Stop Participating In 'Paying It Forward' At The Drive-Thru

You want to get a warm and fuzzy feeling with your coffee? Tip your barista.

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Customers line up in a drive thru at a Starbucks store on October 29, 2021 in Novato, California.
Customers line up in a drive thru at a Starbucks store on October 29, 2021 in Novato, California.
Photo: Photo by Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

A viral video of a man ending a 23-car “pay it forward” streak at a Starbucks drive-thru has the internet divided over whether he was justified in taking his paid-for order and not funding the next person’s daily dose of caffeine. Some think he was, as charity is never required. Some think he’s a spoil-sport. But no one seems to be realizing the obvious: pay it forward is an added pain in the ass for the workers making and handing you your coffee. If you really want to do some good, tip the underpaid, stressed out, frequently abused essential workers making your drink.

The TikTok video was posted by user im_blessed55 a few days ago, and has gained almost 166,000 views in that time. The man in the video explains that, while his order was only $6, the person behind him put in a $46 order. Imagine sitting behind someone who ordered $46 worth of Starbucks at the drive-thru. It makes my blood boil for everyone waiting behind them, but also for the workers who have to move out a ton of drinks. Honestly, that alone justifies putting an end to the streak and walking away with your free caffeine and sugar bomb. It also highlights the problem with paying it forward: some people will abuse it, and the people who suffer most when that happens are the folks behind the counter, now forced to make nearly $50 of coffee for someone rude enough to put in such a large order at the drive-thru.

Starbucks hourly employees made waves last year as more and more workers push for unionization. Workers at a company-owned shop in Buffalo, New York voted to unionize last month. Organizing efforts show no sign of slowing down, despite reports of shady anti-organizing practices from Starbucks corporate. From the Guardian:

Workers have reported numerous captive audience meetings, one-on-one meetings, store shutdowns, closures, remodelings, and text messages – a mode of contact that was previously used only for emergencies. Dozens of corporate executives have flooded stores with the intent to deter workers from voting to unionize, workers say.

“The company has sent more managers here to Buffalo than workers voting in the first three elections. There’s no way it can be viewed as anything other than an attempt to spy on partners and intimidate them,” said Brian Murray, a Starbucks barista in Lancaster, New York.

Murray added: “Every day we’re forced to deal with new managers we’ve never met and it’s draining to have to go through constant anti-union meetings, text messages and managers trying to pry into our lives. It shouldn’t be acceptable for them to treat anyone like this, especially during the lead-up to an election that should be free and fair.”

The former Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz visited Buffalo to present a case against unionizing to workers on 6 November and incited criticism for making an analogy to the Holocaust in discussing the company’s mission.

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Starbucks baristas already go through a whole lot. They spend long hours on their feet, trying to keep up with a complicated, ever changing and highly customizable menu while dealing with customers during a global pandemic all for less than $15 an hour (though Starbucks is reportedly raising that wage to $15 to $17 an hour in order to combat high turn over, according to USA Today.)

Dealing with customers has become even more difficult during the pandemic, as some people have something to prove to customer service workers when it comes to mask mandates. You know, the mandates that are designed to protect both the customer’s and worker’s lives. So now an hourly wage worker who doesn’t make enough to afford to rent a two bedroom apartment in most of the country is also responsible for managing the feelings of an unhinged adult. One Starbucks worker posted on Reddit’s r/Antiwork board about a day that finally “broke” them:

List of things I, or my coworkers, were yelled at for today:

  1. For not having someone’s order rang in when they got to the drive through window. This person did not wait for me to greet them at the speaker box, but instead barked their order at me and sped down the drive thru lane while I was helping another guest.
  2. For not leaving the building and walking to this woman’s car to take her order in the drive thru lane when she refused to roll down her window at the speaker box to order.
  3. For not taking a man’s order when he tried to come in through the drive through the wrong way. He proceeded to get out of his car to order at the box. For safety reasons, we cannot permit this. He told us he would order at the window, which we also try to avoid, especially when there is a line wrapped around the building like today. He swore at us and circled the building for several minutes before leaving.
  4. For not modifying drinks for free. A woman called asking how to ring in a vanilla bean Frappuccino with an added scoop of matcha on the mobile app. We explained a few different ways to ring it in on the app. She calls back a few minutes later saying it’s not working. We offered to have her come into the store and we can ring it in for her. She asked if she was going to be charged for the modification. She screamed so loud over the phone, I could hear her from several feet away.
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It’s little wonder why Starbucks workers are racing to unionize across the country following in the foot steps of Buffalo store. The complexity of running a drive thru can also get seriously jammed up by the pay it forward process, resulting in orders rung up incorrectly and the wrong drinks going to the wrong car. Anyone who has ever worked at a fast food chain knows this in their soul, but a food writer at MyRecipes actually talked to a coffee shop manager about how they really felt about paying it forward:

Team members who take the orders and deliver the good news are usually the most vulnerable people in the transaction, working a difficult, low-paying job with little security and few benefits. They’re the one not getting the bequest of generosity, or a bit of good advertising. They’re just doing the extra work to make the magic happen.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” said CA, a college friend of mine who is a manager at a major coffee chain. “Most of the time you are alone on [drive-thru], taking the order and inputting the order while simultaneously greeting the car at window, accepting their payment, giving change, and handing out drinks. It’s a lot in general. [T]hrowing a pay it forward in the mix [means] none of your screens are showing you the right orders and you have to remember who got what and who paid for what.

“On top of that, you aren’t getting enough labor because of cuts and the people are paying for the person behind them rather than giving it to the barista making minimum wage.”

When you participate in pay-it-forward, you’re not getting anything for free or, usually, paying much extra. You’re basically participating in an escrow system. 

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So you’re not even being generous when you engage in paying it forward, you’re just bumping an escrow account down the line!

Here’s what you should do instead, in my humble opinion: instead of buying a fancy coffee for someone who can already afford a fancy coffee (they’re in the Starbucks drive-thru line for a reason, you know), tip the underpaid, overworked, frequently abused person actually making your coffee. Your generosity will go so much farther, and you’ll get the same shot of happy brain chemicals for the rest of the day. I promise.