What is the appropriate exchange rate of cash/beverages/snacks to wifi?
June 1, 2015 6:38 AM   Subscribe

Baristas! Bartenders! Bar and coffee shop owners! Other officeless people! I often work in coffee shops, and sometimes in bars. I stay for hours, sitting in chairs, soaking up A/C, using the wifi, and listening to music on headphones. What is the appropriate volume of drink/snack buying &/or tipping to avoid being a jerk and provide adequate compensation? (My current rate is ~ one coffee/two hours.) Is there any kind of consensus about this?

(I also often work in libraries, but since I pay my library fines I assume that I'm good there. Do librarians accept tips?)
posted by Going To Maine to Work & Money (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Librarians accept enthusiastically-worded letters of support for library funding written to local, state, and federal representatives!
posted by aabbbiee at 6:49 AM on June 1, 2015 [53 favorites]

There will never be a consensus, and you're unlikely to get a clear answer if you ask because you'll always be told that it's fine and it's not a problem (it would be un-customer-service-like to say otherwise).

The most important is to be aware of how full the shop is- if you are sitting and there are people waiting for spaces to sit, you should probably buy something (and/or offer to share the table if you have room). As a waiter, I always really appreciated being told by someone who planned on lingering that it was OK to ask them to leave if we were desperate for the table. You should also probably tip a little bit extra (think of the tipping as your office-space rental fee), and get on a first-name basis with the people who work at those locations.

Generally, I would say that if you even care enough to ask this question, you're probably not on the top of the list of annoying customers they are worried about.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2015 [19 favorites]

My personal rule is that if the place is really busy and I'm taking up space they could be making more money off if I weren't there, I'll go somewhere else. But if it isn't full, then by occupying a chair for hours I'm actually doing the owners a favour by making their place look like somewhere people want to be, so I'll buy coffees or whatnot at the rate I actually want them.

I don't worry about the A/C or the wifi because those would be on whether I was there or not.
posted by flabdablet at 6:53 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

(In addition to enthusiastic letters (and emails and phone calls) to politicians, many librarians also accept letters to the editor, support for ballot measures, volunteer hours and social-media posts and shares.)
posted by box at 6:55 AM on June 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I basically live at my local coffee shop and I do the kind of bad-form thing of grabbing a table before I order so I don't run the risk of getting stuck with a coffee and having to go somewhere else to set up.

I try to make up for it by, first, always tipping a dollar for everything I order, even when it's just a coffee; second, trying to set up as many meetings/coffee dates there as I can so it brings in some extra business; third, keeping an active eye out for people who are looking to sit down and offering to share a table. Obviously I'm always polite to the wait staff and clean up after myself, etc.

Honestly, I have friends who always come to the place, order a coffee, and leave, and I can tell the staff is a little bit happier with that - but you know what, I used to stress about this quite a bit and now I kind of feel that ultimately that's the business model and it doesn't make sense to overthink it too much.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:59 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

At cafes, you can do whatever you want within their rules. It's a business, not a charity — it works by offering customers things they want and charging prices to limit what customers get. I've seen many methods cafes have used to manage customers: limiting wireless to a certain time and require buying another item before authorizing additional time; barring wireless during busy hours; putting up a sign with a maximum time you're allowed to stay on a laptop and enforcing it by telling people to leave if they stay longer than it says on the sign. If they're not doing anything like that, that means they've decided you're free to stay as long as you want. The only minimum that goes without saying is that you always need to buy something.

Bars are different, since it's abnormal to treat a bar like this, and bars are usually not conducive to doing hours of work on a laptop with headphones on. Frankly, I'd avoid doing this in bars.
posted by John Cohen at 7:06 AM on June 1, 2015

I think it's bad form to hang out for hours and hours without ordering anything. When I do this, I order a fresh drink or something to eat every couple of hours.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The answer probably changes per shop, so I would just keep an eye on what other people are ordering and make an assessment based on that.

For example, we have a coffee shop near me that recently installed 30 craft beer taps. Beers are 3-5 bucks a pop. The cafe is also designed so that most tables are 4 person tables. One night I was in there and almost every table was filled. Some were filled by 4 people drinking beer together; some were filled by a single customer on a laptop drinking tea (~$2). In this case, a tea table is making the coffee shop only 1/8th the amount that the beer table is. In this scenario, especially considering that the shop was full, I would only feel comfortable if I was spending at least $5-10.

Another coffee shop near me has really good iced tea. If you go in there, every chair is always taken, and the average order is probably either tea, plain coffee, or tea or coffee with a pastry. The average order is probably less than $5. In this case, I would feel perfectly average if I just bought an iced tea every 2 hours.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:10 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

One drink every hour or two is my rule of thumb too. In student-y coffee shops where everyone is studying, a little less; in yuppie places where no one else is working, a little more. If all the tables are full, though, I leave!

And do order something. I see people just wander into coffee shops and sit for hours without spending anything and it drives me (as a fellow customer) a little nuts.
posted by miyabo at 7:11 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

if I don't have a beverage in front of me, I get another.
posted by rodlymight at 7:16 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think you should order food.

I don't know if there's a consensus, but I have heard more than one cafe owner say they absolutely hate people like us, who sit all day nursing a cup of coffee. So my way of dealing with that (when I was working at cafes) was to order at least one meal. Coffee is just too cheap to = rent, no matter how overpriced the coffee.
posted by latkes at 7:17 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This previous question might be helpful.

Also: You have a typo in your coffeshops tag.
posted by biffa at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2015

I've worked as a barista and I've also been the person spending hours in a Starbucks with my laptop, since I had no internet access at my accommodation and it was the easiest way to get online.

I'd say that at least one beverage every couple of hours is about right. If you're going to be spending several hours there, I'd say that you'd probably want to buy at least one snack. You're ready to eat by that point anyway, right? Probably tip a bit more than you usually would. If it's a busy coffee shop, try to avoid the lunch rush (generally between 12 pm and 2 pm).

As long as you buy something, are friendly to the staff, tip appropriately and don't leave behind a mess, the people working in the cafe should be perfectly happy with you being there.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 7:24 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I generally order coffee plus lunch when I know I'm going to be camping out for more than an hour or so. My coffee shop of choice also has a TON of bar seating which I always use, so that I'm not taking up a table. (I suppose it also helps that I go in only at low-traffic times, because I hate crowds.)
posted by kalimac at 7:28 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're at a chain store (*cough* Starbucks), the baristas don't care. Be polite, smile at us like we are people when ordering one token coffee - and we'll let you sit there all day. (Get a Starbucks card, and you can have free refills all day, too - coffee or tea).

If you don't want to piss off your fellow customers, then you can be sensitive to the number of available seats, and also don't sit at the four person table (thus taking up three extra seats). If alone, sit at the community table, and keep your stuff to one seat's width, rather than spreading over 2-3 (as some do).
posted by jb at 7:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Basically: if you're worried about hurting independent cafes, buy something nice at the indie on your way by, then plant yourself at Starbucks with their cheapest coffee - or even just a water (kids do this all the time at my sbux) and soak up their wifi. Trust me, they are not losing money. (And most of the customers get stuff to go).

But again, if you are super conscientious, consider walking to a less well-trafficked store - it may only be a few blocks past the more crowded one.
posted by jb at 7:35 AM on June 1, 2015

Have you thought about getting a membership at a coworking space?
posted by zamboni at 7:41 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Couple comments removed; topic of non-food-biz work hangout spaces is an interesting one but it's really not answering the question that was asked here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:48 AM on June 1, 2015

Best answer: A rule I live by when tipping: if you're debating whether or not to leave the extra dollar, leave the extra dollar.

You could adapt this to: if you're debating whether or not to leave the extra dollar, leave the extra dollar. if you're debating whether or not it's time to get another drink, get another drink.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:50 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

All depends on the culture of the place. I worked in a coffee shop for years and the owner's policy was "As long as you're not ruining the experience for others, you are welcome here." The only time we deviated from this was when people were hogging a whole table for hours on end and not buying a single thing, leaving paying customers without a place to sit. And you don't sound like the type to do that anyway, OP. Sometimes if we were super busy, we'd ask if all the single people taking up tables for four wouldn't mind maybe sitting together to make room for others. Most of the regulars knew each other anyway, so this never caused problems. In short, we wouldn't have batted an eyelash at you taking up a table quietly and buying something every couple of hours.

Another coffee shop in the same neighbourhood was the opposite. There were 30 minutes rules and passive aggressive signs posted everywhere to make sure you knew. You could buy $50 worth of coffee and they would still be over at your table at minute 31 to tell you to buy something else or GTFO. So yeah, depends entirely on the business.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I work from home and alternate between Starbucks, the local library, and a whole-foods like local place with a big outdoor area with picnic tables.

Starbucks - the baristas tell me I am a favorite customer and frequently give me free drinks and food. I buy one fancy coffee ($5) in the morning and another regular coffee or something fancy when they're having a sale ($2) a few hours later. I chat with them whenever I order and I tip a few dollars pretty regularly. I also occasionally buy coffee for whoever is behind me in line. I also bring my own salad from home for lunch and they don't mind. I know it's rude but they don't sell fresh salad there. I am a regular here and I know all the baristas so I stretch the rules a little and also tip more than I would elsewhere because I like the people and the place.

Library: I have left several comments in the thank you box about how great they are. I always leave my table clean and push in my chair when I'm done. Also I am a trained librarian so I will occasionally shelf-read small messy sections but I wouldn't recommend doing this unless you know the collection and their rules.

Local place that's like Whole Foods: No one cares here. It's more like an outdoor social area. Lots of people hang around without buying a thing. I get a plain coffee with free refills and usually get breakfast and lunch when I work there. I don't tip here other than occasionally putting change or a dollar in the tip jar by the cash register because it's all self-serve.

Hope this helps. I think the main thing to do is to be friendly, tip regularly, and clean up after yourself. Always push in your chair!
posted by sockermom at 8:47 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Buy something once an hour.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:51 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've been in the coffee industry for a number of years, and pontificate over questions like this waaaay too much.The short answer is that it depends on the place, and you need to learn how to read the room.

The longer answer; If its a small, crowded, busy place, you need to be buying a drink every hour or so, maybe more during peak hours if its really crowded and people are looking for tables to sit at. Some cafe's deter people from camping in kind of passive ways. If a place doesn't offer wifi, and it doesn't have power plugs, you're not really expected to stay there a long time, even if you can. This is a legitimate way to run things, and should be respected on some level. I've had plenty of experience with fast paced, tiny, small cafes, that simply don't have the room for camping. They're too high volume, and just not the right vibe.

Other cafes are kind of designed for camping; lots of outlets and perks like 'cheap-ass refills on item x in for-here mugs.' These places like to look full, and make their money off of camping. That's a total legit business model too. The roastery I work for operates a cafe that encourages camping; we're fairly slow in the afternoons, and instead of it being a ghost town we really like having people in there from the community and the school nearby kicking it over the afternoon. We've got the space for it, and its just pleasant.

I would identify a place like the latter, or a couple places like this, and make it your regular shop. Nothing's going to work better for you than to become A Regular™ at a shop; (nice) regulars are awesome to have around when you're working in a cafe. If you're nice, friendly and tip well the staff will love you.

Becoming A Regular™ at a shop is like, the most powerful thing you can accomplish in cafe life. You get to, within reason, break the rules of 'how often do I need to pay for shit whilst camping.' If you frequent a place, get to know some of the staff, tip well and often you'll get a ton of leeway from the staff. You'll also just get comped drinks (that you should tip on!), and sometimes offered a pastry for free. If you're broke as fuck one week, and can only afford that one black coffee for 6 hours…if you're a regular? No problem at all. I've had regulars lose their wallets and I just get their drink for them; but the good regular pays it back when they can on their next visit. Its a really weird give and take, but its so great for everyone. You sound like you'd benefit heavily from becoming A Regular™ somewhere.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:52 AM on June 1, 2015 [15 favorites]

My local greasy spoon/24 hour coffee/close enough to campus place has little signs requesting that people buy about $2.50 per person, per hour, for extended study sessions.
posted by Jacen at 5:05 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

A drink per hour, snack/food order if there for longer than 3 hours, tip well.

I have a personal rule that if I can't afford the above, then I can't afford to work in a cafe - so I'll have to go to a library/park/public space instead with my takeaway drink. As a small business owner, I think I'd like my customers to have this thought if I owned a cafe.
posted by shazzam! at 9:30 PM on June 1, 2015

furnace.heart: You sound like you'd benefit heavily from becoming A Regular™ somewhere.

This, after the advice to "read the room" farther up, is a very important point: when we join a community we need to support it -- but when we do so, there should be some reciprocal benefits.

But aside from those purely economical benefits, I think a sense of belonging is a really significant thing to get from becoming "A Regular™ ." I mean, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came; you want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same; you want to be where everybody knows your name.

Sorry. But it was just sitting there! Please support your local coffee shop, and other small businesses.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:15 AM on June 2, 2015

« Older Email resignation then phone, or other way around?   |   Where to get non-standard size photos printed? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.