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. Great list! I’m a coffee shop worker myself and have always tried to abide by these guidelines. The folks that buy a $1.50 coffee of the day and then hang out for hours really aggravate me. Thanks solid guidelines!

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  2. Excellent advice, though it’s a shame that people would need it for reference. Common sense and common courtesy are hard to come by these days I guess. Anyway, great post!

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  3. Right on SISTAH! I have many years of coffee shop work under my belt. My favorite is the person who hogs the condimant area for 15 minutes, just to get his $1.50 coffee just right by using a quart of cream, and then toddles off leaving 25 empty splenda packets on the counter-inches from the garbage!

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  4. Hear, hear! This goes double for singles bogarting whole booths at Diesel. One day the wheel of karma will roll over your ironic hipster shoes. It’s not too late to mend your ways.

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  5. Finally someone said it!
    I used to do corporate training for Panera and each and every restaurant has someone who spends the entire 8-hour day working there. When I needed the private dining room for training I’d actually make sure and let the guy office-ing there know so he could make other plans that day.
    Once in a while one of them would even get a phone call!

    $1.50 worth of coffee/day does not buy you an office with internet access.

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  6. Well said!! May I add a pet peeve of mine for consideration? MUTE YOUR SPEAKERS. No matter how funny/inspiring/important it is, nobody else wants to hear it. They are reading or relaxing or conversing or working on their own stuff and you are not All That. If you absolutely MUST listen to whatever it is, use headphones.

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  7. Amen. My brother’s friend is a DJ and my brother and his gf will go to the club his friend is working at, purchase ONE bottled water and the fill it up from the bathroom tap for the rest of the night. AND SO DO ALL HIS OTHER FRIENDS! No consideration to the fact that his DJ friend get’s paid off the bar profits OR that the clubs they keep doing this at keep closing down. I totally get the damn the man, starving artist mindset, but don’t put ppl and friends out of work for pete’s sake.

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  8. I take for granted that days I work a the local cafe will not be “diet” days. Food or drink every hour at least (and whenever the shift changes), with $1 minimum tips each time, plus extra when I leave.

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  9. Seriously good post. Can’t believe some people actually have to be told these things. My least favourite is the guy either in business attire, or arty hat who sits there for hours on the one cup when others are standing.

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  10. Thank you so much for posting this. I no longer work in a coffee shop but did for years. It’s amazing how people act in public. Once a woman came in bought a coffee, set down her items at a table and left to use the restroom. This was closing shift in Brooklyn, NY and I was the only worker there. She comes out of the bathroom and goes back to her table and starts yelling that someone stole her computer. She comes up to the counter YELLING at me that I should have been watching her stuff. Meanwhile, no one had left or entered the store while she was in the bathroom. So, she is still yelling and packing up her stuff and is amazed at how bad service is these days, and what appears out of her bag, her computer. She apologized, but still…

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  11. You rock, Maggie! This post is amazing, and very timely! Coffee shops get very crowded around the holidays! I am passing this one on to everyone I know. 🙂

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  12. love u for leaving these comments. slightly horrified you have to play mommy because people are rude. BUT I have often noticed especially at work that those who live on their laptops don’t always have the greatest social skills.

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  13. I don’t think it’s lack of social skills so much as an inflated sense of entitlement that is not limited to just coffee shops.

    Buying something every hour seems a bit over-the-top to me, but I don’t regularly spend more than maybe an hour-and-a-half or two hours in a coffee shop. I don’t think I could finish any beverage I would purchase in a coffee shop in an hour. An hour-and-a-half to two hours or maybe just at regular intervals seems more reasonable to me. Good list.

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  14. I dunno about the buying a product every hour. My local coffee shop is a Starbucks, and I pay $20 a month for the T-Mobile access. (I really need to switch over to that free AT&T offer.) I buy a medium coffee and about 60% of the time a pastry or biscotti (biscotto?), then spend between 1.5 to 2.5 hours there. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

    Now whenever I *am* at a mom and pop coffee shop with Wifi, I do buy refills of the coffee. But not at Starbucks. Not when I’m paying $20/mo to T-Mobile.

    Re. tipping: I don’t like the idea of tipping for a simple cup of plain black coffee. To me, that’s an example of how tipping has grown absurd in the U.S. (Yes, I do tip when I order specialty drinks, but I rarely order those.) A dollar tip on a cup of coffee and a pastry increases the total cost by about 40%, and I’m not receiving table service or requesting any sort of barista artistry–just a cup of joe and a table where I can access the Wifi I’ve already paid for.

    But maybe the Starbucks/T-Mobile thing is a unique situation. Otherwise, I think your tips are dead on.

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  15. Sorry but I don’t tip someone who is taking an order. If I have to serve myself or bus my own dishes I don’t think a tip is appropriate which is why at self service counters they usually have to put out a jar labeled TIPS PLEASE. A tip is for service not for an order taker.

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  16. While some people can be over the top, most everything you just described is ridiculous. A coffee shop is just that. If they decide to offer FREE WIFI, then they should expect people to take advantage of it. They are not required to pay regularly to the coffee shop. Nor are they required to take smaller seats or anything of the sort. It’s a public space and they are a costumer just as the next person.

    Since there is almost no service (unless they bring you the food/drink), then tip is unnecessary.

    You say they should start looking into barista jobs? Maybe you should start looking into workplaces that pay decently, and stop taking it out on costumers.

    It’s not etiquette, as you elitistly put it (thanks again), but rather extra niceties that not everyone needs to follow. We can’t all be as wonderful as you!

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  17. What’s funny about these rules is that while they may promote consideration they would do a whole lot to discourage casual interaction between strangers. The norm they set seems appropriate to the library, the meditative living room, or Invastion of the Body Snatchers.

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  18. Thankfully, Vicki, I do none of those things.
    I just think that it was a bit elitist.

    Thanks for the concern!

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  19. I don’t often use my computer in shops, but usually bring class work or writing to work on. If I’m somewhere like Borders during a busy time (very popular for studying) then I purchase something, otherwise I’m kind of hit and miss.

    One of the local shops next to campus has small signs around about how the cafe uses “European Seating” and encourage table sharing. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone actually do that though.

    Good list of general rules though. Some of those I didn’t think anyone would even think of doing (a screwdriver?!).

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  20. Yes Maggie, stop taking it out on the ‘costumers.’ What have you got against sequins, anyway?

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  21. Can I just add remember you are at a coffee shop not an office or library & other people are allowed to come there & socialize. If you want quiet go some where else

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  22. I actually first saw this yesterday when i was pulling yet another 11 hour day at my local favourite coffee shop working on my thesis- and absolutely loved it. It amazes me that people aren’t more considerate- offer to share big tables, don’t turn on your sound, actually buy drinks, given that you’re taking up the seat of a paying customer. It’s not hard.

    Not to mention, as I was reading it, there was a guy sitting at one of the laptop/internet stations reading a newspaper, as many comfy chairs sat unused. The nerve!

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  23. Also, I’d just like to point out to those who are criticizing this list, the only reason that the WIFI (or other internet access) is ‘free’ is because they have built it into the cost of drinks and food. Furthermore, it is for PAYING customers. When your drink/food runs out, so does your customer status.

    Also, it’s far from a ‘public space’ – it’s a private business. Get over yourselves and remember that these people, especially ones running small coffee shops, have bills to pay too. If you can’t make regular purchases, you should probably skedaddle.

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  24. Huh. It’s surprising and humbling to read some of these things and realize that I had never thought about many of them, or at least not in this way. Thanks for this–I’m sure my small-town baristas and shop owners will appreciate my improved behavior.

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  25. I’m annoyed at how it seems I’m expected to tip everywhere I do business these days. When did buying a cup of coffee turn into a service that requires a tip? I’ll tell you when. It happened around the same time that the person who rings up my Thai take out order expects me to tip them. Everyone seems to expect a tip for doing their job these days regardless of whether their job actually involves a ‘service’

    The baristas job is to make coffee. They knew that when they signed up for the job. Do you tip the cashier at the grocery store? The guy who installs your cable tv? The teller at the bank? Of course not.

    Tips should be reserved for those people providing an actual service that is not associated with the simple purchase of an item.

    My grandfather, Joe, was a classy guy and I learned from watching him that there were times to tip and when you did, you tip damn well because you want to be remembered. You want to get the preferred service on your next visit. You take care of the waiter or waitress because they can make or break your dining experience. You take care of the person parking your car because you care about that Cadillac and drive off into the night.

    One of the best memories I have with him is just going grocery shopping where he would ask the bagger push the cart out and load the groceries into his Cadillac. Those kids would jockey for position whenever they saw him in the store because they knew that Joe would palm a secret $5 tip to them when he shook their hand and thanked them for their help. He was one of the friendliest guys you’d ever meet and if your job involved offering a service you looked forward to seeing his smile, being called by name, and having a few extra bucks in your pocket when he waved goodbye. The kicker of this is that even if your job didn’t involve a service that might lead to a tip, you still liked dealing with him because he still smiled and called you by name.

    If you feel like someone deserves a tip, hand it to them directly and say thanks. Once you start dealing with things in that manner you’ll likely stop blindly tossing money into a jar and instead making a connection with an individual who is likely to remember you next time.

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  26. Our local libraries are just now beginning to offer WiFi. I am loathe to contemplate such a list for the folks who I know will camp out there. I have a hard enough time studying/researching what with all of the cell phone calls being taken.

    A cafe is not a library, don’t expect it to be silent.

    A library is neither a cafe nor your office, don’t expect to socialize or conduct business.

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  27. I’ve never worked in a coffee shop but I’ve worked retail, and on behalf of customer service employees everywhere, thank you!

    But what is up with all the Mr. Pinks in the comments? It may not be true at Starbucks, but at a lot of independent places, the coffee shop employees are barely making minimum wage and often their tips are split between all employees, including the ones who actually make the drinks.

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  28. My life philosophy, strangely enough, comes from Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. When Donovan started his career years ago, he made a tradition of slamming the football over the uprights. During his second year, he stopped doing this celebration. When asked why, he responded, “Because you should act like you’ve been there before.” I found that intensely thought-provoking and inspiring so I’ve been telling people that ever since.

    Maggie, your post is spot-on about everything, but I believe you should have placed a qualifier at the beginning. These are rules for CROWDED urban cafes, and I believe them to be very reasonable. If you are taking up space somewhere which WOULD be taken by someone else if you weren’t there, act like like a sensible, productive member of society and be as quiet and space efficient as possible, clean up after yourself, and TIP. Yes, tip. If you don’t want to tip, simple. Leave. Take your coffee to go. No harm. No foul. But if you are using the roof owned by somebody else, whose employees depend on tips, as a place of respite or work, you tip. That is the social contract. Everyone gets it. If you don’t agree, take the coffee and you for a walk.

    Now, if the cafe is not busy, I believe these rules no longer remain hard and fast. Again, check out the environment.

    But if you seat yourself in a cafe or bar you tip.

    And the elitist comment? When did good manners mean you are elitist? When people are unaware of their own selfish actions, I find that extraordinarily rude and, yes, I often correct them. I don’t think that makes me an elitist, just someone who cherishes civil society.

    Everyone has a right to be a pig in their own pen. No one has the right to be a pig in someone else’s.

    Hmmm…that may be a new motto.

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  29. Guys, if you want to get better pay and get tipped for not doing anything, change jobs.

    Better yet, move out of California.

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  30. Kat, I work in a library. Unless it’s finals week, you can’t find quiet in here, either. The patrons treat the public spaces like they’re in a coffee shop.

    Weird, no?

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  31. I tip if I know I’m going to be there awhile and/or return. There is nothing worse than getting the stink eye when you’re coming in to your regular cafe to work for a few hours. If I’m just buying a coffee on the run, I don’t often tip.

    If you want the place to stay in business and remain a nice place to work, you gotta be nice to it, is how I see it.

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  32. People generally find the best jobs they can to support themselves. Sometimes these jobs require tips. Just because YOU don’t think they deserve a tip, doesn’t mean they need to find a better job.

    In fact, I actually think that kind of commentary is elitist.

    elitist (n)-
    1. practice of or belief in rule by an elite.
    2. consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.

    Elena, you must be in the select group that doesn’t need to work in a cafe or bar. Good for you! Many people are not in that position. They need to work and are attracted to the flexible hours.

    And they don’t do anything? If they don’t do anything, why do you do business with them? The cafes and bars I go to are the ones with the best service and which are customer friendly. I know this to be a skill. And also doing something. Cafes and bars where people weren’t doing anything would cease to make money, no?

    And I, and most of the people on this thread I perceive, are not from California. I, in fact, live in the Midwest.

    So do I get this right, if I buy this coffee I can do whatever I want in the cafe, correct?

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  33. I have no real comment on the politeness issues, except to say that there ought to be a balance of common sense and courtesy on both sides of the field, customer and employee alike.

    However, I do want to comment on #2. Whether or not bringing your own food is rude is often beside the point; in many states it’s a health code violation, and the owner can be fined for allowing you to eat food you didn’t buy at the venue (and you can be thrown out and banned for trying to eat it).

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  34. The barrista’s job is to make coffee for which they are compensated with an hourly wage and tips. If you disagree with the coffee house’s compensation policy you shouldn’t patronize it. Find a coffee house that pays a living wage to it’s employee and make it your new office. I think you’ll find that the coffee is a lot more expensive though…

    And a coffee house is not a public space by any stretch of the imagination.

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