Coffee on the House: When Is It Okay?


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You might think I'm crazy for bringing this up, because I run the risk of ruining a good thing, but I get offered coffee for free all the time. Like, all the time. The specialty-coffee community is kind of small, and especially in my little corner of it in New York City, many of us know each other, at least on sight. So when I go out for a coffee in the five boroughs, there's a good chance I'll know the person making my espresso and, as such, there's a good chance they won't charge me for it.

Most of the time, I say thank you but I'd rather pay. (More on that later.) And then most of the time they say no way, josé. When that happens, the cost of the coffee goes into the tip jar, but I always walk away feeling guilty. After all, I work for a coffee roaster, and am keenly aware of the amount of work and money that goes in to every cup—from the moment the seed is planted to the moment the beans are ground and brewed. Profits aren't high for anyone in this business, and every ticket and purchase counts.

From regulars to industry peers to the cute girl who works down the block and comes in for a daily Americano—baristas, like bartenders, sometimes dole out cups on the house. It seems to be a relatively universal aspect of the café experience on both sides of the counter, but is it right?

First off, let me admit that when I was a full-time barista, I did sometimes leverage my drink-giving power for one thing or another: Bartering with local bartenders was a popular one, and the occasional free coffee is what eventually won me my husband, who was a weekday regular. I felt I was able to use good judgment and common sense, and felt the freedom to offer free drinks in situations when it felt appropriate: When someone mentioned it was their birthday, for instance, or in the case of a spill on the way out the door. Visiting coffee-industry royalty always got comped.

Most of the time, these drinks went unaccounted for: I didn't ring them in, I didn't keep a list, and I didn't always pay for them myself (though that also happened from time to time). Was I stealing from the house? Technically, yes, since as far as I am aware there was never an official edict from my boss about what was or wasn't acceptable free-drink behavior. But do industry standards, such as those that imply that a bartender might buy a round for some regulars, dictate that a certain amount of this thing is going to go on?

"It is a gracious act, and has the habit of ping-ponging back and forth," says bartender- and barista-about-New-Orleans Anderson Stockdale. "If I really like having you in my bar or cafe or I know you are in my industry, I want you to feel cared for. It is inexpensive for me to 'give' you a drink. Even if I pay for it myself on the spot, $5 out of my pocket to make you feel special is totally worth it."

And it does: I always feel super welcome and appreciated and special when I'm offered a free drink by a barista I know. (Even more so by one I don't.) I remember with keen fondness the look on someone's face when I surprised them by waiving the cost of their coffee, and I know that, to a barista, that is a hugely gratifying feeling. That said, I still don't always feel right about accepting the gesture, because I know that someone, somewhere is losing out in the deal: The shop owner whose inventory is a delicate balance of what's needed and what can be afforded; the roaster whose prices are based on cost of production and market value; the farmer who hand-picked the coffee after months of tending to the plant.

Are my pangs justified?

Pete Wright Photography on Flickr

Stockdale explains that the policies in the cafés and the bars that she works at are relatively similar. A certain amount of "free" drinks are to be expected by the establishments' owners, and the staff is made aware of what they're entitled to dole out during the course of a shift. (Obviously there's a bit more wiggle room with a bartending gig, as most people enjoy several rounds while there; in coffee shops, ironically, drinking a couple of rounds of espresso might cause everyone around you to back away slowly.) A free drink can go a long way in creating a relationship within a professional or local community, or even a single customer, and creates a positive experience for a guest: Things that any business owner wants to happen inside those four walls.

"All of this assumes that the cafe or bar owner has a comp or 'house tab' program in place, and that all of the staff know how to use it," Stockdale says. "The owners or managers need to insist that everything gets paid for one way or another. This matters for a few reasons," she continues. "Things have value. Your staff needs to know that your product is awesome, and to take pride in serving it. If they have the idea of giving something away and not marking it down or ringing it in, that has $0 value in their mind. It allows the guest to feel that way too, over time."

David Jang, co-owner of Kuro Kuma Coffee in New York, has a complicated relationship with the practice, both from his own experience and from watching others. "I give out free drinks here and there, and I also drink more than a generous share of coffee and bottled beverages in the shop. Every drink or bag of coffee I comp or give as a gift comes out of my pocket at full retail price," he says. "I do this because I have to respect my partner, the business, and show the people who come to the shop and who work at the shop that I respect the business."

Recognizing that every "free" drink is actually paid for by someone—in this case himself—Jang is aware that trust among staff and employers is key to managing a healthy and sustainably comped-beverage system. "An owner should trust the staff, but more than anything there needs to be mutual respect," he says. "One way to accomplish this is to pay a generous wage, implement a fair structure in the work environment, and lead by example. I tend to think some owners find merit in the idea of paying a low wage with the expectation of theft, slippage, and loss, but that approach is really foul."

"When I comp a drink to a fellow barista it is never for the purpose of getting a bigger tip in return," says Hadassah Wilson of Square One Coffee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "I'm not saying that such a thing doesn't factor in for people, but I personally just don't think that through when I'm giving a drink to someone. I'm usually too stoked about inviting them into the love affair I'm having with whatever I'm about to serve to them to think about whether they'll reward me for it."

All that being said, I still feel guilty about taking free beverages—yes, at bars, too—but that might just be because I'm a proper old fussbudget. (It also means that I'm a really awkward person with whom to go out for drinks, either caffeinated or alcoholic.) My typical response is, "Thank you, but please charge me," and if they still refuse, I'll put the money in the tip jar, or simply leave it on the counter for them to process as they will. Ain't no such thing as a free coffee in this world, buster!

Do you ever have a problem accepting a free drink from a barista?