4 Ways You’re Secretly Annoying Your Barista (And Everyone Else)

Behind that welcoming smile, they’re wishing you’d get your act together.
“It comes as a great big surprise to some people that they’ve somehow ended up at the front of a line in a coffee shop, of all places,” Catherine said.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
“It comes as a great big surprise to some people that they’ve somehow ended up at the front of a line in a coffee shop, of all places,” Catherine said.

Efficient, friendly and ready to serve coffee: Is there anything more wonderful than baristas at the top of their game? They remember your order, ask about your life and serve up a perfect cup that’s just to your liking.

But what’s secretly going on behind that bright smile? We talked to a veteran barista to find out the most annoying customer behaviors they often encounter. Make sure to avoid them and retain your “favorite customer” status.

Our source for this story was Chicago-based Catherine (not her real name), who’s been in the barista business for four years. She’s enthusiastic about the job’s many positives: “It’s a nice, low-impact way to connect with the community,” she said. “I get to ask how your day is going and learn little things about you. It gives me social connectivity in small doses.”

At Catherine’s neighborhood shop, she estimates that about 60% of the clientele are regulars. “I know their orders and can start drinks before they even come up to the counter. I know if they just had a kid, moved to town or got a different job. It makes me feel like I’m in a small town, even when I live in a big city.”

But customers are still strange sometimes.

Catherine has dealt with her share of imperious jerks and paltry tippers. But her biggest daily headache is people who seem to have just landed from another planet and are unclear how a coffee shop works. If you want to make sure you’re not part of the problem, follow her advice on helping your local barista retain her sanity.

1. Not Knowing Where You Are (Part 1)

“Sometimes I wonder about the five minutes before this customer opened our shop door,” Catherine mused. “Did they realize where they were going? Did they have a goal in mind?” Her first indication that someone is lacking this key geographical awareness is when they step to the front of the line and request, for example, a “venti caramel macchiato, extra whip.” Just like the ma’am, this is a Wendy’s meme, Catherine’s first impulse is to say, “Ma’am, this isn’t a Starbucks.” Instead, she politely describes the drink served in her shop: “We have a traditional macchiato, which is two shots of espresso and a bit of foam. Do you want that?”

At this point, Catherine said, many customers finally shake themselves awake and realize where they are, which is not, in any way, a Starbucks. That moment, she said, is often when they finally begin to peruse the menu, much to the delight of everyone behind them in line.

2. Not Knowing What — Or Who — Is In Front Of You

If you’re in your car at a coffee drive-thru, cool. Then what’s in front of you is a dashboard, so feel free to ignore it while your drink is being prepared. But if you’re inside a coffee shop, what’s in front of you is a human being — in this case, Catherine — and she’s going to need to interact with you. If you’re talking loudly on your phone about the need for the quarterly revenue reports to be on your desk ASAP, then you aren’t really available to her, are you?

“I’d estimate that every tenth person who walks up to the counter is trying simultaneously to place an order while having a big, serious conversation on their phone,” she said. “I ask, ‘Want room for cream?’ and they’re shouting, ‘Not Tuesday, Allison! I need it TODAY!’ and then I ask ‘What?’ and they say ‘What?’” — and guess what? Yup, the people in line are really having some fun now.”

According to Catherine, paying attention to your barista for the 30 seconds it takes to place an order is the most common of human courtesies, so please extend it henceforth. “I, someone with eyes, am standing in front of you, so making eye contact is a great idea right about now,” she requested.

If you're not at Starbucks, maybe don't order a Starbucks drink.
Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa via Getty Images
If you're not at Starbucks, maybe don't order a Starbucks drink.

3. Not Knowing What You Want

“It comes as a great big surprise to some people that they’ve somehow ended up at the front of a line in a coffee shop, of all places,” Catherine said. “So even the most basic questions seem to stump them, and their attitude is all like, ‘Why would this person in a place I’ve never seen before be asking me about almond milk preferences?’ It sort of grinds the convo to a halt.”

Part of the unspoken social contract of the coffee shop is arriving at the counter with a general idea about what you want, she said. “The thing is, I will ask you questions about types of milk, size of drink and the temperature of the drink. That’s because it’s my job to make sure you have exactly what you want. If you don’t even know your own preferences, how am I ever going to please you? And how am I ever going to get through this line of customers who are now wishing they could strangle you?”

While you’re waiting in line and deciding what you want, you could even do a little pre-work to move this transaction along, she said. “Customers who take stock of their surroundings are my absolute favorites. Like, you pay for your drink every time, right, since you’re not in the habit of getting free coffee everywhere you go? Then why don’t you get out your credit card right now? If you’re planning to use Apple Pay, why not look ahead of you and see if this shop seems to be accepting it? Or is there a sign by the register that says ‘cash only’? Better see what you’ve got in your wallet now. None of this has to wait until the moment I tell you what you owe.”

4. Not Knowing Where You Are (Part 2)

Catherine noted that strange things can happen to people as soon as they place an order. The first one is that some of them develop immediate, massive amnesia, their brain wiping out all knowledge of what just took place at the register.

“So let’s say you ordered an iced vanilla latte and you notice that a steaming hot cappuccino has just been placed on the counter,” Catherine said, “Why do you ask me, urgently, if it’s yours, and then start to grab for it? Oftentimes the person making the drink is not the same person who saw you at the register, so it would be great if you could hold on to your order details for just a little bit longer. Also, if it’s a shop that goes by first names, remember the one you gave us. If you’re thinking it’s impossible that someone could forget their own name when it’s being called, I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, trust me.”

As weird as that behavior is, Catherine notes another post-order stunt that occurs with alarming regularity. “People order a drink, pay for it and then run away — to the back of the shop, the bathroom. I swear, I don’t know where they go,” she said. “But we’re out here yelling when the drink is ready a few minutes later, and we’re getting no response.”

The kicker comes when the hide-and-seeker finally emerges from their undisclosed location, takes one sip of the drink, and complains that it’s now too cold for their enjoyment. “So we have to make them a brand new drink — our shop doesn’t allow us to reheat drinks — and it starts all over again,” she said.

Even if you act rudely, you can still tip big.

“Your barista really does want you to get the drink you want,” Catherine said. “They want it to be the perfect temperature. They want it to make you happy. And they want you to leave a big, fat tip in gratitude. Just work with us a little bit here, people, and everything will work out fine.”

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