” I got lots of smiles and laughs Once in a while, if a customer looked at me as if I had two heads, I would say something like, “It’s my first day so I’m a little overly exuberant…” (There was no way to try to explain in a few seconds that I’m a customer, pretending to be a barista for a holiday helper shift, by special permission of the headquarters in Seattle.). A couple of times I told a customer or two (who looked at me funny) “It’s my first day,” and I was met with the responses, “You’re doing great!” and one person said, “You picked a great company to work for!”.

I don’t want to give the impression that every Holiday Helper would be order support, nor do I want to give the impression that this is position open to customers.

  • I’ve talked to a number of Starbucks Support Center partners who have been holiday helpers and I’ve heard everything from “I did dishes for 4 hours…” to “I sample Christmas Blend the entire time…” I’ve even heard of partners doing deep cleaning projects as part of being a Holiday Helper.
  • I had to get a Washington State Food Handler’s Permit in order to be able to do this.
  • I am a customer. I negotiated special permission with the headquarters in Seattle to do this. This wasn’t one rogue store manager who decided to let a customer throw on a green apron. You need to know, normally customers do NOT put on green aprons and pretend to work for Starbucks.

The whole thing was an amazing success though. I talked to a number of the partners and they were in great spirits about the extra help. I would have done anything they asked. I told them I was prepared to wipe down tables and take out the trash, if that’s what they wanted me to do.

The Starbucks program of being a “Holiday Helper” isn’t exclusive to Starbucks. When I talk about “Holiday Helpers” in this article, I’m referring to SSC or regional office partners who go into stores. I remember eons ago, when I was working at Eddie Bauer (at a Seattle mall location), I saw a person I didn’t recognize working a shift in my store, and I thought, “Who’s that person re-folding the entire jeans wall?” Sure enough, my first introduction to the idea of a “Holiday Helper” comes from Eddie Bauer, whose corporate headquarters is in Bellevue, Washington. At least in the world of Eddie Bauer, it’s the exact same type of program: Send an administrative person into a retail store to go work a shift.

I think that there are some companies that use the phrase “Holiday Helpers” to mean something different than administrative corporate staff working in stores. Apparently, if you are at Walmart, a “Holiday Helper” is just someone extra hired for the holidays.

Kudos to Starbucks for encouraging their corporate office partners to go work in stores. It IS a valuable experience. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be just limited to the holiday season. Bring on Frappuccino Happy Hour! I’m ready with my black Sharpie and a stack of cold cups! LOL