Monday, April 15, 2013

Paying it backward

Zoe Goodell, working the drive-through window at the Exit 6
Starbucks in Nashua.
Feeling the holiday spirit, my daughter Andrea pulls into the drive-through lane at Starbucks, planning to pay for the person behind her. She’s surprised to find that someone ahead of her has the same idea, so her skinny vanilla latte is gratis.

A couple weeks later, after the holidays, she receives the same generosity. However with no one behind her, she can’t reciprocate.

Paying it forward — actually backward through the drive-through lane — is a common event, according to Judy Johnson, manager of the Starbucks at Exit 6 in Nashua. During December, these random acts of kindness happen every day. And they continue throughout the year, just not as often.

“Sometimes it only lasts a couple. Sometimes it goes on and on and on,” Judy says, recalling that the longest sequence at the Exit 6 store was more than 20 cars. She attributes the motivation to people just wanting “to do something nice for someone, a random stranger.”

Those who haven’t experienced someone buying their coffee are surprised. A typical reaction, Judy says, is “Do I know that person?”

The baristas like to have fun with the experience, sometimes adding a hint of intrigue to the generosity — telling a woman that the guy in the car ahead bought her coffee, then watching for the reaction.

Zoe Goodell, a barista at the Exit 6 Starbucks, works the drive-though and sees this parade of kindness firsthand. “I think it’s really great when people pay for each other.”

When the person at the window is buying a $2 coffee and the car behind has a $20 order? Usually the sequence stops. But the generosity invariably restarts, Judy says, when someone pulls up to the window and offers to pay for the next order, sometimes saying they want to repay a prior act of kindness.

While most of the action occurs in the drive-through, patrons inside the store — Judy calls it “the cafe” — will occasionally buy coffee for each other. She says that doesn’t happen as often, nor last as long.

Why the difference between the drive-through and the cafe? Maybe it’s that the drive-through is “quick and easy,” Judy says, or perhaps it’s the anonymity. Aren’t we taught that giving anonymously is a high virtue? Reflecting that, perhaps, sometimes a cafe customer will purchase a gift card and leave it with the store, to buy as many orders as it takes to deplete the value.

Judy invites me to personally witness this display of human nature. So I arrive at the Exit 6 Starbucks shortly before 8:00 on a Monday morning.

I wonder if this is the best day for such an experiment, two days after winter storm Nemo traverses New England, closing 450 of the 500 Starbucks in the region. Will customers be in any mood to be generous, after this disruption in their lives and on a Monday morning? Perhaps sensing that people may be on edge, Starbucks is offering patrons a free tall coffee until 11 am.

Judy has me don the signature green apron and positions me near the window, where I can observe and listen to the conversations.

Zoe and Jen Donnelly are working the drive-through, performing a graceful ballet of constant motion. Both wear headsets. Zoe talks, Jen mainly listens and responds to the orders. As customers speak into the intercom in the drive-through lane, fingers fly over the touch screen and the two young women silently prepare the drinks, at times asking one of the other baristas to bring food from the refrigerated case in front, sometimes going for it themselves. As each car pulls up, Zoe opens the window with a friendly greeting, accepts payment, and carefully hands the order to the driver.

Judy checks to ensure we have a line of cars, scans the various orders on Starbucks’ version of an air-traffic-control radar, and selects one to start the pay-it-backward game. I offer to pay for the order, but she shakes her head.

When the car pulls to the window and holds out a $5 bill, Zoe cheerfully informs the driver that the driver in front has paid for her order. Surprised and pleased, she hands the $5 bill to Zoe as a tip, not offering to pay for the next car.

“That’s unusual,” Zoe says.

Judy scans the orders and starts the process again. When Zoe tells the driver the person in front already paid, the response is a blend of curiosity and pleasure.

“Oh they did?”

But no offer to reciprocate.

The snow is beginning to fall. Judy heads for her desk in the back. Nemo disrupted their weekend, and she needs to catch up. I pull out my Starbucks card. Zoe picks another car, and we try again.

The next driver, hearing the news, pauses. “What’s the guy behind me getting?”

Zoe responds with I can’t recall what. But the total is only $2.45. He pays it backward.
The next car, informed that the driver in front paid for the order, looks forward. “Who was he, or she?”

With no car behind, there’s no way to pay it backward. “I’ll pass it on somewhere,” he says and drives off.

A driver orders a tall coffee. Zoe informs her that it’s free because of the snowstorm. That is unexpected and causes a long pause. “Oh. Okay. Thank you.”

We start again. An older woman arrives at the window. She is obviously surprised, maybe even stunned. “This is the first time someone ever paid for my coffee.”

One man, told the order behind is $3 more than his, breaks the chain. Another, whose order is $2.67 pays $8.07 for the car behind with no hesitation.

We can’t seem to get momentum, and I’m losing track of the numbers and the details of each transaction. My pen is almost out of ink.

“This is the last” I say to Zoe, again handing her my Starbucks card. Amazingly, we get a run of six cars, each driver showing surprise and pleasure. Reflexively, they immediately look to see who is in the car in front, seeking recognition. The lack of connection makes a connection.

The seventh car pulls to the window. Zoe smiles and says the person in front paid for her order. She looks forward toward the car pulling away, says “oh,” smiles — and doesn’t offer to pay it backward.

As I leave the store and walk to my car through the falling snow, I realize that the real benefit of my $11.50 investment in this experiment is not the total number of cars without a break. It’s each individual’s experience of receiving a small act of kindness, like the woman who exclaimed that no one had ever bought her coffee.

Perhaps even more than the surprised patrons, the baristas enjoy the whole experience and the part they play. Their faces light up talking about it. “I love when that happens,” says Erin Peña, another barista at the Exit 6 store.

As Judy explains, “We play along. It creates a camaraderie in the store.”

Still trying to understand the psychology, I ask my daughter her motivation for buying someone’s coffee. She emails me that “the first time was pure holiday spirit. I was feeling cheerful as Christmas was approaching and really wanted to put a smile on someone's face. However, after that first experience, I believe that I was even more compelled to do it, secretly hoping that if the ‘game’ had not been being played before I drove up, I could at least start it. In both scenarios, I wanted to make someone happy.”

The pay-it-forward phenomenon is not unique to the Exit 6 Starbucks. Erin, who worked at the Leominster, Massachusetts, store before transferring to Nashua, says it happens in the drive-through there. Searching YouTube reveals several TV news reports about the trend, including the story of one Starbucks in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the pay-it-forward sequence lasted over an hour and totaled 100 cars.

Across the nation, one person at a time, spending a few dollars for a random act of kindness.

Note: This is the second of two articles I wrote for the news writing class I took at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications this winter. Meg Heckman, formerly a reporter with the Concord Monitor and now pursuing her master's degree at Northeastern, taught the class.

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