Coffee Shop Etiquette: 15 Tips for the Wi-Fi Workforce

I spend a few days a week working at coffee shops, which is pretty common in San Francisco, and I’ve seen some serious audacity in the last few years.

There’s always the guy communing with his computer at a table meant for four. He inevitably plugged in to the only outlet five hours ago; about the time he purchased his coffee, which has long since gone cold. Occasionally he rises to aim banter at the irritated barista, and then returns to his seat without making a purchase. Smashing.

I once saw someone pull a screwdriver out of his bag to remove a cover plate the owner had secured over an outlet. I had to restrain myself from walking over to smack his hands away.

By supplying Internet access, coffee shop owners know they’ll attract customers who want to work, but there are limits. Let’s review them:

Coffee Shop Etiquette, 15 Tips for the Wired Workforce | Mighty Girl

1. Remember you’re frequenting a business. If the coffee shop isn’t profitable, it closes, leaving you pantsless in front of a Top Chef marathon. You, my friend, are a customer — so rise to the challenge. While you’re working, keep a purchase in front of you, and buy something every hour or so. If you can’t afford that, the library beckons.

2. Don’t bring a picnic. This should go without saying, but you may not bring food or drink to a place that sells things to eat and drink. Not even if you bought a coffee at some point. You can leave and come back if you want, but go eat your PBJ somewhere else.

3. Hang up. The barista is not a vending machine. Put away your cell phone while you’re ordering.

4. Tip well. Tip at least a buck every time you make a purchase. This promotes goodwill and serves as karmic rent. It’s an acknowledgement that you’re using space someone else could fill. Someone who tips.

5. Clean up after yourself. If you spill half the creamer on the counter before you find your cup, wipe it up. Empty sugar packets go in the trash, which is conveniently located inches from your hand. Bus your table between purchases and clear the table before you go. If someone takes your empty glass while you’re still sitting, that’s a forceful hint that it’s time to buy something else or leave.

6. Let the baristas be. If they want to talk to you, they will, and a pleasant conversation may ensue. But if you feel chatty — or god forbid flirtatious — direct those impulses elsewhere. Employees can’t be rude in the face of your attentions, and they can’t exactly leave work to avoid you.

7. Take one chair, and the smallest table available. If that happens to be a large table, offer to share until someone accepts. Don’t wait for others to ask, and don’t cover the table surface with papers in hopes that no one will bother you. As soon as a smaller table opens up, move.

8. Leave chairs free. If the space is busy, your bag goes on the floor, not a nearby chair. That way other people can use the chair without interrupting you. If you’d like someone to clear a laptop bag so you can sit, say, “Excuse me, is someone sitting here?”

9. Don’t bogart bandwidth. No P2P or large file downloads while everyone is sharing a network. Besides, we can all see your porn, and it’s awkward.

10. Respect the owner’s intent. If wi-fi is turned off at certain hours, then your laptop probably isn’t welcome either. Be aware of the cafe’s culture. If everyone around you is reading newspapers, or having quiet chats, this isn’t the place to start coding.

11. Avoid noise pollution. Switch your cell to vibrate, and take calls outside. If that’s not possible, keep conversations brief and quiet. Also, mute the sound on your computer, or wear headphones. Do you have any idea how much time you’re spending on Hulu?

12. Recognize that everyone wants the outlet seat. Unless outlets are plentiful, don’t use one unless you must. Arrive with a charged machine, and consider bringing an extra battery to avoid the whole drama. If you’re sitting at an outlet and you have enough battery to work for an hour or so, offer to share.

13. Don’t tamper with outlets. If an outlet is covered with a plate or tape, are you seriously willing to be the guy who opens it up? Don’t be that guy. What’s more, if there’s a fan, a lamp, or any other electrical device plugged in, you may not unplug it in order to charge your machine.

14. Ask before you pull out a power strip. In some cases it’s fine to bring along a power strip to multiply outlets, in other cases it irritates the owner. It’s more likely to be a good idea at a Starbucks than a mom-and-pop cafe. Another good sign is if the coffee shop has several available outlets, and is clearly set up for laptop use. When in doubt, ask the owner.

15. Once in a while, change your scenery. If you plan to spend an entire nine-to-five workweek in the same space, you might as well get a real job. Perhaps you’d be interested in learning to make a good latte?

The day may come that you’re too engrossed in your work to notice that you’re doing something rude. Hopefully, that situation will be such an anomaly that everyone will cut you some slack.

Now let’s go get some coffee. You can sit with me.

81 thoughts on “Coffee Shop Etiquette: 15 Tips for the Wi-Fi Workforce

  1. I’ve been to Tartine quite a few times (one of the most crowded places on the Face of the Earth) and there have been guys at the community table, with their laptop and paperwork spread out, as we can barely squeeze in to place down an au lait and a morning bun. Manners…please!!!


  2. Brilliant post!

    I live in LA which, like SF, has a plethora of coffee shops frequented by writers. Luckily, people learn the etiquette quickly or are pushed out – outlets and parking spaces are platinum-level commodities. Your tips are right on, and would be a great 101 guide for any newbie to the California coffee shop scene.

    I am one of those people who frequently spends 6-8 hours working in a coffee shop, but I always make sure that I purchase at least one meal while I’m there and make a second trip to the register for another coffee or something – not just the 25 cent refill schtick. You’ll know if the proprietor thinks you are giving them enough business if he/she remembers your name.

    One additional reminder to people – specifically Mac-wielding folks, of which I am one… bring your extension cord. Nobody likes the inconsiderate douche who blogs two outlets with their little white power box.


  3. I work from coffee shops and the like about 3 days a week, and it never ceases to amaze me how many people look at porn in these places.

    And, really, if you aren’t buying something every 45 minutes you should leave.


  4. I may have been THAT GUY once of twice in my life….thanks for the warning/guide.

    What recently through me off was the guy at the restaurant with a huge “Free WIFI” sign in the window. I went in, and obviously brought in some work to do.

    The guy confronted me, and got in my face, saying “your not gonna do a bunch of work here are ya?” He continued, “You have to buy a meal to get the fre WIFI.” He continued on, and I think you get the point.

    I NEVER felt comfortable there, and almost walked out before I ordered the coffee.

    I then ordered a salad to go, as I had already eaten breakfast.

    It was awkward form the minute I walked in (for the first time.) I even went back again and had another meal which was just OK.

    I will NOT go there anymore though.

    Perhaps they need your guide and then some training or their employees. Rick


  5. – If coffee shops are losing money due to customers staying too long to use the free internet, they should create an internet use policy. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with buying one item (therefore a paying customer), and staying to use the internet as long as you like if you’re not interfering with other customers or doing anything rude. The profitability of the shop should not be my concern. It’s up to management to determine the cost/benefit of offering free internet, and they should state clearly any limits on internet usage. A person can spend a long time in a clothing store trying on many different outfits while drinking free tea and end up not making a purchase, but store management expects this. On busier days, there may be a time limit on changing rooms. You get my drift.

    – If it’s considered rude for laptop users to play music / watch tv on their computers at reasonable volume, then it’s also rude for customers to chat.

    – The concept of tipping at coffee shops is just ridiculous. People who stress that those employees aren’t getting paid enough should bring the issue to cafe owners and managers, not customers. A good business relies on profit from sales to cover human resource costs, and pays employees enough to retain them. Relying on customers to fill the pay scale gap is not smart, and it creates resentment in both employees and customers. Customers complain that they shouldn’t have to tip for coffee (the cashier in a grocery store example is perfect), and employees complain that they’re not getting paid enough. In other words, it’s not the customer’s problem that cafe workers aren’t paid enough. I don’t tip at clothing stores (commission or no commission), even when an employee spends more than a hour helping me find sizes.


  6. A lot of great tips, especially the talking-on-cell-while-ordering, and cleaning up.

    Wow, have you actually seen someone view porn in a coffee shop? Gosh!


  7. This is a fantastic list, bar none. From the perspective of someone who has worked deli and cafe counters, and is now in a position that allows me the luxury of using the coffee shop at semi-regular intervals, I really thank you. I need to remember to print this out and leave a few well-placed copies lying around.

    I can’t suppress the urge to wonder if the people who are so anti-tipping have actually ever held a job in the service industry.


  8. The high level of aggression the average person displays when in the presence of food really should be the subject of serious scientific study.
    May I add: Will all customers PLEASE not leave used tissues, chewed gum and the like laying on the table? Thanks.


  9. I couldn’t agree more with commenter # 57- excellent points. If a business is incapable of making decisions that make economic sense, then they deserve to go out of business.


  10. I feel that it depends on the coffee shop culture, like you said. I’m often at grungy studenty coffee shops around SF and Berkeley, where I think an occasional quiet-ish study group or a small snack (apple? peanuts?) might be acceptable. But being messy or loudly talking on the phone (or god-forbid, laughing obnoxiously) is never forgivable.


  11. I don’t get the whole working from a coffee shop culture in the first place. Before the days of free WiFi and the laptop brigade, the pretentious wannabe poet/philosopher types filled the coffee houses. They were no less annoying either. It’s a coffee shop, not an office, so don’t expect it to be like one. If you willingly sit down with the types of people who disobey these “rules”, then I can judge you by the company you keep, no? Stay home to work like I do, and make your own coffee.


  12. Maggie – great list. I don’t work regularly in a coffee shop, but often retreat to one when I need a change of pace. I’m amazed to see many of the situations you describe in the relatively little time I spend there.

    One of the shops I frequent has a pretty good way of dealing with the moochers who buy 1 drink in 8 hours… you have to go up to the register to get a fresh password for 2 more hours of connectivity. It would (hopefully) be awkward to walk up and ask for a password without buying something.


  13. Gruff’s grandfather sounds like a very nice man, but I have worked as a barista and I would find it creepy for customers to hand me tips in the manner he describes.
    Of course that makes sense for a grocery bagger or a valet, but if there’s a tip jar, use it. And if you don’t like tipping but like coffee shops, please stick to ordering plain coffee. Standard policy at the cafes I’ve worked in the midwest is $1 tip for espresso drinks and spare change tips for plain coffee. If you honestly can’t afford that, I wonder if you can afford coffee shops at all?


  14. These rules should apply to trains and buses too: get your damn bag off of the seat when there are people standing, no one wants to hear your crappy music, clean up your own mess, etc.

    But I’m not tipping the bus driver, nor am I giving a 40% tip on an espresso drink. I was a waitress for many years (high school, college, grad school) and a barista briefly; I know how it goes. But waiting tables I made $2.13 an hour before taxes. On occasion, I owed more taxes than my paycheck covered, so come payday I had to _give_ money to my employer.

    I’ll throw some change in the jar on occasion, but baristas don’t offer the same service that other tipped professions do (nor do delivery drivers or room service folks). My hairdresser has to pay attention to what I want and work to achieve that. A waitress or bartender has to keep tabs on who needs what and when, and then deliver it. A barista makes one drink from a menu and hands it over a counter. Not the same thing.

    Sorry, but the tip thing gets to me. I don’t tip at McDonalds (and neither do any of you, I’ll bet) and they don’t make a living wage, either.


  15. I’m having customer service flash backs. Yep, Beth, from the tone of your post you fit the profile of someone who doesn’t tip. It’s almost always middle class, middle age women who not only don’t tip, but are hostile about why they do not need to tip! No big deal, you just make the tippers look even nicer! And no, I don’t tip at McDonalds. But some fast food places do have tip jars and I’ll throw my spare change in them. It’s not rational, it’s just good will.


  16. So I’m walking up Fourth Street away from the train station today at about 0710 and it’s so cold and rainy I can’t hear myself think so I duck into Peet’s to ingest some hot coffee to stave off hypothermia and just as I’m all settled in and my glasses are unfogged and I’m about to haul out my laptop when I remember this article and go to myself … oh oh, what are the rules? I forget. So I just drink my coffee without benefit of computer and haul my ass back into the drear. Aaaah San Francisco in the winter.


  17. Thanks Maggie! I think I’ll have this pop up when someone joins the Ritual wireless.

    As far as all the anti-tipping comments, I think tipping your barista is more akin to tipping a bartender than a grocery store clerk. And it takes more skill to prepare a good shot of espresso than it does to pour a beer.



  18. Great post! I agree with everything except the amount of the tip. I do tip everytime I order, but not that much.


  19. I agree with most of the content here, but object strongly to the tone. There are people who are working hard for their living on both sides; baristas, cashiers, students and freelancers. The coffee shop wants to stay in business, and the person who doesn’t have the luxury of a home office needs a place to work. 2-14 are definitely good points and we all hate coffeshop asshats who don’t observe them.

    What really irked me was the comment in 15 about “get a real job”. Someone who spends their workday in coffee shops can be doing one of many things, but only a portion of those don’t qualify as a real job. In the past I’ve been a student and a freelance designer working from a cafe, unable to afford the frequency of purchases and tips you suggest as proper etiquette, and someone insinuating that a cashier position was more legitimate employment frankly would have brought me to tears.


  20. Here is one for serious debate folks…. What about snagging a seat before you’ve ordered? I have a friend who is livid about this practice, which I have admittedly done. His gripe is that there are people in line who got there first and an open table is supposed to go to the first paid customer. I argued that I can’t afford to pay four dollars for a coffee and then not have a place to sit. And, I always offer to share my table with someone (if they don’t smell). I actually assume that anyone in line that wants to sit has scoped out their seat already. He adamently disagrees and doesn’t think table sharing is any help, because he is the type of person who would never let you realize he needed a table. He would watch you slide through the door and into the last available seat and just leave with his coffee in hand. He did recently interrupt a woman taking what he would have considered his table, by rights, and politely explained the etiquette. She grumbled, “well, then I guess I have to leave.” To which he replied, “As opposed to me leaving?” She left and then returned to completely chew him out for being rude. The baristas later apologized for not defending his situation, but on the spot the whole scene really sucked and “we the people” disappointed him, once again. He adds that we have to remember that there are still “inexperienced” coffee shoppers out there who don’t know they were supposed to snag a seat right away. Post disagreement, I have found myself in this situation again several times, and have opted to wait to sit until after I ordered. I tend to feel better about the decision. What do think?


  21. Nice list. As a former barista, may I add one more suggestion? Ask the barista to leave room for milk/cream in your coffee, if that’s how you take it, rather than dumping 1/10th of your drink into the trash can! Those same people who are serving your drinks have to empty out those trash cans, and trust me, they’d rather not have to haul a dripping bag across the floor that they also have to mop. They’d MUCH rather just stop pouring a bit from to top to provide you with enough room for your milk/cream!


  22. This is a great list, Maggie. I may have to print it out and hang it in my favorite coffee shop. There are MANY who hang there all day violating the various big ones (in my opinion the biggest violations are sitting there for hours with a single cup of coffee to use the free wireless and only going up for the single free refill…). My local baristas will thank you!


  23. I’m a few weeks behind, I guess, but BRAVO. I managed an independent coffee house for 8 years which many, many people called their “office” for a few hours a day. Some were good about it. Some were, to put it mildly, not. It warms my cold, tarry heart to know that even one customer out there gets it.


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