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Latte Fraud?

Filed Under Blog, News, Observations, Review

Espresso by Kristin

I was a Barista from the time I was 16 until I was 22. I love coffee, I loved being a barista, and I found this amusing news story and thought I’d share my commentary. A lot of coffee places are getting pretty upset, lately over people who are “building their own” latte at a hefty discount. Let’s find out more, shall we?

I was reading my newsfeeds, and saw that KOMO 4 News had an article up about some sort of local coffee shop drama… And I read a tale of some sort of “Espresso Piracy” or something. The gist of it is that people don’t want to pay full price, so they buy something cheaper and “doctor it up” using condiment bar freebies like half-and-half. It’s really common, but usually nobody really makes a fuss about it. Lately, it would seem coffee shop owners around Seattle are getting pretty upset that their milk cost is rising as people dump it into drip coffee trying to get a latte on the cheap.

In the time I spent as a barista I’ve seen every slimy customer scam i can imagine - but I hate to think that people watching the news will get the idea and go ahead with this plan to save a buck or two. The people doing this probably feel really sneaky, apparently the coffee shop owners are getting really upset, and nobody seems to care about one tiny detail…

They’re Wrong.

…and I’ll explain why.

Simply put, these little tricks might save you a buck - that part is true. However, the fact is that in this case, even if you can “cheat the system,” you still get what you pay for. The “rip-off” versions are, well, just that. Poor substitutes that are nothing like the real thing - often, they are something different entirely.

Fine - not everyone cares about the “proper’ way to make a latte, or can taste and smell nuances and subtle variations in the flavor of two seemingly identical espresso drinks. But trust me - compare the “DIY” version with the real thing side by side. The difference in flavor and smell and texture is astronomical.

Let’s take a closer look at what these thrifty java-pirates are drinking compared to the real thing. The first “Do-it-Yourself” coffee creation is something I’ve seen over and over and over, at every coffee shop in which I have ever worked.

Here’s what some customers do: they order a double or a triple shot of espresso, over ice. Then they go to the condiment counter and fill up their cup with free milk.

Doing that can save you a $1.50 or more a cup!

Shots over ice are generally what’s referred to as an iced Americano (some shops let the ice water it down instead of adding water). Add cream, and you have an iced americano with cream - NOT a Latte! What this guy is doing isn’t illegal, it’s not even against the rules - that’s the reason the cream is there. But the difference between an iced americano and an iced latte, while they may have exactly the same ingredients, drastically affects their consistency, flavor, and smell. In other words, it’s like comparing a tomato to… say… New Brunswick.

An iced latte starts with milk in a cup. The shots are pulled, added to the milk, and then ice is added to the milk and espresso mixture. You end up with “sweeter,” richer tasting espresso, pouring steaming hot shots of espresso over ice can give it a bitter, nasty taste, while adding them to the milk allows the flavor of the espresso to remain intact. Compared to a latte, this DIY Drink is a weak, watery substitute, unless you enjoy iced Caffe Americano.

Leonard is a coffee drinker who admits doing this every day when he goes for coffee. “I don’t see what the big problem is with this,” he said. “I think it’s okay. It’s free and you can do it, plus you can save a little money on your coffee expenses.”

Several baristas said they see it happen and usually just giggle about it. One said he has a regular customer who orders a tall drip in a grande cup, then goes over to the condiment bar and fills up with free milk.

Drip coffee and half-n-half - this isn’t a latte, or even a good substitution for a latte. Drip coffee with near-equal parts coffee to cream is a Caffe au Lait. A Caffe Latte is made by adding steamed/frothed milk to shots of espresso, ideally producing a foamy, creamy consistency to complement a rich, sweet espresso flavor. Drip coffee isn’t as intense and “thick” as espresso (espresso, by the way it is prepared, is concentrated - drip coffee is not), and adding a bunch of milk will cut the flavor and leave you with a lukewarm cup of weak tasting coffee.

The two examples above are just cheapskate-y ways to get your caffiene fix. Nothing wrong with that. However, this is what pissed me off:

It’s the principle of pouring your own milk to save a buck that really seems to get most baristas.

The principle of pouring your own milk? As someone who has been a barista for longer than most people are in college, the only principle I’d like to set straight is the principle of serving and preparing espresso beverages beyond the customer’s expectations, the correct way - and in a way, educating the customer about what makes a latte a latte, or a cappuccino a cappuccino. But when people start touting their “DIY” creations as “the same thing” but cheaper, it degrades that entire experience. Additionally, it also (more times than I can count) results in a customer who is angry about the “poor quality” of the coffee, and how it’s “bitter and lukewarm” or what have you.

I’d love to get a chance to get some air time from KOMO and actually demonstrate my argument. The reason to dispel this Coffee-Pirate Penny Pinching fad is to appease the increasingly agitated store managers and owners who complain about their rising milk costs.

Oh… and for the sake of the coffee drinking public’s taste buds. Ultimately, isn’t it worth the extra dollar to have a beverage you can enjoy, rather than just something to slurp down for the caffiene content?

Because if the caffeine kick is all you want… go to Fred Meyer. They sell No-Doz caffeine pills for about a buck fifty.

4 Responses to “Latte Fraud?”

  1. dkp Says:

    I hadn’t heard of people doing this until The Stranger’s
    Blog linked to
    _/2006/09/a_reader_asks_i.html , but what’s more interesting is that for all the opinions on theft or thrift, no one challenged the quality of these drinks, only the cost.

    So what’s the slimiest scam an addict has tried to pull on you?

  2. Kristin Wenzel Says:

    The slimiest one, and also one of the most common, was to give me a $10, take their change, wait til I’d closed the register (thus couldn’t see what bill i’d put away), and then raise a huge fuss that I’d given them the wrong change, they gave me a 20/50/100 whatever…

    Another one that yanked my chain was people who would come in and order the “kids cocoa/cider/steamed milk” or whatever and then ask for it to be made at the normal temperature (kids drinks were always made at a much cooler temp and that was pretty much the only difference). Then, they’d get their cocoa, cider, or steamed milk for half price, pretty much.

    These people getting all pissed off about the milk on the condiment bar becoming a DIY Latte tool should note the slimy behaviour of an appalling amount of customers I’ve had… who would order something for themself, and then ask for an empty cup (presumably for water? WRONG!) and FILL IT UP WITH MILK FOR THEIR KID.

    Also, people are evil creatures who will blame ANYTHING on their children to get something for free.

    “My baby knocked it over, I need a new one.”
    “Jimmy dropped this on the ground, get him another one please.”
    “Well, I don’t know how that set of mugs got in the stroller. Kids steal stuff. Bobby, you’re grounded!”


  3. dkp Says:

    Truly, how lacking in finesse, though I suppose it’s better than being change raised a la … or is that common, too?

  4. Kristin Wenzel Says:

    That’s pretty common, unfortunately. :\ People are more scandalous than one would generally assume.

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