This weekend, I stopped into Inversion for a caffeine infusion in my preferred format: a cortado, which is a shot of espresso cut with an equal amount of steamed milk. No foam on top, nothing fancy, no flavorings -- just the facts, ma'am.
When it was my turn, I stepped up to the counter and placed my order. The barista behind the counter regarded me with some confusion. He, in a red hoodie with the hood raised over his head, was the proud owner of a fantastic beard, many tattoos and a prominent captive bead ring through his septum. I, in my Talbots jeans and Anthropologie necklace, likely looked hopelessly bourgeois and suburban -- always have, always will.
"I've gotta say, that's not what I expected," he finally said.
"I'm sorry?" I responded, equally confused.
"That's not at all what I expected you to order," he replied with a laugh.
I turned to the guy behind me in line, who'd chuckled along with the barista. "What kind of drink did y'all expect me to order?"
The other customer -- who, like the barista, looked every bit the "typical" Montrose resident (whatever that means anymore) -- responded with: "You look like a pumpkin pie latte kind of girl."
The barista nodded his agreement. "I honestly expected you to get a pumpkin pie latte or something like that."
I didn't know what to say. Was it my ginger-esque hair? My waistline? Did I resemble a pumpkin? Or did I just look like the kind of clueless suburbanite who stumbles into a "serious" coffee shop and orders the most dessert-like item on the menu?
When Starbucks first rolled out the Frappuccino, two of my best friends at the time were managers at Starbucks stores in Houston. They lamented the introduction of the frozen drink that both required the use of a noisy, time-consuming blender and required them to tolerate the gaggles of teenagers that ordered the coffee-shakes ten at a time and took over the coffee shop while sucking them down.
Needless to say, Frappuccino-spotting became a popular pasttime in their Starbucks stores and hundreds of others over the years.
"One learns to instinctively know who's going to order a Frappuccino, and dread evil frap rushes," wrote one Starbucks employee on an Ask the Barista FAQ. "The closest analogy I can come up with is being a bartender and dealing with a constant flow of orders for little blended girly drinks."
I felt as if I'd been Frappuccino-spotted that morning in Montrose: instantly pegged as the type of customer who neither knows nor respects their coffee, and relegated to a second-tier consumer with a single glance. It was both insulting and intriguing.
Eager to know if this sort of pegging still goes on at coffee shops as much as it once did at Starbucks across the nation, I called my friend Frank Freeman. Freeman currently runs the coffee program at Petite Sweets, and has headed up coffee shops across the city, from Cafe Luz to Revival Market.
"The whole anti-Frappucino thing came from people who are really passionate about coffee," said Freeman. "They don't want coffee milkshake things on their menu, but they're totally down for using coffee in other things. Take David Buehrer, for example; he makes coffee cocktails. All of us are down for coffee being a part of a frozen dessert, but there's some discussion about whether it belongs in a proper coffee shop or not."
"Sometimes you can peg a mocha here and there," he said, amused by my story. "I also think that people will surprise you. You'll have lawyers and douchey frat boys and homeless come in and they'll all order straight espresso."
But is it common practice for baristas to try and guess their customers' drinks before they order?
"I don't think so," Freeman replied. "But I also think that most of the menus I've worked with haven't really had that kind of stuff." That kind of stuff, of course, being pie-flavored lattes and the like.
"Warm milk is what you drink before you go to bed. It always makes me laugh," he said of these types of flavored, milk-heavy drinks. "But I feel like with any job, you have to make money. So sometimes you have to put things on the menu that you wouldn't drink."
The barista's response to my request for a cortado should have flattered me, said Freeman. "That's kind of a compliment -- as backhanded as it was -- but it feels like to me like a little secret handshake. You're not here for dessert; you actually want coffee."
I ended up that morning with two flat whites from Inversion instead of two cortados -- the result of a nerdy discussion between me and the barista, and hopefully the dismantling of some stereotypes -- and they were wonderful.
And along with that secret handshake, I also got a little Día de los Muertos latte art on top of one of my flat whites. The skull wasn't enough to completely assuage the sting of being pegged as a pumpkin pie latte, but it tasted good as it went down -- and nothing like a slice of pie. And that's all I really want in a cup of coffee anyway.
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