Why so many Starbucks baristas hate pay-it-forward lines
How Starbucks baristas really feel about pay-it-forward lines
Although the idea of paying it forward is ancient, the in-restaurant concept has been around for a significantly less time. Still, the trend of paying for a stranger’s food in addition to one’s own and starting a chain reaction of generosity has had legs in doughnut shops, diners and, most notably, at coffee juggernaut Starbucks.
A standout example of a Starbucks pay-it-forward event made headlines in 2014 when 378 people at a Starbucks drive-thru in St. Petersburg, Florida paid for the person behind them in line. Since then, almost every year, more of these, including recent lines highlighted by the chain itself show that the trend is here to stay. But, one may wonder, how do the Starbucks workers filling these orders feel about the pay-it-forward phenomenon?
Well, according to the r/Starbucks subreddit, where Starbucks partners share the trials and tribulations (and sometimes triumphs) of the job, lots of folks have strong feelings about them. Reddit posts from apparent baristas with titles like “Pay it forward but worse" and “stop paying it forward and leave tips instead” have littered the subreddit for years. Both workers and customers alike either love the lines or hate them, with seemingly more leaning on the negative side, at least online.
In 2021, a Facebook post from a person named Hannah Wilson, who claimed to be a former Starbucks barista, went viral for its candidness about the subject:
“I just want to say publicly, as a former Starbucks barista of nearly seven years, since the current Starbucks employees can’t say it,” Wilson wrote in the PSA. “Pay it forward is extremely annoying and makes everything confusing. It makes it easy to hand out the wrong drinks and just sucks. Instead of paying for the people behind you, who can probably afford their own stuff since they’re in line intending to pay, tip the people making your drinks who have been understaffed for months.”
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To get an idea of why this seems like such a touchy subject for so many, TODAY.com spoke to current and former Starbucks baristas (who posted in the r/Starbucks subreddit) about their feelings on pay-it-forward lines in the drive-thru lane.
“Generally, my feelings about PIF lines don’t change during the holiday or other times of the year; though kind to other customers, unnecessary,” a Bay Area Starbucks worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells TODAY.com.
The worker says he’s been working at “the siren” for five years, both as a barista and a supervisor, adding that he’s chatting with me while actively working in a Starbucks drive-thru, so for this worker, the pay-it-forward issue is at the forefront of his workday.
“I played the game once and tried to get the highest PIF line I could; I got over 50 and stopped counting,” the worker says, adding that the lines, while well-intentioned, may put a wrench in the system depending on who is working at the drive-thru line that day.
“Most of the time, it’s fine,” he says. “If someone is newer to the job and taking orders while handling tender and giving out drinks, it will slow the process down.”
He explains that the concept of pay it forward doesn't make sense to him logically because "every customer at Starbucks knows that they’re paying for a cup of sugar and milk for almost $7,” he says, adding that customers tend to know what they’re getting into and are likely able to pay for their own order. He also says that the pay-it-forward line trend often forgets the very real people serving the drinks who likely could use a little holiday cheer themselves.
“The few times I go to Starbucks in my off time, I will tip my baristas. I tip as often as I can whenever someone is making me food or concessions,” he says, adding that he takes making a stranger smile as his reward most of the time. “My company doesn’t promote tipping. So why would I expect my customer to promote tipping?”
When reached for comment on the pay-it-forward phenomenon at Starbucks, a company spokesperson tells TODAY.com, “It is always touching to see acts of kindness that often occur at our stores, especially during the holiday season. We are moved by the generous gestures being made by our customers, including those choosing to ‘pay it forward’ with a cup of coffee or favorite beverage for the next customer and brightening their day.”
Elsewhere in the Starbucks-sphere, another person, Cat, who claims to be a Starbucks worker, gets a little more technical as to why she’s not a big fan.
“Honestly, I understand why people think it’s a great thing to do, but with the overwhelming rushes we get all holiday season, it can actually get confusing,” says Cat, adding that Starbucks workers use two separate screens in their workflow, one that deals with transactions and another that reflects orders to hand out.
“Pay it forwards can confuse that order, then I’m accidentally charging people for the car behind them because I forgot there was a pay it forward after walking away to add whip to something or switch a keg. Then those people want a refund,” she explains.
Cat says that in addition to the confusion this creates for the workers making our delicious coffee-based beverages and snacks, there have also been customers who complain that they’ve been looking forward to paying for their order because they belong to Starbucks Rewards program and want the points.
“They get upset at me for allowing someone else to be nice and cover their large order and the car behind them only has a $4 drink,” she says, before pointing out the other side of the selfless coin she experiences at work. “There are also people who know we cannot break $100 bills for small orders, so they’ll cover everyone in line and take their $40 change in order to break the bill, even when they lose money.”
“Everyone in line is there buying what they can afford, and Starbucks is known to be expensive,” Cat says. “If you don’t have the money to buy the drink, why would you even get in the drive-thru in the first place? Everyone is perfectly capable of purchasing their own drinks.”
Another worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity agrees with that assessment.
“In theory it’s really beautiful that people want to do something kind, but in practice it makes our job a lot harder,” says another person who claims to be a current Starbucks worker, adding that the phenomenon has the unintended effect of disrupting the workflow of a drive-thru line, resulting in chaos, mistakes and people yelling at workers. “I haven’t met a partner that didn’t get annoyed by it. If customers want to be kind, they could just tip their baristas instead or buy a gift card to give someone at random.”
But there are some Starbucks baristas who feel differently — well, at least one. A person who says they're a current Florida-area Starbucks worker spoke on the condition of anonymity about their positive feelings on the trend.
“When I first started working at Starbucks, I didn’t like pay it forward lines because I was a green bean,” this person tells TODAY.com, adding that after working at Starbucks for over a year, they’ve changed their tune. “I love pay it forward lines during Christmas. I think that they show that there is still some good in the world during the holidays.”
This article was originally published on TODAY.com
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