It’s an oft-used trope in sitcoms: The characters frequent a coffee shop, diner, or hamburger joint (Chubbie’s from Boy Meets World comes to mind). The waitress saunters up to the table and one of the main characters glances up mid-comical anecdote to nod at her and say, “I’ll have my usual.” The waitress silently scribbles something down, presumably the mysterious menu item, and walks away, no questions asked. That refrain, “I’ll have my usual,” always captivated me as a kid. It made me eager to one day frequent a diner of my very own, so I could sit down and receive my meal without having to tell anyone what I wanted.
Working in various coffee shops over the years, I discovered many people share this desire I held as a kid. People love having a “usual” and people love saying, “I’ll have my usual.” When people do frequent an establishment enough to have a usual, they loathe stating what their usual actually is. If someone new is working who has not yet memorized their order, it ruins their day.
When I had been working at Starbucks for a couple of months, I remembered a good percentage of our regulars’ drink orders, especially the complicated ones, i.e. a quad, venti, three pump hazelnut, two pump vanilla, half whole milk, half two percent, extra hot, no foam latte. Being unusual and thus noteworthy, the complicated drinks stuck with me. Unremarkable drinks, such as a tall decaf coffee, didn’t automatically find a permanent space in my brain. One of our regulars ordered this blasé drink every time she came in at 5:30 a.m. Although it was so early no one in the vicinity was actually awake, though I didn’t see this woman every day, and though I hadn’t been working there long, she got so upset if I didn’t remember her “usual.” “It’s not a hard drink,” she said, appalled at my audacity not to store this irrelevant information in my long-term memory.
After that, I made a point of remembering her drink. The next time she came in, I asked, “Are you going to have your tall decaf coffee today?” She gave me a big smile and said yes. As I handed her the cup, she said with utmost sincerity and joy, “Thank you for remembering.”
Over the years, I’ve noticed this trend—that people are disproportionately appreciative when you remember their drink and save them from the arduous task of actually saying what they want to order. When I was new at the coffee shop I work at now, I had a few regulars that, though cordial, would never tip me. But now they do. The reason? I remember their drink orders. They pull up to the window, and I ask if they’ll have their usual, and quite graciously, they say, “Yes, thank you.” And though not nearly as emphatic as Mrs. Tall Decaf Coffee, the fact that they now tip me implies they share her desire to have a usual everyone remembers.
Why is it that people seem so happy when they can walk into a restaurant or café and receive an order without having to actually place one? Surely it can’t be that saying what you want is so arduous you abhor doing it. I’m guessing it makes them feel special in some small way. Special because someone remembered them and what they like. And by remembering them and what they like, the waitress or barista fostered familiarity, which comforts the regulars. And maybe, it even makes them feel at home when everyone knows what they want. Thus, when a new employee strolls in and doesn’t know what their usual is, they feel displaced. Of course this is ridiculous, but I think something to this effect is going on subconsciously.
For me personally, having a “usual” has lost its mystique. Instead, it suggests you frequent a particular location far too frequently, and are probably consuming something regularly that you should only be consuming in moderation. It also suggests a lack of spontaneity, an unwillingness to try new things, to even adapt with the goddamn weather—ordering an extra hot latte when it is 90 degrees outside, or a blended mocha when it’s sub zero. It suggests that maybe, you take a little too much solace in your routine, and that maybe, you’re a little boring. And sure, the idea of a place where everyone knows your name is nice, but why should you also desire a beverage or dish to be synonymous with your name, or worse, a substitute for it?