Friends Pay Retail

On my recent trip to the US I had the occasional argument when it was time to pay for the coffee I was going to drink.  They were friendly arguments, I suppose more like short debates.  I generally did a very bad job of getting my point across, and still struggle to do so.  (This is at least the third draft of this post.)  I’ve been meaning to post for a while about why I am even worse than usual at accepting people’s kind hospitality.

It has become, over the last few months, increasingly important to me that I pay for the coffee I drink in people’s cafes. 1 This might seem like a staggeringly obvious thing to say, but free coffee is unsurprisingly shared between those inside the industry – a sort of alternate currency.  In the past I have gratefully accepted, genuinely thankful for the gift and, while happy to pay, it would have felt rude to argue.

What has changed?  In truth not being able to pay has begun to inhibit my enjoyment of coffee.  Accepting a free drink means, to me, the following:

– You give up the right to take up a seat unless the place is extremely quiet.
– You give up the right to take up any space at all if the place is busy.
– You give up the right to take up the barista’s time if they are busy.
– You give up the right to ask for a second drink.

I don’t know what has crystalised my change of mind on the matter, perhaps I am simply more aware of the exact cost of a cup of coffee to a business.  Not just the raw materials, but the cost of the barista, the equipment, the rent, the utilities and everything else that goes into the costs of a great cafe.

Perhaps it is because I worry that if, as someone passionate about coffee and retailing it well, I don’t think a cup of coffee is worth my hard earned cash – then why should anyone else think that way?  Is it hypocritical to talk about wanting to raise the price of a cup of coffee so we can spend more further down the chain, but at the same time accepting or even expecting something for nothing.

There are a few caveats to this (of course).  As a coffee supplier coming round to check how things are tasting then I will accept an offered espresso (though I would be happy to pay if you asked me to).  I am also aware that a cup of coffee can be used as an excellent bartering tool in the real world, and can be carefully traded with great returns.  I am not against this at all!  I should also add that this is a very personal post, and in no way am I prescribing how I think things should be done or not done.

I (embarrassingly) can’t remember who put the phrase “Friends Pay Retail” in my head, but it certainly makes sense to me.  If I am a fan of what you are doing, and enjoy what you sell then surely the worst thing I can ask you to do (as a friend) is to take up your product, resources and time and expect you to give it away for nothing.

Contrary to what you might believe, this isn’t a shock-jock post or anything like that, and I worry that in trying to get my point across I’ll seem like an ungrateful, arrogant so and so.  It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

  1. I am aware that I failed to pay in a couple of places in the US, for which I apologise and am a bit embarrassed  ↩︎

41 Comments

  1. I totally agree with this. I rarely am required to pay for coffee in NYC and it makes me uncomfortable. If I wasn’t prepared to pay, I wouldn’t visit the shop. I appreciate the gesture but you can’t keep giving away your coffee!

  2. Never thought about all the rights one is giving up in accepting a free drink from a peer. Sounds a little harsh but makes perfect sense.

    Maybe it has something to do with whether we walk into a café, where we know someone, as guests/friends or as customers.

    I (almost) shamelessly accept the free drink. But I’ll always have a croissant or something with it, thus maintaining my „rights“ as a customer. C is for croissant and compromise!

  3. Hey James, I agree partially. I am fully prepared to pay, and want to pay for coffee when visiting shops. I feel awkward when there is some unwritten expectation that I should get free coffee. Having said that, I also feel like I want to maintain my prerogative as a shop owner to give away a coffee when I feel it is appropriate. Some days I will give a good customer a free drink, or hand them a bag of coffee on the house. So I think it works both ways. I think as visiting professionals we should be prepared to pay and best of all, we should quietly get into line and order a drink before someone notices and pay for our drink. But I also think that it is good to be a gracious recipient of a gift of coffee. I have learned over the years to simply say “thank you”. More frustrating for me is the pulling of multiple shots of espresso to make the “perfect” shot. That is both a waste of coffee and valuable time. When I walk through the door, the coffee that is being pulled should be the coffee served. Oddly enough, I tell our baristas all the time, in terms of evaluating their own drinks… “if James Hoffman walked through the door right now, would you be willing to serve him that espresso?” So, James, often you are at Transcend in spirit, even though you have never visited us yet.

  4. I’ve always preferred and insisted on paying for coffee, wherever I am although sometimes it’s difficult to argue and insist. Depending on the situation often I end up contributing to the tip jar instead.

    I’d rather you shout me a beer!

  5. James,

    I totally agree with these points, I come to your cafe because I like what you offer and I want to support what you are doing. But, I am a total hypocrite when it comes to my own cafe because I love to treat fellow coffee folk to coffee in my store.

  6. As I said in the post above – I have nothing against giving coffee away as a form of marketing (while I hate the word, that is what that free cup of coffee for a good customer is), in fact I think it is a good thing.

    It is more about when I finally do visit Transcend (and I will!) – I will want to pay, because I understand how much sweat, toil, work, money and passion goes into what you do and the least I could do to show my appreciation is pay the price you ask of any other customer.

  7. I’m with you, James! And I am so happy you brought up this conversation…
    .

    It’s such a treat to be able to support those who are doing a fantastic job, and I’m not just talking about the retailer. When you have the opportunity to buy a lovely coffee that was cared about at every point along its path, its such a special and (in the grand scheme of things) rare experience….I say, “let’s celebrate, take my money!”
    .
    I didn’t always feel this way, there was a time when I really enjoyed treating my fellow hardworking baristas to a free drink. But unfortunately, when it comes to retail, this is a slippery slope and the question of who gets what for free becomes very confusing and ultimately, awkward at the cash register. I’m all for free tastes as conversation starters and comparisons.
    .
    Thanks!

  8. My general metrics for comping drinks involve frequency of visits from the guest and/or distance from home they are. Baristas in town shouldn’t expect freebies every Thursday they’re on this side of town. But if you have traveled significant distance just to be here then I’m honored to have you as my guest; not to mention many baristas didn’t exactly fly in on their private jet. And while I share everyone’s sentiments here about always being prepared to pay (I always pull out money in plain sight & am happy to buy my way, I think it’s also perfectly acceptable to simply accept someone’s sincere hospitality without making a mild/wild back & forth, exactly BECAUSE we both know the true costs. “It’s an honor to serve you here, sir.”

  9. Like others above, we’re always prepared to pay – and if it’s a freebie, we buy something else. Generally speaking we don’t give out free drinks from the menu, but we do give out free drinks of stuff we’re working on, be it a new espresso, a different pourover technique, or something made from samples someone sent us that we’re debating on ordering. No better time for feedback on these items than when another professional is in the shop.

  10. While I certainly see where you and many of the others are coming from James, I guess I just grew up with a strong sense of “professional courtesy.” I see my hosting coffee professionals in my shop much as a doctor would give a free consult or treatment to another in the medical profession (or at least, that was how it used to be). I don’t order anything I’m not ready to pay for, but as earlier today I was given a capp and a cup, I always buy something – in today’s case, a bag of beans.

    Living in the southern US, there is a deeply ingrained social more of professional courtesy in certain vocations – I guess its just part of my ethos. As a balance to this however, it would be very unbecoming for a southern boy to expect any such from someone else in their place of business. It just feels like a respect that I can pay my colleagues.

  11. As the others in this comment thread, I think that while your post is gracious and represents much of what we all respect so much about you James, there’s a fine line that I will personally state that I think you’re on the wrong side of.

    This was something that I myself struggled with for a while. I wanted to support the shop in all the ways that you mentioned. I did not want to be treated differently. I wanted to pay.

    But I also realized that these baristas and shop owners wanted to treat me. It’s a sign of respect, affection, recognition, and professional courtesy. To deny that person an opportunity to extend hospitality to me would be, in fact, rude. If you, James Hoffmann, came into my shop and a barista wanted to “treat” you, and you refused, I would frankly feel a little bad for that barista, although I’d understand what your intent was as well.

    So I try to graciously accept the free coffee, which could amount from $2 to $10, depending on whether I wanted a snack or something to go with it.

    Then I pop $5-20 into the tip jar.

  12. (prematurely pressed “post”)

    If a friend or colleague are up at the cashier and I’m working bar, I’ve found that my favorite phrase to use is, “She is my guest.” It seems most appropriate, and it best alleviates the guest from the awkwardness. I like it better than, “It’s my treat,” or “I’m buying her drink,” or “Oh, she doesn’t pay.”

    “She is my guest,” also reduces the chance that the other people in the queue would feel slighted, that some people get free coffee and others/they do not.

    Anyway, James, some day Trish and I will have a Wrecking Ball coffeebar in DC, and some day you will visit, and some day, you will be our guest and you may not pay (tip the baristas what you wish). If you refuse, and insist on paying, then I will let you pay. And you will then see whatever amount of money you paid immediately hurled out the shop’s front doorway and onto whatever passing traffic might happen to be zooming by, and you will be held responsible for whatever harm to life, limb, or property might result.

    Just a word of warning. Just try it, Hoffy.

  13. I agree with you here. There are lots of occasions where accepting the hospitality is the right thing to do. I am more than happy to then head for the tip jar afterwards too.

    There are occasions where I feel less comfortable – if it is my third or fourth visit to a place in a short period of time, or if I go up and get another drink then I feel as if I have accepted the hospitality and am now into freeloading. I hate freeloading, to the point that I would start to avoid visiting.

    There are also occasions when I visiting in a more professional capacity versus when I am visiting a shop just as a customer. As a customer it is increasingly essential to my enjoyment of the coffee that I pay, because as a customer I want to enjoy the things that everyone else does – seats, music, atmosphere and a cup of coffee. This is really what I was trying to communicate above. Not the formal visits but the real ones!

  14. As someone not in the coffee business who gets offered free coffee from time to time, or rather the “your money is no good here” line I definitely understand how it can create some weird feelings and expectations, but I think, at least in my world, refusing to accept the gift is the greater of the possible evils. I always offer to pay and always tip, and don’t feel like anyone thinks I’m expecting something free. That said, I don’t know that I agree with all of your assumptions, I definitely see where you are coming from but I think there is another assumption you are missing -if someone offers you free coffee it’s likely because they know who you are, and if they know who you are they can probably guess ahead of time how much time you’ll be spending in the place, and probably enjoy talking to you for a bit. In fact I’d think it was even more rude to accept free coffee and not talk to the barista and just take off.

    I do agree on the “going back for a 2nd cup” issue being trickier though, but generally default to the “here’s some cash, oh you won’t take it, ok i’ll put it in the tip jar” rule.

  15. I have found the idea of freeloading uncomfortable too.

    As a family member of people working in coffee I’ve found the best way around the ‘free coffee’ dilemma is to buy food or other goods with the coffee, helping to absolve the moral guilt of enjoying the full customer experience.

    Working in a night club I experienced the same issue from the other side but where ‘guests’ were drinking lots of expensive alcoholic drinks. We developed a system in order to manage this with the ‘guests’ and other paying customers.

    We would all ways ‘exchange money'; for the first drinks the bartender would simply give them their money back as change from the till, as they consumed more the bartender would increase the ‘price’ of the drink to maintain the level of courtesy the was being extended to that particular guest.

    I found this to be very effective at maintaining all the benefits of the ‘professional courtesy’ with the added benefit of keeping the whole process personal and private between establishment and guest, it also enables the associated costs to the house to be effectively managed.

  16. Yeah, this one certainly an issue that your perspective changes on as you gain a bit of notoriety. I recall even just a year or two ago if I were traveling and someone found out I worked in coffee and extended barista benefits I was tickled pink simply to be a part of the club. I of course then tipped graciously and would chat for as long as the situation allowed with the new coffee friend. However now that I sometimes encounter situations were folks will give me a drink simply for being the guy that won a competition it feels different. I even make a point to not let on that I am a coffee professional until after handing over some cash just to get that unfiltered experience. However with that said my mother would most likely be upset with me ever turning away someone’s gratitude and thusly I will not argue to much with people who want to show it. I may however begin resorting to disguises should my face become to recognizable… As a side note, from here on out James I will make certain that your freeloading ways of the past are no longer tolerated in my shop at least while I’m there. It would be an honor to have you as a friend that paid retail.

  17. I have friends that work in bars, although I completely agree with this in a cafe when offered a ‘free’ drink or two in a bar I often find that after the second I no longer care. :)

    I’ll have to remember to quote this article prior to launching a coffee bar (if).

  18. I can understand where you are coming from, and I can’t imagine anybody taking offense if they give you the opportunity to explain your position. In addition to your list of items that you feel exempted from, I would add that it is difficult to freely critique a complimentary coffee.

  19. I feel a similar discomfort when offered a “free” drink, for a similar variety of reasons. A few observations:

    1. Why is it always the coffee? As has been noted in the above discussion, often the freebie dance works like this: fellow coffee professional orders an espresso and a pastry. The barista charges for the pastry only, calling the coffee on the house. Fellow coffee professional stuffs an extra coupla bucks in the tip jar.

    So, how come it was the coffee that was given away? This carries with it the implication that the pastry has more value than the coffee!

    2.There is no such thing as “free”. Even calling it a “gift” is a stretch. As we all know, when you give away a drink it comes out of cost of sales, and theoretically the cost of that “freebie” is spread out over the operating costs of the coffee bar. Therefore, if I am given a free espresso, that cost is covered by the rest of the customers in the bar. Even though most baristas or even owners think of it as a personal “gift”, that’s not entirely accurate- rarely does the barista actually pay for the drink- the owner doesn’t really often pay directly either. They tend to pass the cost on to the other customers. It’s therefore less of a “gift” and more of an extra cost of sales. Is that fair to anyone? I’d much rather pay, it’s a way for me to express my support and solidarity for a great shop who is doing great things.

    3.Professional Courtesy. The points about professional courtesy are well taken, however as a consumer of medical care I am distraught to hear that doctors blithely give each other free medical care while the rest of us have to pay! (see “cost of sales” argument above). In restaurants, I notice that the “professional courtesy” overture is often a free surprise dessert at the end of a meal. That’s perfect to me- it’s low value, it’s a nice surprise, and it preserves the value of the meal. My favorite experiences in coffee bars have been when I order and pay for my coffee (and food or whatever), and then while I am sitting down enjoying my coffee, a barista brings me a little taste of the new coffee they are excited about, or a sig bev they are working on, or a cookie to share. All of that is much more meaningful to me than the obligatory free drink.

    This conversation has inspired me. I shall be much more insistent on paying in the future!!

    Peter G

  20. If my barista tells me I don’t have to pay for a coffee, that’s usually a good way to get me to put a $5-10 in the tip jar. That way, they get to treat me, I get to treat them, and I don’t feel like a jerk for taking up space. And even if I don’t tip $5-10, I try to be a good patron and buy something else. A lot of times those baristas are giving you one of their personal shift drinks, which to me represents a personal sacrifice, as the drink is theirs to give and not the property of the shop owner.

    At our roastery pretty much every drink we make is free, but we have an honesty box for any moneys the person feels inclined to give based on how good they think the drink is. Perhaps this isn’t great for a cafe setting, but I do think folks here are touching on what actually is implied when money and coffee change hands.

  21. On the subject of tipping:
    Should you tip the same amount whether or not you are given a free drink? Are we giving the barista the wrong impression if we are “appreciating” their service more when it’s free?

  22. I was recently in New York and the system there is if you are a visiting barista from another cafe in NYC who participates in the coffee for coffee exchange then the coffee free. This is a wonderful idea and promotes more affiliation within different businesses.
    If you are not in a position to offer that ‘free’ coffee in payback to your buddy pulling you a shot then the baristas will insist on paying and are usually asked to pay.
    One for one I think is a beautiful thing.

  23. What about if they buy your drink or something of the sort, and it is a bad coffee, what do you do send it back or suffer in silence, once my brother in law took me out for a espresso and it was underextracted (that is one of the worst things i find), i didnt know what to do drink it and be quiet or do something. I think that if someone buys your drink you should accept it graciouslly, but what if its bad?

  24. This reminds me of Ben Folds’ song Free Coffee. I suggest you give it a listen, I think you’ll approve.

  25. As a new business owner, there are few things I can give since everything I own, at the moment, is in the shop and I’m not really making any money yet. So, a cup or a lb of coffee is about all I can do at the moment.
    If you walk in and I give you a drink it’s either because you’re in the industry and/or we’re new and I want your opinion and respect for my craft. I don’t expect anything in return.

  26. I think my father has been one of the last of a dying breed for a few decades now – the country doctor. In his career (he’s now 80), he never stopped using the housecall as a care-giving tool and has never charged more than $8 for an office visit, believe it or not. Observing this while growing up and then through adult eyes later in life, what I learned from him was that using his discretion to give care to a fellow medical professional (or their family member) outside of the red tape of scheduling, invoicing, billing, insurance, etc., got that person back to work more quickly and upheld his oath of doing no harm, and even more, to render aid when need was observed. Through this, the local medical community at large was strengthened and functioned at a more efficient clip. The truth is, he has operated a pro-bono clinic for the public with these practices for 35+ years, filling in the cracks in the system. While we in the coffee industry have no Hippocratic obligation, the principles, in spirit and in my opinion for my own practices, still hold water. So if, by your use of blithely, you mean that he gave professional courtesy with joyous hopefulness instead of its alternate definition of thoughtless disregard, then yes, you are correct and he does indeed.

  27. The worst thing about receiving free coffee when you go out is ‘getting use to it’, I always make a conscious effort to pull out my wallet and attempt to pay when I am at the cash register. And on the occasions when the person manning the register refuses my money I am in the middle of a dilemma, do I argue? To which my arguments will be of no avail and I simply end up holding up the line while looking like an argumentative twit. Or do I accept their gracious offer and step aside only to look like a cheap skate for accepting their offer to easily?

    Often when cafe staff refuse to take my cash I will put up a small protest, I might say something like “are you sure?” while extending a 20 in their direction, I know they will not except it but at least that way I do not look too cheap. I have shown that I have money and I am happy to hand it over and then graciously excepting their offer, saving face and a free coffee.

    But the worst thing of all this is visiting a great coffee establishment, having a few cups and then wandering out without even offering to pay. I am often guilty of this and I blame all the places that have refused to take my money over the years, you have created a freudian paradigm (if such a thing exists) in my head which makes me have a freudian leave, only to start driving away and have a “DAMN” moment; the sudden realization that I forgot to offer to pay. The sad thing is that I should be thinking “I forgot to pay” and not thinking “I forgot to offer to pay”.

    Only if people would just take my $3 for the coffee, which should be excepted as an absolute bargain considering all the effort that went into it.

  28. (sigh) I would love to work in a city where this was an issue, sadly country NSW (Aus) is a wasteland of decent coffee so I rarely leave the house for coffee as it always disappoints. But I live in hope.

  29. Great post – and a telling one. I think you should always offer to pay. Having many times had very awkward moments when my money is no good – I always dose up the tip jar.
    The issue I have with free coffees is this ….
    Baristas/Roasters/Industry people you know who come into our place – where we happily ply them with free coffee – as we want to extend hospitality to friends and also chat – often, these people are jammed up against a grinder and drinking whatever you throw their way – not necessarily what they ordered. To a degree they miss out on the customer experience but get ‘special’ treatment in terms of a free coffee and a chat about whats going on and how your new piece of kit is working.
    The dilemma comes when you visit their place and are in turn jammed up against a grinder with people everywhere and a mad shift going on – should you expect a free coffee in return? Well no, you shouldn’t of course, but the situation has been created by handing out free coffee in the first place…..better to pay and stay out of the free coffee debate.

  30. If you are a known face in the coffee industry generally most things is on the house, most might think this is a perk but it leaves us in a rather awkward situation.

  31. I too am a huge fan of paying at cafes. But my main reason is one of a little more selfish. If I don’t pay I feel I need to be more polite to the barista that made my drink and have less of a right to say if the drink was good or not. I am a huge fan of constructive criticism and feel i cont give it if needed when I don’t pay.
    Although I didn’t used to feel this way. But what got me thinking about it was the fact that at the cafe I work at now, even the owners parents pay for their coffee and they are happy to pay. I think it is more of a statement of support by going and paying rather than just visiting.

  32. I think you are right, if the drink is bad then you can comment or somthing of the sort or even send it back.

  33. I always pay. Everything has a price. Even terrible coffee.

    If someone wants to offer a “gift”, I still pay the price of the coffee + tip, all in the tip jar. My only concern is perhaps providing incentive for employee… or a tax evading owner to “give everything away”. If someone insists to the point that they are handing cash back to me that I put down in front of them, I do feel it can be rude to not accept a “gift”. However, not pay, somehow devalues the product offered. So I’m careful that my insisting to pay is not just a courtesy.

    Now I do sometimes find after taking a sip that I want to reach back in the tip jar and get my money back =). But for the most part, I hold back. I find people that give coffee away to other coffee people do so for 2 reasons.

    1. It’s the unwritten code. It’s what you do. It’s a way of communicating with out words “I appreciate that you care about some of the same things I care about”.

    2. The desire for earnest feedback particularly from someone you see as credible to offer it.

    If I sense someone is doing it for reason #1, my paying is how I reciprocate that appreciation. Otherwise I feel I’m only devaluing it. If someone is doing it for reason #2 I always seem to feel more comfortable giving honest feedback having paid for it. Otherwise what is your remedy if it sucks? Get your money back? “Oh wait I didn’t even pay for this” Awkward.

  34. Reading the discussion reminds me of one very important thing: my most valuable reason for having a Café, namely, loving being a host, having guests and the most inner wish to please them at my place, as if it were my living room.
    Yes, it is a fact that even a living room must be paid for, but I find it absolutely legitimate wanting to show appreciation to those in the business coming by to visit.

    So that is about the side offering the friendly gesture. The other side is the one of the guest. We all know well that all these cups we give away cost money, but we all know just as well that we ought to have the chance to accept a gift. The solution I tend to use to balance the whole thing is tipping.

    Nevertheless, thank you for bringing up the topic. I do not think, we will ever really find a “solution” for this matter. Giving and taking are both legitimate, especially when both constantly get the opportunity to do so.

  35. i go by two rules when it comes to free drinks among professionals:

    1) i consider splitting a double shot of my espresso to be professional barista courtesy – i have a shot, you have a shot, we discuss and critique. my low cost involved in that single espresso is more than repaid with a good sensory evaluation of my coffee and discussion thereof. it helps me improve, every time.

    2) if you’re ordering something and the purpose of the drink is NOT to evaluate and learn, you pay. pretty simple, and hasn’t failed me yet.

  36. Great post.

    But, there goes all of my free coffee. :(

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  38. When I “treat” someone to a cup of coffee, I open up my wallet and pay for it.

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