Why Starbucks Employees Hate Pay It Forward Lines

The act of generosity is kind in theory, but Starbucks baristas find the entire pay-it-forward process maddening.

It sure does feel good to find out someone paid for your coffee. Whether it’s at a coffee shop or in a drive-thru, when the barista says: “Your coffee was paid for,” the world truly feels brighter and kinder for the rest of the day. And yet, according to numerous baristas, Starbucks’ pay-it-forward lines are one of the habits Starbucks employees dislike.

Sure, maybe a video online of someone paying it forward inspired you, but it’s a hassle—and it’s definitely one of the habits you should avoid in the drive-thru.

Why Starbucks’ Pay-It-Forward Lines Don’t Always Work

“Pay it forward is nice in theory, but it can cause a lot of confusion,” says Bailey Cassidy, 28, a Starbucks barista in the Chicagoland area. “Especially in the busy morning peak, it creates confusion about whose order belongs to whom. I’ve never worked in the drive-thru, just cafe lobby stores, but I hear it really confuses things in the drive-thru!”

Cassidy’s sentiments are mirrored by hundreds of baristas on Reddit. They say that yes, while this particular act of charity is kind for fellow Starbucks lovers, it doesn’t go so well for the baristas trying to coordinate how it’ll work. It also gets particularly confusing when the first pay-it-forward (PIF) customer turns it into a chain, where the next car pays for the car behind them, and so on.

“99% of baristas thank you for breaking it,” writes Reddit user @Mcpatches3D. “We rarely get any tips during the chains and it can get confusing when we’re slammed. Not to mention some customers get grumpy because they had expiring stars or needed the purchase for some promo.”

Not bothering to tip has become a common sore spot for baristas experiencing a PIF chain. “It’s not about the tip in itself I feel,” writes Reddit user @TheBlueImpulse. “It’s more about the disregard for the baristas and their hard work when it comes to ‘helping someone out.'”

However, while some baristas find the entire process inconvenient and sometimes demeaning, other who have experienced the generosity of pay-it-forward themselves say that the small act of generosity still can go a long way.

“There were also more than a few situations, on days where I was really going through it and desperately needed something positive to happen, where someone randomly paid for my drink. And it genuinely made a huge difference in my day and on my outlook during certain difficult times,” writes Reddit user @2166K.

Nevertheless, some baristas argue that if a customer is already in a line—especially a drive-thru—they already know what the coffee costs and are prepared to pay it anyway.

“The person who is in the drive-thru can afford their order, that’s why they placed it,” writes Reddit user @strawberrypoppi. “They are already planning to pay. It really makes others in the drive feel guilty because they feel like they have to pay for the person behind them even if their drink is more expensive.”

What can you do instead?

Caucasian Woman Putting Money In Tip JarJGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

If you’re in a generous mood, many baristas seem to give the same suggestion—drop that generosity in the tip jar.

“I feel like if customers want to brighten someone’s day, consider tipping the baristas,” says Cassidy. “They are severely overworked, understaffed, and underappreciated, and it would make their day.”

For those who love paying it forward, baristas also suggest buying a gift card for customers who actually do walk into a cafe instead of the drive-thru, commonly those who are homeless and looking for food and a bathroom.

“We’ve also had people come into the cafe around the holidays and buy and leave a gift card to use for those in need, which at least at my location where we have a fairly large homeless population, this actually can go towards someone in need,” writes Reddit user @badatlife15.

Along with avoiding the hassle of pay-it-forward anarchy, be sure to avoid these other polite habits that fast food employees secretly dislike.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten is a freelance journalist and content strategist who has covered food, health and lifestyle topics for nearly a decade. She covers a little bit of everything at Taste of Home, from testing recipe hacks to investigating TikTok trends. Her work has also appeared in EatingWell, Bustle, Eat This, Not That!, and The Everygirl, to name a few. Armed with a certificate in nutrition science from Stanford Medicine, she debunks nutrition myths and diet culture in "Forkful," her weekly newsletter on Substack. Her debut novel, "Safe Harbor," came out in 2023.