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Tuesday, September 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Baristas are having a cow over dairy "thefts"

Seattle Times business reporter

If someone pays $2 for espresso, then fills half the cup with milk at the condiment bar, is that stealing?

People are saving $1 to $2 a cup — sometimes more, if they use half-and-half or get extra shots — with creative ordering from the complicated menus of the coffee world.

While Starbucks is keeping mum on the do-it-yourself dairy phenomenon, its baristas are flaming customers online.

For some, it is a matter of attitude.

"You're being cheap," one barista vented on www.starbucksgossip.com. "You're dealing with people who aren't stupid. Toss in something self-deprecating and quit acting like you're a superior human being because you've managed to figure out a cheaper way to do something. I'll bet you didn't ask for a discount on that Louis Vuitton purse or those ugly highlights."

There are lots of ways to save. In one scenario, using Starbucks pricing in downtown Seattle, customers pay $2.05 before tax for three shots of espresso over ice. The same beverage with milk — also known as an iced latte with extra espresso — would cost $3.50 before tax.

A customer with the handle "Coffee Drinker in Seattle" took offense on the gossip site at some baristas' reactions.

"You're talking about customer[s] like they're shoplifters, using prejudicial/racist terminology to classify something so trivial and so off target from the cultural message [Starbucks] wants to imprint," the post said, referring to drinks that are sometimes called "poor man's lattes" and sometimes worse.

Tess Jonasson, a Capitol Hill resident who favors a double shot of espresso with no dairy, agrees that baristas should not be upset.

"They're not corporate," she said. "The half-and-half has nothing to do with their salary."

Brian Fairbrother, a manager at Espresso Vivace, says it happens mostly with iced coffee.

In the big picture, it does not cost Vivace much, but "no one wants to be taken advantage of," Fairbrother said. "The baristas get offended."

Kelli Watson, a barista at Mokas Café & Coffee Bar, said she sees it once a day on average and finds it annoying.

"I don't blame anybody for saving a few bucks, but it just seems unfair," she said.

It also ticks off other customers who find dairy canisters empty after someone has drained 8 or more ounces for one drink.

Then there are baristas who tell customers how to game the system.

"[W]hen they are already spending hundreds of dollars a month, it doesn't really hurt us that badly, since they feel more loyalty and will be customers for life that way," counseled one barista online. Another looked down on it, but asked, "wouldn't it be great if they would tip the difference?"

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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