At This Coffee Shop, It Pays More to Be Honest

Left to their own devices, customers at the small-town café are overpaying for their caffeine fix.

(Photo: Courtesy

Aug 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Forty-five minutes west of Fargo., N.D., in the town of Valley City (pop. 6,700), a coffee shop called The Vault has made headlines for a reason nearly as heartwarming as a cup of joe. Owners David and Kimberly Brekke operate their business on the honor system, and for some reason, people are paying more than the asking price.

Walking into the café, located in a century-old bank, you won’t be met by the sight of busy coffee-brewing baristas. Where there once was a teller, customers help themselves to coffee—75 cents a cup—soft drinks, and pastries baked by Kimberly. Then they pay with the swipe of a credit card or by dropping cash through a slot. There are no IOUs; exact change is not required. “Round down and give yourself a break, or round up and help us stay in business,” instructs a sign hanging in the shop.

David Brekke, who spends his days working as a business consultant before closing up the coffee shop in the evenings, credits a small-town mentality for making The Vault, open since October, work. He grew up in Minnesota, and he remembers a neighbor selling sweet corn from the front yard, an unattended cardboard box serving as a cash register.

“Nobody ever took the box with the money in it,” he told The Associated Press.

The idiosyncratic sales approach is not only keeping the Brekkes from getting ripped off, they’re pulling in more money. “When I add up how much has been taken and how much is in the till at the end of the day, people are fifteen percent more generous than thieving,” David said in an interview with KVRR.

Why are people more generous when no one’s looking? Joshua Green, a psychology professor at Harvard University, supports Brekke’s theory of the power of place. “It's more likely to work in a small town than a big city because reputation is at play. If people see you taking without giving, that's more likely to have repercussions,” he said to USA Today. Big Brother might not be watching, but your busybody neighbor is.

When said neighbor is grabbing coffee right after you, it’s less ominous and more about community—a sentiment echoed by the art by Valley City residents on the walls, weekly movie nights, open mic nights, and live music, and the lack of employees wondering how many hours you’ll stay parked with your laptop for the price of a latte. It could be this sense of accountability and connection that makes the honor system extra profitable. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville who has studied trust for 25 years, explained to USA Today: “Sometimes people are more generous because they appreciate the compliment of the trust.”

It may be tempting to equate the financial upside of The Vault’s approach with the trend of “anonymous tip bombing”—the three diner servers working their way through college who were the teary-eyed recipients of $15,000 from an anonymous diner at the counter who had ordered a $9 omelet, the Cheddar’s server caring for a sick mother who received a 3,669 percent tip on fish tacos and a country steak. Many big-time tippers give because they can, because of religion, or just because it feels good. In the honor system, however, it’s a little different. We give because we feel like we are part of something, like the recent chain of pay-it-forward purchases at a Florida Starbucks that persisted through 750 customers.

“When you sell me something I want and trust me to pay you even when you’re not looking, you’ve made my life good in two ways,” Cunningham told NPR’s The Salt. "I get something delicious, and I also get a good feeling about myself. Both of those things make me feel good about the world—that I’m in a good place. And I also see you as a contributor to that good—as somebody I want to reward. It’s a win-win.”

The winning continues among social-sharing readers of these stories, who get to participate in the chain reaction of feeling optimistic about the world by clicking “like.” If that makes us feel good enough, it might inspire a magnanimous action of our own. That’s the motivation behind an anonymous group in Virginia that feasts at restaurants before leaving supersize tips. The group says it does it to inspire others to leave large tips.

“The community feels like a very large family,” Brekke told station KMBZ. "I meet people that I haven’t met before on a regular basis, but everyone knows everyone else to some degree,” he said. “And there’s a comfort in that. I think it brings out the best in people.”