When Should Coffee Be Free?

Serious Eats has a serious coffee question. Do you charge for coffee, and if so, when do you offer one for free?

It depends on your intensity and focus on coffee; if you’re a coffee shop, you won’t want to give out coffee all the time, but free samples are always delicious ways to actually encourage consumers to try your coffee. If you’re focused on the business of selling coffee, a free sample of coffee can ensure a customer for years.

For locations that have coffee, but not have it as a focus, a free cup of their (most-likely cheap and non-premium) can’t cost too much, but can go a long way in endearing a customer and making them a regular. If a customer is obviously having a long or hard day, a free cup of coffee can pick up their spirits and offer them a quick jolt of energy. Likewise, students doing late-night projects at your diner might be more likely to order coffee for energy, so a free cup to them would be a lost sale.

In some situations, a free cup is just a nice thing. Mention of a birthday, anniversary, or other celebratory note would make a free cup a treat. Likewise, you could be evil and make a customer who just dropped the coffee outside the door buy a new one, but a new cup would be an appropriate replacement; they’re obviously not drinking the one that’s now watering the plants. In similar cases, people may also be unhappy with their drink; you should not be offended and offer them to remake the drink for free. If, after making sure it’s made exactly to their specifications they still do not like it, then you could theoretically be off the hook for fixing the drink.

As a restaurant owner, you might want to codify the situation with your employees in which a free coffee would be expected and appropriate. It may cause confusion and distrust when one employees offers a drink for free, but another doesn’t in the same situations. Some staff might offer a free coffee in anticipation of a better tip, which may or may not be a practice you want to encourage.

Have you considered the rules of free coffee?