Having It Your Way: Is Too Much Choice Ruining Coffee?


Minimal menu at Stumptown in New York City. [Photograph: Erin Zimmer]

Sitcoms have featured story lines about it; stand-up comics do bits about it; people even joke about it across the counter as they do it. But to the highly trained, expert barista, "Extra-shot, half-caf, vanilla, 1 percent milk iced latte with not too much ice," sounds startlingly like, "Super-sized, hold the pickles, extra cheese, mustard no mayo, two slices of tomato on the side. Oh, and coleslaw instead of fries, but only if there aren't any raisins in it."

Are we as a culture so used to having it Your Way (TM) that we forget there might occasionally be establishments where someone hand-crafts what we order? (As a barista friend of mine says, you can't order a Big Mac at your local mom-and-pop burger joint... right?) We've long taken for granted the fact that chefs are allowed to get their backs up when someone cannibalizes their menu, but when does making substitutions on a regular ol' coffee order cross the line from easy-to-accommodate (e.g. soy milk for whole milk) into build-it-yourself territory? And should we care?


Pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. [Flickr: idogcow]

Obviously there are coffee shops that take greater culinary care than others when devising a menu. This is usually apparent by the sheer number of offerings—or lack thereof. A good rule of thumb is that the more things a cafe makes available out of the gate, the more amenable they'll likely be to your "super complicated" drink order. (Hint: count the number of products with "-ccino" at the end. If there's more than one, you're probably in the right place to mix-and-match.) But if the cafe you've wandered into has fewer than ten coffee drinks listed (and fewer than three sizes to choose from), chances are they mean for you to pick one and stick with it.

"No substitutions" policies at coffee shops can be controversial, but they're not necessarily confrontational. At Ninth Street Espresso, one of Manhattan's premier third-wave joints, a gentle-but-firm "Please order from the menu" clause is prominent on a posted list of house rules. (The list also includes, "No cell phones at the counter—an offense that steams even the most patient baristas.) Then again, there was that little espresso-over-ice scandal a while back... but let's not bring that back up.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for being accommodating, and I believe that hospitality is one of the great forgotten arts. There's nothing nicer than getting exactly what you've asked for—especially something as small and potentially perfect as a great cup of coffee—and with a smile, to boot. But as a professional barista whose mission is to expose people to the most delicious, authentic, high-quality coffee drinks imaginable, I want my customers to trust me to give them something they'll fall in love with—as is.

Do you have an off-menu drink you always order, and have you ever run into the substitution problem?