Just as we have to attend driving school before getting behind the wheel and put in hours at unpaid internships to get entry-level positions, I believe that we should be required to work customer-service jobs before becoming patrons. Nowhere else do you get such an all-encompassing glimpse of humanity—the good, the bad, and the “were you raised in a barn?”—than behind a counter. That’s especially true at coffee shops, where uncaffeinated masses can be grumpier and ruder than most. I’ve had enough friends serve time as baristas to know that far too many people know far too little about proper café conduct. Here are the basics that everyone who frequents coffee shops should know.
Put down the cell phone if you’re ready to order.
If you’re in front of the cash register, that means you’re ready to order. It should also mean that any conversations other than the one between you and the cashier ready to take your order should come to an end, or at least a pause. One of the rudest things you can do as a customer is continue to talk on your cell phone while the cashier and everyone else behind you stands and waits for your attention. In fact, it was the first thing Renae Hurlbutt, a former barista with six years’ experience and the current editorial assistant extraordinaire at DivineCaroline, mentioned when I interviewed her about the dos and don’ts of coffee shop etiquette. Even just putting the phone down for a moment so that you can directly engage the cashier makes a huge difference. “I think it helps if the customer acknowledges the worker right off the bat, like asking, “How are you?” rather than just barking the order and not making eye contact,” Renae says. “A little skotche of humanity.”
It also helps curb miscommunication, like forgetting to specify “iced” because you’re distracted and getting upset when you’re handed a hot drink. Or, similarly, grabbing the first drink that’s placed on the counter after you’ve ordered, even though it’s not what you asked for. “I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened,” she shares.
Realize that menus aren’t universal or open to interpretation.
“Take a minute to evaluate where you are when you step through the doors,” Renae advises. In other words, don’t ask for a venti mocha Frappuccino when you’re not in a Starbucks. Cafés have individual menus, and baristas won’t understand what you mean if you don’t use the right lingo. “You’re doing the staff a service if you take a few minutes to learn the vocabulary of where you are,” she says. However, learning the language doesn’t entitle you to demand absurdly specialized concoctions, either. At Renae’s shop, people requested everything from certain temperatures to drinks that didn’t even exist, like latte mochaccinos. Some customers even brought in their own milk for steaming. (For the record, coffee shops won’t do that; it contaminates the equipment.) It’s fine to ask for things like two pumps of vanilla syrup or just a little whipped cream, but when you start specifying the amount of ice cubes in your iced coffee, consider investing in a home brewing system instead.
Don’t treat the shop as your personal space.
It’s common nowadays for people to use café tables as workstations where they spend hours on their laptops or reading books. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided that these people follow protocol: keep noise to a minimum, don’t spread your stuff all over the place, and buy something every hour or two. A coffee refill works, but if you’re there for an entire day, up the ante with a sandwich or something similar. The shop’s giving you a space to work, and probably free or discounted Internet access as well; the least you can do is give it some real business. Don’t bring in food or drink from outside the café as a way to save money. If you’re worried about conserving funds, or if you dislike the café’s services, why are you loitering there in the first place? The coffee shop may feel like home because you’re there so much, but it’s a place of business and should be treated that way.
If you’re going to work on your computer, be mindful of how much you utilize the outlets. There are only so many in a shop, so if you’ve used one for some time and your laptop battery’s fully charged, free up the outlet for someone else.
Tip when it’s necessary, and sometimes even when it’s not.
I’ve heard the arguments against tip jars, and I can understand why some people believe there’s no reason to tip for coffee. However, many patrons don’t just get a simple cup o’ joe—they get nonfat mochas, soy chai lattes, and all sorts of other specialty drinks that take time and technique to prepare. There’s a lot more going into that cup than one might realize. “The duties of running a coffee shop fall on all of the employees,” Renae says. That includes not only coffee preparation, but also opening and closing the store, running the cash drawers, maintaining a clean environment, and too many other responsibilities to list here. “It takes a village to get you that cup of coffee,” she says. Tipping isn’t required or always expected, but if you’re ordering something particularly complicated or have multiple drinks in the queue, it’s the considerate thing to do.
And even if you order black coffee in a to-go cup, throwing your change in the jar once in a while is always a nice gesture. Think about it this way: you’ll probably forget about that quarter by the time you’ve finished your coffee, but you’ll have made someone’s day a little brighter in the process. Few things sink morale faster than having a slew of customers who grumble at you and/or don’t tip, and if you’ve never worked in the customer-service industry, trust me when I say that it happens way more than you think. It seems unnecessary to tip for someone pouring coffee into a cup, but maybe it’ll help balance out all those who didn’t tip before you. If anything, it’s a way to occasionally say thank you to all the hardworking people who keep you caffeinated and sane.
“The biggest thing,” Renae advises, “is to be patient and give workers the benefit of the doubt, because they want to do right by you and make you smile if you’re nice to them.” Coffee shops can get cramped and frenzied fast, especially in the mornings, when people aren’t quite functional yet. “It can turn into a high-stress environment in a very short amount of time, so the more patient you are, the better it’s going to be for everybody,” she says. That’s good advice in any situation, really.
Unfortunately, there will always be people who are seemingly determined to make their coffee-shop encounters as difficult and rude as possible. These are the same people who’ve probably never worked in customer service, and since that’s not a mandatory job (at least not until I get my way), there’s little chance of that changing. But at least the rest of us can try to make up for them by being as pleasant as possible to the people behind the counter. Who knows? A smile or a little patience could earn you the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.