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The drink-ordering habit that's driving Starbucks baristas crazy

A hot trend is holding up lines at coffee shops across America. It’s also lighting up our Instagram and TikTok feeds. Don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
When you order a complicated "secret menu" drink at Starbucks, the burden falls on the barista.
When you order a complicated "secret menu" drink at Starbucks, the burden falls on the barista.Liza Evseeva / TODAY Illustration

For many of us, it’s a cherished daily indulgence — stopping into the local coffee shop and ordering a latte, espresso or cappuccino made precisely to our liking. And yet, for an increasingly precious subset of coffee fiends, those standard offerings are only for the uncreative. For social-media-savvy caffeine lovers, the real action is to be found on a secret menu. So secret, in fact, that it doesn’t actually exist.

Enter menu hacking: A trend happening almost exclusively at chains, Starbucks most notable among them, menu hacking is parlance for when patrons go rogue, ordering something that’s nowhere to be found on the board behind the counter. And at Starbucks, as long as the ingredients are on-hand, the baristas will comply, literally whipping up custom confections on demand.

“We know you love your pumpkin spice latte and cold brew,” extolled Glamour this past fall, “but live a little!” In this case, “living a little” apparently includes downing creations such as a Cadbury Crème Egg Frappuccino, a Hot Butterbeer Latte or a Raspberry Mocha Eggnog.

Sugar rush, anyone?

(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a column that delves into a smorgasbord of modern-day dining dilemmas. Please submit your etiquette questions at the bottom of this page.)

Photos or it didn't happen

Promoters of these so-called secret menu items abound on Instagram and TikTok, with hashtags such as #starbuckssecretmenu guiding fans to their latest quirky creation. The Instagram account @starbuckssecretmenupro even advertises an ad-free, subscription-based app that costs users $4.99. That’s $4.99 per week for access to exclusive Starbucks-specific menu-hack recipes, photos and videos. Recent teases have included the Hocus Pocus Latte and the Winifred Sanderson Frappuccino (both of which appeared on TODAY's Starbucks Halloween drink roundup).

Unfortunately for baristas, Winifred Sanderson is nowhere on-hand with instructions for how to make such bespoke beverages. And creating them is nowhere as easy as saying "hocus pocus." In fact, more often than not, baristas have zero clue how to prepare the unsanctioned drinks, relying solely on the instructions of the customer. All of which takes time. A resource most baristas — let alone other waiting patrons — rarely have.

Fantastical creations proliferate — and so does the frustration

In the city of Plainfield, Illinois, a Starbucks barista who preferred I withhold her name, expressed her frustration with those who think nothing of ordering off-menu items. And far from being sheepish about asking an employee to fabricate something they found on the internet, these denizens of dare often make their asks without specifying the ingredients. “We tell them we can make it as long as they have the recipe,” she said. Like the recent customer who came in and unabashedly, and without elaboration, asked for a Stranger Things Frappuccino.

Which is not a thing. Until it is.

“If the customer has the recipe for the drink, then it’s really no more disruptive than someone with a ridiculously complicated modification order. Of course, there are many times when the order is almost a literal novel of modifications. All for a drink that is 95% for looks,” barista and Redditor u/RyusuTL told me.

“The worst part is when multiple or all of these aspects come into play during peak,” continued this Starbucks employee. “Like, my dude … do you NOT see the line of 30 people behind you, and you’re here trying to get me to magically know how to make some stupid frou-frou-looking drink that has a dozen modifications?”

Clearly the topic had touched a nerve: “While my overworked baristas are running around trying to get drinks and food out amid way too many orders than our tiny little location can handle? Do you not have any sense of situational awareness?”

Keeping customers happy at all costs

Why would Starbucks permit customers to order items that don’t exist, delaying other patrons in line behind them? “We have customer connection scores, which are based on surveys customers take,” explains our barista from the Prairie State. “The store wants them to give us a good rating to help raise our customer connection score.”

The surveys may skew positive, but that doesn’t seem to equate higher tips. According to our source in Plainfield, only 30% of those with special orders tip her — often just a dollar — a percentage which is actually lower than the amount tipped by customers who order off the menu.

Sometimes it's about saving money, too

Menu hacking is not always about creating something Insta-worthy. The technique is also used as a means of ordering a cheaper item and then modifying it to get a higher priced item for the lower price, like the infamous $3 burrito hack Chipotle recently cracked down on.

“What bothers me is when it’s very obvious that they’re trying to cheat the system,” groused another Starbucks employee. “Despite our making exactly what it says on the ticket, they’re gonna come back and say that it was wrong. Best example of this is an “iced doppio espresso in a venti cup, half-cream, light ice.” When people order that, the cup is usually half empty and they come back to say they want more milk or cream in their drink. That is a latte, so it would be a thousand times easier if they just ordered a latte.”

Some baristas fan the flames

Renegade baristas may share at least some of the blame/credit for this trend, as some Starbucks employees with a strong social-media following invent new coffee creations for the delight of their TikTok audiences, some of them right from a Starbucks counter. For evidence, look no further than barista and would-be caffeine mixologist Josiah Varghese (@itsjoboi) whose recipes and mixing moves would put Cocktail’s Brian Flanagan to shame. With videos that consistently rack up hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of views, Varghese is clearly delighted to be promoting something out of the ordinary.

Have mercy and keep it simple

Variety may be the spice of life — and our TikTok feeds — but for every Josiah Varghese, there are countless more beleaguered baristas whose hearts sink every time a customer requests a secret-menu item. If you nonetheless feel you must order a bespoke brew, the following are my guidelines for being a more considerate customer who craves customization:

  • Save the super-special orders for days and times when the store is not busy.
  • Bring the recipe and have it ready to present. (Even better, have it written on a note card.)
  • Customize as a way of experiencing something new—not as a tactic to save cents.
  • Tip generously — if it’s worthy of the 'gram, it’s worthy of more than a dollar tip.
  • Thank your barista profusely.

If all of that sounds like too much to ask, it’s safe to say your ask is probably too much to ask.

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