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Secrets of the Mermaid

The Starbucks underground is ruining baristas' lives.

Even in Portland, there are people who care deeply about Starbucks. Like, really care. Sure, the Seattle chain's ham-fisted Big Brother approach to one of our city's most precious commodities flies in the face of our city's many fine bird-safe nanoroasters built inside tall-bike workshops. But amid the more than 50 Starbucks dotting our city's landscape, there is a complete Bizarro World built on sugar-laced caffeine. Starbucks devotees have created a parallel universe of fanboy menu-hacking to supplement the already staggering number of ways the corporation has bastardized the coffee experience. They've created a "secret menu."

With Web videos, dedicated secret-menu phone apps and a woefully blunderous BuzzFeed list at their disposal, users are led to believe they're discovering an indie underground within the world of Starbucks—like peeking behind the wizard's curtain and discovering even more magic—an instruction manual for odd deviations on drinks that are already weird enough as it is. There is a drink called Liquid Cocaine, and another called the Cadbury Blackforest. The Green Eye is not green—it's just lots of espresso dumped in drip coffee. 

But according to two local Starbucks employees—whose anonymity we're protecting with our very souls—these people are ruining their baristas' lives. While these hardworking members of Team Mermaid deserve a pat on the back for keeping these people out of the way at local shops that consider even an iced mocha to be iffy, what they really deserve is an armistice from people who think having a biscotti blended into their vanilla bean Frappuccino is a reasonable request. Would you ask the guy at the truck-stop Burger King to add a hot dog from the roller grill to your Whopper?

"That's probably against health code," says "Kevin."

The problem is not in the assembly—most of these drinks are made with ingredients that are already part of the Starbucks repertoire. It's the fact that everyone who walks in the door and asks for some screwball combination of things that may have already existed thinks they are a special snowflake with their own unique place in the world. A drink made with half chocolate and half white mocha, for example, used to formally exist as the Marble Mocha Macchiato. It's since gone underground and assumed a variety of weird names, with "the Michael Jackson" being the most obtuse.

"Who thinks of this shit?" asks "Kim" while browsing a BuzzFeed list with Frappuccinos marked Honey Nut Cheerios, Razzle Dazzle and Supercream. "Everyone just takes a normal drink, adds a couple things to it, and thinks, 'I'm gonna give it my own special name!' Someone in the town I'm from decided to name their drink 'The Krypton', which was just passion tea lemonade with strawberry. So easy to order, but they had to make it complicated by calling it 'The Krypton.'"

"One of the key factors of the secret menu," Kevin says, "is that the name rarely correlates with anything."

With no end in sight for the deluge of strange homebrews Kevin and Kim are forced to decipher, we asked them if it was possible to streamline the process and make it more bearable for the parties involved.

"Yeah, people think we actually have a list of these things in the back, which we clearly don't," Kim says. "Write down all the ingredients. Go to the counter. Read the ingredients to the person behind the counter. Example: 'Hello. I would like a Matcha Green Tea Frappuccino with peppermint and chocolate chips please!' Do not expect the barista to automatically know what you're talking about when you order 'the grasshopper thing.' The only baristas who look up secret-menu drinks are the ones who are incredibly bored."

Hoping to shed some light on the crimes committed against Starbucks employees on a daily basis, I used Kim's guidelines and set out to witness firsthand the clusterfuck that is the Starbucks secret menu.

Starbucks No. 420, 2803 E Burnside St.

Being a block away from my current barista gig, this felt like the best place to start. While it's true that Starbucks draws the ire of local coffee scenes for preying on smaller, more localized operations, I could not be happier about the filtering effect it's had on our customer base. In a year working behind the counter, I have not encountered a single person asking for a blended drink of any sort—a minor miracle considering the private Catholic high school three blocks away.

On being asked if she was familiar with the secret menu, the girl behind the Starbucks counter brandished a worn piece of paper filled edge-to-edge with known classics and oddities, as if to say, "Come at me, bro." When asked which was the most popular, she and a male co-worker referenced the "Cotton Candy"—a vanilla bean Frappuccino tricked out with a few pumps of raspberry. I then asked for "The Grinch," which led to some consternation over what would give the drink the neon hue one would imagine such a drink to have. The guy at the blender asked if I wanted coffee in it, which would ultimately change the complexion of the drink. I said yes, and he went to work.

Two minutes and $7.70 later, I was handed two beverages—one the color of Pepto-Bismol and the other a muddy blend of brown and fluorescent green chunks. Five customers piled up in my wake. Do these obscure blended drinks cause dips in employee efficiency? "It's not too bad if you actually know what you want in your drink," the guy at the blender said. "I think Starbucks is secretly behind this secret menu, because these things cost a ton." I thanked him, took a few sips on the way out, and dumped the horrible concoction in the trash can outside Whole Foods.

The damage: Cotton Candy, $3.45; Grinch/Grasshopper, $4.25.

Starbucks No. 475, 3507 NE 15th Ave.

Stop two was at the Whole Foods plaza at Northeast 15th Avenue and Fremont Street. The same process yielded similar results: The Cotton Candy was the most popular "secret" drink, which made me wonder if this was merely a defense mechanism to discourage me from ordering something more complicated. When I asked for the Grinch, a woman who appeared to be in charge laughed nervously and deferred to the girl operating the blender. I told her it was neon green and minty and maybe contained coffee. She told me something called "matcha," the likely culprit for an extra 50 cents on the bill, was involved in the process and went to work. The drink she handed me was even more ghastly and green than the one purchased an hour earlier, but the resemblance to everyone's favorite holiday antihero was spot-on. The guy in line behind me who ordered a shot of espresso looked at me like I kicked a puppy while I jammed a green straw in the top. The drink tasted like Rumple Minze and crayon.

The damage: Grinch, $4.75.

Starbucks No. 14041, Drive-thru at 3623 SE Powell Blvd.

The whitewashed folky ambiance and sour smell of Starbucks' "flavor signature" was already getting to me, so I chose a drive-thru for my final stop. Not having to look someone in the eyes while ordering these sinful concoctions is an obvious upside of a drive-thru, but I still felt like a tool asking the young lady on the other end of the intercom if they were up for the challenge of "decoding a friend's cryptic Frappuccino order."

"As long as you know what's in it, I'll give it a shot!" she replied with ebullience. I asked for something that tasted like a Twix bar, endured a few seconds of silence, and realized I was obligated to help her make sense of what I actually wanted. I searched the BuzzFeed list for the ingredients, spouted them off for the Grasshopper and Cotton Candy, and was asked to pull forward to finish up. I paid $7.70 and received two drinks with the same mechanized courtesy as at the other Starbucks I visited that day. Whatever awful thing you order, you will never feel judged. Maybe that's the whole point, but it brings terrible things into the world. I threw my drinks away, with something that wasn't sadness but felt the same.

The damage: Grasshopper, $4.25; Cotton Candy, $3.45; three minutes staring into an ever-deepening abyss. 

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