Cafe Etiquettes: 11 Tips from Behind the Counter

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Hipster baristas and indie cafes as a general rule, are scary places. From the intimidating menus with hard-to-pronounce beverages and lack of descriptors to the blasé, nonchalant attitudes of the behind-counter personas, it can be a daunting experience…

The first time I entered a “hipster cafe”, I was a broke undergrad and it was the establishment on the first floor of my apartment block. I went in because it was cold and rainy and I didn’t want to walk 10 minutes to Starbucks.

“DRINK” it declared in minimalist typography, black against white. Two unsmiling baristas stood behind the counter, nary a glance of acknowledgment that I had even walked in. I thought I knew what I wanted to order, I had been craving a caramel macchiato: Starbucks style. I quickly changed my mind. I threw a quick glance at the menu board as I was walking the very, very short distance from the door to the counter. Any thoughts of caramel macchiato was long gone, and I found myself doing a double take, looking at the very, very sparse menu board over and over again. I’m pretty sure I paused in mid-step, mouth gaping in desperation, hoping to order a drink that would impress the two very unfriendly baristas.

It didn’t work.

“Ermm… Can I get a… um… a… latte, please?”

I’m pretty sure I might have embellished this memory, but I remember a derisive snort and a disgusted look somewhere. It was the most uncomfortable 15 minutes of my life. I downed that latte in record speed, speed-read my chapter and tried to pretend I was anything but uncomfortable and then booked it out of the place.
It took me another week before I dared to step into the cafe.

In retrospect, it wasn’t my lack of coffee knowledge that gained the unfriendly eye roll, but rather the embarrassingly long pauses of “um” and “ah”‘s that peppered my entire sentence.

The next time I went back in, there were about 3 people in there and I went straight to the counter, smiled and said, “I don’t really know a lot about coffee, but I’ll like to try something new. Not a latte, not a cappuccino, but definitely something with milk. Is there anything special you’d recommend?”

And here’s the funny story, those two scary hipster baristas? They turned out to be two of the coolest and friendliest people I’ve met to date. Four years down the road, and I’m now the unfriendly barista from behind the bar, and the coffee they recommended remains, to this day, the best coffee I’ve ever drank. It was my introduction to coffee the way it should be, and I said “adios” to Starbucks and never looked back.

What was the drink they recommended?
Why, none other than the King of the Great Coffee debate. Yeap, you guessed it, a Flat White.

What was the point to this backstory? Here are some pet peeves and etiquettes from behind the counter.

1. “What would you recommend?”

As with all things in life, there’s a time, place and season for certain things. While I can appreciate that you want my, ahem, expert opinion, please realize that it becomes a pain and a bother when firstly, I have a huge line of customers behind you who are all craving their caffeine fix and already know what they want to order. Secondly, you give me absolutely no hint as to what you like. Do you want something with milk, or are you lactose intolerant? Do you want it iced, sweet, black, bitter? What exactly are you asking me to recommend, or are you merely asking me which is the most popular way coffee is drunk?!

2. “Make it strong.”

Are you asking for an extra shot, or are you asking for less milk/water in your double? Don’t tell me to make it strong unless you specify clearly what you want.

3. “Can I get a large latte?”

No, you may not. We have a specific cup size for each type of coffee that is designed to maximize your coffee experience. What this means is that we pride ourselves on serving our lattes/cappuccinos/espressos in the proper serving sizes with the perfect milk:espresso ratio. Yes, I’m aware that this is not the answer you were looking for, but if you want a large latte, may I refer you to the Starbucks down the street? Have a lovely day.

4. “Can you turn the music down, I’m trying to make a phone call/have a meeting/having a study sesh.”

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Honey, you chose to come to our cafe. We didn’t force you to. This isn’t a library, there is going to be noise, above all, this is a business that caters to not only you, but other people as well. We are not going to turn the music down for you. If you think it’s too noisy, can we suggest taking your coffee in a to-go cup/finding a spot where the speakers don’t quite hit?

5. “What is the WiFi password?”

This magical code that allows you to connect to the internet is not only literally written on every single pillar in the cafe, it’s also on the front and back of the menu. Please don’t ask me what the WiFi is BEFORE you’ve even glanced at the menu or ordered anything. It’s just plain rude.

6. “SNAP! SNAP!”

Oh. No. You. Did-unt.
You did NOT just snap your fingers at me.

7. “What song is this? It sounds awesome.”

Asking me this will gain you brownie points and prompt me into treating you, not only as a valued customer, but as a friend. In fact, the next time you come in, I’ll probably even remember your name.

8. “Yea, I’ll just get the usual.”

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Yea, I see you once a month. Unless you come religiously every day or every week and order the exact same thing, there’s a 50% chance I’m not going to remember what you usually order. Of course, this isn’t really true as I, personally, make it a point to remember customers who come in more than once, but even my regulars don’t say “get me my usual”, in fact, I ask them if I can get them the usual in greeting, so unless your barista says that to you, do not EVER, and I cannot stress this enough, EVER say this. You don’t want to be that guy.

9. “Why is it so small?!”

Know. Your. Drink. It’s OK to clarify if you don’t quite know what you want, nobody’s going to fault you for being adventurous, but next time your waiter/waitress/barista asks you something that might be construed as condescending, it’s because there’s a reason for their question.
Trust me, I work in China. “Why is it so small?!” is something I tend to hear quite a lot, and no, it’s not even what she said.
This is basically the gist of our entire conversation.
Me: “An espresso, it’s about the size of a shot. You sure this is what you want, yes?”
Them: “Yes. Espresso. Black. No milk.”
Me: “You sure you don’t mean a black coffee?”
Them: “Yes. Espresso.”
Me: “OK…” (makes the espresso and serves it)
Them: “Why is it so small?! This isn’t what I wanted!”
Me: (facepalm)

10. “Actually, I wanted this iced/to-go.”

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Please state your order succinctly and clearly. If you wanted this to-go or iced, you should’ve stated this when you were giving your order. It’s not quite as simple as “but you can just pour it into the to-go cup, right?” or “but you can just pour it over ice, right?”.
Yes, logically, we could. But think about it this way: it’s our job as the barista to make the best damn cup of coffee because it’s our promise and duty to provide you with the maximum coffee experience. So yes, we could just half-ass it and pour it into the to-go cup or pour it over ice after we’ve made it, but really, we’re artists who take pride in our jobs, so please, please respect that and tell us beforehand what you really want.

11. Always tip your barista.

This is the golden and final rule of good etiquette to get the best service and cup of coffee in town. Remember, we need tips to supplement our pay checks. You want all the perks of being a valued customer? Tip, and tip well. We always remember the ones who tipped us $1-$2 for a $4 cup of coffee over someone who tipped 20cents. And no, “here’s a tip… save up for a rainy day, doesn’t count.


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