Coffee clash

Allowing patrons to bring outside coffee into restaurants is win-win

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too “Cakege fees,” where patrons are required to pay for bringing in their own birthday cakes, are common in Australia and even certain restaurants in California.

My wife and I try to get out and have a breakfast date at least twice a week—once on a weekday morning and always on Saturday. Our Saturday morning routine is the same: We’re out the door by 7 a.m., stop by Peet’s Coffee & Tea for our jolt of choice, then we cross the street to eat quiche and scones at Upper Crust. Now, I am glaringly aware that bringing in outside products from a competitor may be viewed as tacky or, at least, nods toward poor taste. Yet, to date, the great staff, even the owners, have never commented, gestured or winced at my egregious act of café treason.

With that, I want to thank them for understanding that coffee has become a very personal part of one’s gustatory persona. Also, their ability to shrug off $1.25, knowing I’m going to lay down $20 on their good food, is no less impressive. I know they see me and my family as repeat customers who continually support them; so, in kind, they sacrifice very little to coddle a loyal, long-term relationship.

For our mid-week breakfast date, my wife and I went to a funky little café down on Park Avenue that shall remain nameless. Of course, out of habit, desire, pleasure and comfort, we stopped at Peet’s on the way. Once we arrived, we chose to dine “al fresco” as they offer quaint outdoor seating. Sitting down, we noticed not one, but two signs saying “Sorry, No Outside Food or Drink.” Gambling that nothing would be said or done in the spirit of dazzling customer service, we kept our contraband coffee out and in plain view. They called our bluff.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t have outside drinks here,” said the waitress with a screw-you-for-putting-me-in-this-position-because-my-boss-is-watching tone. Understanding that she was simply doing her job, we ditched our coffee. We ordered our food and, sheepishly, took a chance at their house brew. The food was decent, but the coffee sucked. It was watery, flat, made worse with the addition of half and half and cost $1.85. Unfortunately, the food wasn’t good enough to remove the lousy coffee taste, or the memory of the early morning “finger wagging.” We won’t be back.

Now, I don’t take pride in branding any restaurant with a scarlet letter. In fact, with our coffee and no obtuse conversation over draconian policy, our meal would have been great. Let me offer a solution: coffee “corkage fees.”

It’s fine, even expected, that outside wine will be brought into restaurants. Restaurants charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per bottle to recoup lost profit, and customers expect to pay those fees. What if they did the same for coffee? Simply charge 75 cents to $1 per cup of foreign beverages. This is a win-win as patrons drink what they want, and owners get what they want … profit. Heck, it doesn’t stop there—no cups to bus, wash, restock, break or re-buy; a coffee corkage would be a coup for restaurant owners.

Before I become the target of a witch hunt by my cohorts who don’t want to pay any more for bringing in their own coffee, I need to remind them that the customer is not always right. When I was a young waiter, years ago, I used to suffer the venom of customers complaining about “split-charges.” While customers growled at an additional $2 to split a main course with their dining partner, they never seemed to consider that the extra plate, the extra glass of water, the extra set of silverware, the complimentary bread and olive oil, as well as all the labor it takes to wash, prepare and present them, costs money. As customers, we need to be sensitive to the realities of operating a restaurant.

So, restaurant owners, let’s make a deal! If it is important to you to continue to make coffee with lousy beans and lousy technique, go ahead. Just allow us to patronize you in a way that’s comfortable for us; our coffee or yours, we’ll pay either way.