How to Not Be an Arsehole in a Coffee Shop, According to Baristas

How to Not Be an Arsehole in a Coffee Shop, According to Baristas
Photo: Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Millions of people order coffee from cafés, specialty shops, and mega-chains every single day. It’s become a normal part of our lives — a routine. But routine breeds comfort and familiarity, and we’ve all seen people take that comfort and familiarity way too far — and it turns them into the type of customer that no barista wants to serve.

Some people are perfectly OK with doing all sorts of awful things to the people who make their drinks: Stalking baristas they think are cute, complaining out loud (or on Yelp) about the prices, or summoning the manager to witness a full-on temper tantrum over an imagined slight. I interviewed three baristas for this article and, thankfully, they all agree that the worst customers are outliers — 90-95% of their interactions are great. But even great customers do stupid things sometimes, and it’s not difficult to avoid them. Here’s a start-to-finish guide to not ruining your barista’s day.

Don’t take your emotional baggage out on your barista

It’s never really about the coffee. Landon, a barista at a small specialty café in Athens, Ga., knows this better than most; they used to manage a Starbucks. “Every horrible customer I’ve ever had, [that person] has needed something else entirely. Like, the interaction was merely the tip of the iceberg for what they were going through,” they say. “Lashing out at us was the way they had some agency over mental health issues, economic issues, marital problems.”

If you’re having a shitty day, month, decade, whatever, trust me — your barista can tell, and they get it. Honestly, chances are good that they’ve seen worse. (Much, much worse.) But that doesn’t give you licence to dump your anger and frustration on them. Before you even step in the door, take a second to figure out how you’re feeling so you don’t wind up saying something you regret.

Look at the menu (and the atmosphere) before you order

Christopher Lewis, a 15-year coffee industry veteran who currently owns a shop called Scullery in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, tells Lifehacker that one of the worst things a customer can do is waltz up to the counter, without looking at the menu, and order something they don’t have.

“[As a shop owner], you’re trying to tell a story in your space,” he says. “Everything’s set up a certain way so [customers] can tell what [they’re] gonna get when [they] walk in. For people not to pay attention to the aesthetic, the limited menu, things like that — [it’s] challenging to deal with.”

In other words, you’re not just ignoring the menu — you’re ignoring everything else that makes the shop unique. So, before you do that, ask yourself: Where am I? Is this a Starbucks? A corner store? An independent specialty shop? What kind of vibes are the layout and decor giving off — and most importantly, what’s on the menu? It sounds basic, but noticing these things makes a difference.

Ask your barista for recommendations

You’ve entered a new coffee shop, taken in the vibes, read the menu — and still have no clue what to order. Great news: Your barista can help! It’s literally their job. All you have to do is trust them. An easy, rewarding way to demonstrate trust is to ask for help the right way. Don’t just ask, “What do you recommend?” with zero context — give them something to go on.

Naomi, a barista currently working in Albuquerque, N.M., says: “Tell me what you like. What are some flavour profiles you’re into? If you go to Starbucks, what’s your drink there? Working off of that is a good start.”

Christopher agrees: “If [a customer says], ‘I like this, what should I try?’ That’s a good interaction. … That’s a dream, for the most part.”

He adds that, as a customer, he’ll order “pretty much anything” on a barista’s recommendation not only because appreciates the effort but because he’s just plain curious: “I try to just be as open-minded as possible. I want someone to tell me something; I want to learn,” he says.

Stay curious — and always be respectful

All three baristas agree: That kind of curiosity is an underrated customer trait. “Being a barista is a lot like being a bartender in that we have knowledge that the customer doesn’t have. … Coming in with a level of curiosity and respect [for that knowledge] goes such a long way,” Landon explains.

But respect is more than saying “Please” and “Thank you.” With the coronavirus pandemic still very much a thing, respecting your barista can mean sucking it up and putting on a mask when asked.

“Every shop has a policy — no shoes, no shirt, no service. A mask is just one other thing,” Naomi says. “[Why] make a big deal about [putting it on] but then do it anyways … and then like, rip the mask off right in front of my face after you pay?” This kind of behaviour shows a total lack of courtesy for service industry workers, and that’s what bugs her.

Another great way to show respect: Pick up on (or better yet, ask for) and use your barista’s pronouns. “If I say, ‘They’ll have your drink at the end!’ And [the customer is] like, ‘Oh cool, she’ll have my drink?’ I’m like, ‘No! Listen! Like, pick it up!’” Landon says. “Now I have to correct this person while trying to catch up on dishes.” Using people’s correct pronouns is free, it’s simple, and it doesn’t inconvenience you in any way — so just do it.

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