How to be a great Cafe Customer

Friday, 11 September, 2020

Words by Mel Winter and Iain Evans 

This was first published in 2018, but in the wake of how hard the hospitality industry has been hit during the COVID-19 crisis, we thought it was worth a re-post.

We’re pretty sure if you’re reading this that you have a love of exploring new café’s and tasting the best coffee you can find. As we grow accustomed to better service, higher production values and ultimately better coffee, perhaps we also need to aspire to be better customers. The beautiful images used in our media are intended to inspire you to appreciate the process that goes into every cup and the environment it’s served in. But most importantly, behind each of these stages of coffee, there are people.

This discussion started, as many do these days, with outrage at a simple social media post. An irate restaurant patron took to social media, after overhearing a waitron say to a colleague “What am I supposed to do with R7?” in response to the tip left on the bill of over R250. The patron took to social media to moan and rally up support for such a disrespectful waitron. It backfired spectacularly.  Instead of affirmation and support, this Armchair Critic found herself under a barrage of abuse. What can anyone do with R7? And how can someone feel this is an appropriate tip on a bill for over R200? Tipping appropriately and customer entitlement are age old points of contention in the hospitality industry, but it also raises a broader discussion: What does it mean to be a good customer? And what do we really think about that old adage that the customer is always right?

Well, are you always right?

Our reaction to that phrase is that the person who originally said it could not have ever worked in the service industry, but we have the internet to check such things, so we used it. It was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. So he was in the service industry. Over 100 years ago. I can think of quite a few things that have changed in society since then, thank goodness. And if you’ve ever been a waitress, barista, teller, shop attendant, you will know that it is the most rage-inducing phrase a customer can use when trying to get their point across. In fact it is almost always likely to get you worse service instead of endear you to any member of staff. In the growing coffee industry, businesses are being built on education. Education of better coffee, new methods, trying something different; no matter where we are on our coffee journey, nor which side of the counter we are on, there is always so much more to learn. And unfortunately dear, deeply-valued customer, you really are not always right, nor should you assume that you are superior to any other human. Sure, you’re a paying customer, and you rightly have expectations that come with the economic value you provide the cafe. You expect service, and a product. But service to the customer does not mean servitude, and selling someone a product does not mean selling one’s dignity. Your attitude as customer will determine just what kind of service you will receive.

Being a really great Customer starts with being interested. 

In the coffee industry we talk a lot about what good service is, and rightly so.  Coffee professionals and their staff’s success is reliant on good on word-of-mouth, reviews and recommendations – human, digital or otherwise.  

Building a base of regulars is integral to the success of any cafe. The locals keep the business ticking over, but more than that in the truly successful cafes regulars become friends, good customers can brighten the day of the barista just as much as their smile with your cup of coffee brightens yours.

In some places, the expectations of the coffee itself are not really even that high, but being treated incredibly well, and having a special experience, is always of utmost importance.  Coffee professionals also talk a lot about engagement and discussion with customers, which is quite unique to Coffee, because how often do you get to ask the chef in your favourite restaurant about where your cut of meat originates from and how it’s been prepared?  Now you don’t have to be interested every visit. Sometimes you’re in a rush, or you’re busy and you just want a coffee. That’s ok. Being interested is not a one-time thing.  It’s a mindfulness that the baristas making your coffee, the roasters buying premium direct-trade coffees and the Café owners are investing in people’s lives simply by serving you that coffee. Even if you’re in a rush. 

Behaving like a local. 

When we were starting this magazine we were hugely influenced by a James Hoffman lecture on Customer Service.  He started the address by getting the baristas to quickly assess 3 things about the customers approaching the bar:

  1. Are they in a rush or are they relaxed?
  2. Are they happy or sad? 
  3. Are they interested or not interested? 

Now, we’d like to challenge you as the Customer to use the same three questions when approaching the bar to order or entering your favourite roastery:

  1. Are they in a rush or relaxed – If it’s 7.30am and she has 25 coffee orders in front of her and is stressing to make them, she’s probably not going to engage with you the same way as if it’s 3pm and the shop is quiet. 
  2. Is the barista happy or sad?  Considering that in South Africa many baristas are working long hours, on their feet all day for close to a minimum wage, they might need your encouragement, support or a simple friendly greeting  - chances are you’ll get a much better coffee as a result.  
  3. Are they interested or not interested. Now we’re happy that you’ve logged your last month’s brewing ratios on your Chemex or are bursting to share your flavour notes with the Roaster on a particular batch of beans, but again, being a good customer is knowing when an in-depth discussion on such topics is appropriate.  If he’s trying to unload a ton of green coffee through the warehouse backdoor, it might not be the best time. 

All of the above is common sense – yet, sometimes, as customers, we can lose our perspective. Sometimes we spend 5 minutes there, or 2 hours if we move in with our laptops to work and our expectations of the service should be different in these scenarios. 

So let’s talk about tipping . 

Let’s dive right in here.  In the US, Australia and most of Europe, tipping for good service is just good customer practise. In Japan on the other hand, tipping is a not standard practice.  In South Africa, tipping for good service is absolutely mandatory.  Baristas and other service staff in South Africa rely on tips to survive. The wages for baristas is generally minimum wage, but often not a living wage. This is changing, but not fast enough. The Living Wage Calculator ( is a great tool to be a better employer and a more informed employee and the Barista Wage Calculator should be up and running by October 2020. So for baristas your tips, for great service and coffee,  make it possible for that individual to stay working as a barista and to grow, support themselves and their family and the longer they do so, the better your coffee experience becomes.  Cashless payment methods are becoming king, please try not to let this influence your tipping.

Be Willing to Pay More 

While we’re on the subject, we really want to you to pay more for great coffee. Think about the last time you had a really exceptional experience at a cafe. I’m pretty sure you didn’t pay R20 for it. 

The economics are simple. Speciality Café’s are trying to source more sustainable and ethical coffee along with tasting incredible. This comes with a price, a price we should be willing to pay. These premium prices go into infrastructure, schools for the coffee children, better farming practises, washing stations for the coffee and so on. But the truth of the matter, is that it’s scary for a café Owner to push the price up to what it should be.  I remember Rosetta selling us a R50 coffee for a special Micro lot – and initially we were a little taken aback, until we heard the whole story behind the coffee. This higher price per cup also goes towards paying better staff salaries.

Sometimes in this life you meet a person who is an all round ray of sunshine and can be happy in the face of any adversity, but I think we can agree that that is a rare occurrence. The majority of humans are hugely affected by outside factors like quality of life, money stress, the way you're treated by others, how you spend your day. If this environment is horrible can you and should you expect happy, friendly service?

One of the South African coffee teams that has always stood out for us over the years is Bean There Coffee Company. The team culture in this business makes us smile just thinking about it. Never have we walked into one of their cafes and felt anything less than ecstatic. This is largely down to how valued each of the staff is and that they are compensated accordingly. 

As coffee lovers – spending the premium price on a premium coffee supports everyone along the supply chain to ensure you continue to get great coffee. 

Great customers contribute to their Café environment. 

It’s great when customers also feel a role in fostering great vibes at cafes. All of us are there for the same reason – like minded coffee fans, being served our favourite beverage by skilled staff.  It’s also a great meeting place, a great social hub and a great shared space for communion with our neighbours.  Coffee professional Scott Rao on Instagram recently gave a great little post of things we can all do to be better customers. We’ve paraphrased some of them here: 

*If a cafe is full, offer to share your table with other customers (and not just the pretty, single ones!) in need of a seat. 

*Never be on your cell phone while ordering. 

*Always say please and thank you, or whatever niceties are common in your area. 

*If you’re a coffee pro and have access to some expensive or unique beans, give a sample on occasion to your local baristas. They will usually be pretty keen to try it. 

*Find special little ways to make cafe staff happy. (This is underpracticed and underrated on both sides of the counter. Sure, as a barista you may give good service, but when was the last time you gave extraordinary service?) Doing something special and out of the ordinary for a customer or a barista can really make someone’s day and also can be very bonding for both the staff and customers. It can be something as simple as clearing your cup and taking it to the counter with you giving them one less thing to do.

And, as one of the readers commented after the post: These aren't just coffee tips, these are great rules for life. Being a great customer may have a lot to do with compensation, but like anything in life, it has everything to do with attitude.

So while Coffee Professionals, Baristas and Roasters all try their damnedest to please you on every visit, know that your presence in their shop is more than just a transaction of cash for goods – you can influence the café environment, the staff that work there and even other patrons, more than you think. 

Here’s to being a great café customer!  

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