One Café's Stand for Civility: Charging Rude Customers 5 Times More for Coffee

A little café hits on a big idea that goes viral.

french cafe politeness

(Photo: Egalliano/Instagram)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here’s a little stocking stuffer for all you waitstaff out there, even if it’s only of the wishful-thinking variety: Imagine how much happier you would be if the restaurant you worked at started charging rude customers more.

Sound impossible? Not at one café in France. Management at La Petite Syrah in Nice has instituted a tiered pricing scheme for coffee, and how much customers pay all depends on whether you mind your manners.

Just want a coffee? That’ll be seven euros, or almost 10 bucks(!). But if you ask nicely (say “please”), the price drops to the equivalent of about $6. Toss in a “bonjour”? You’re down to a mere $2.

“It started as a joke because at lunchtime people would come in very stressed and were sometimes rude to us when they ordered coffee,” Fabrice Pepino, the café’s manager, tells the English-language paper The Local. “It’s our way of saying, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ ”

Now, Pepino admits he has yet to enforce the café’s surcharge on rudeness, but just posting the prices has made a difference. To be sure, there have been a few smart alecks. “Most of my customers are regulars, and they just see the funny side and exaggerate their politeness,” Pepino says. “They started calling me ‘your greatness’ when they saw the sign.” But all in all, he says the whole tiered pricing system—even just the threat of it—has made people more relaxed. “They’re smiling more,” he says.

Ah, wouldn’t it be grand if, in addition to that boilerplate lingo on the menu that informs customers of the mandatory gratuity added for parties of, say, six or more, there was something like this:

“Customers who are rude, hostile, or belligerent, who choose to behave as if they are under the delusion that they are starring in a meltdown scene on 'The Real Housewives' or harbor fantasies that they are the next Gordon Ramsay—as determined by your server in consultation with management—will be charged an automatic 50 percent gratuity.”

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells created a stir earlier this year when he wrote an entire article against tipping, calling the (mostly American) practice “irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.”

“It doesn’t do us any good,” Wells wrote, “because servers have no way of telling that we aren’t the hated type that leaves 10 percent of the pretax total, beverages excluded.”

But La Petite Syrah might just be on to something. I’m in no way advocating for doing away with tipping—at least not until there are changes to the wage laws to ensure restaurant workers are paid a decent salary.

Yet just a quick perusal of a site like Server Nightmares shows that, while the American restaurant-going public may wring its hands or harp about tipping (whether to tip, how much to tip, etc.), gratuities are only part of the equation. If you truly want better service, and not just an excuse to berate someone because you're an asshole at heart, then try being nice.

It sounds ridiculously, laughably simple. But so is charging $10 for a cup of coffee unless you say “hello” and “thank you”—and that apparently works.

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