Top 3 Problem Policies at Starbucks.

by Melody on December 28, 2013

There are three Starbucks policies which appear to create problems and challenges inside stores.  I say that from what I’ve seen in emails to me, what I’ve seen on social media sites, and what people are reading heavily on my site.

(As always, this is just Melody’s opinion of what policies cause tension and confusion).

1. The Refill Policy – Once you leave the store, it is NOT a refill.  If you stay inside the store, you can get free refills, as much as you like, regardless of the original beverage.  However, the only items that can be offered to you at the refill price are as follows: Iced Coffee, Brewed Coffee (such as the coffee of the day, such as Pike Place Roast – not a Clover-brewed coffee), Iced Tea, and hot tea.  Yes, you can get a new tea bag.  The minute you walk out the front door of the store, all refill perks come to an end.  There is never a refill perk when using the drive-thru.  Here’s my old article on the Refill Policy – it is – by far – the most read article on this site, and readers spend over ten minutes reading it, on average.  There have been way over 100,000 page views of that article since the day I published it.  Yes, you can buy a Grande Cool Lime Refresher, and ask for a Iced Passion Tea in that cup as a refill.  I was at the Corson & Michigan Starbucks about one week ago, and did just that.  A Starbucks barista (Hannah?) said “yes” without any wincing, questioning, or anything at all.  It should be that way everywhere.

2. The Photo Policy – You can take photos inside of a Starbucks.  No partners should be hassling customers who are showing off pretty stores, drinks or whatever.  Customers should, however, ask permission to “feature” a specific partner in a photo.  (There isn’t an absolute right to privacy – once you’re outside of your home, you may find yourself incidentally in photos.)  The best statement of the Starbucks photo policy comes from Corey DuBrowa, Starbucks EVP of Global Communications, in a news article in  Here’s what he said:  “Personal photography is allowed in stores,” says spokesman Corey duBrowa. “All other filming and video needs to be approved prior. This is a standard policy year round and not convention-specific.”  From what I know, Starbucks Customer Service should also be aware of this policy, and if a store creates tension by telling a customer, “put away that camera” you can reach out to Starbucks Customer Service too.

3. The Personal Cup Discount – You get a ten cent discount when you bring your own cup, mug, or tumbler to Starbucks.  Sometimes customers get mad when they don’t get it for using a for-here Starbucks store mug.  Sorry, the policy doesn’t allow for a discount for using the Starbucks store for-here ware.  The exact details of the personal cup discount are here.

These policies create emails to me, and give me a little gray hair now and then.  I don’t mean to sound harsh at either partners or customers, but I repeat this type of content because I hope someday we’ll all be on the same page.

Edit on December 30, 2013: After reading through the comments, I realized that a better pick for the #3 problem policy at Starbucks might have been the “4 ounces of cold soy milk” rule.  If you are adding soy milk to your coffee as a creamer, and using less than four ounces, the customer should not be charged.  Yet somehow that does cause confusion at the registers too.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

DaveZ December 28, 2013 at 11:32 am

Some baristas still have trouble with the refill policy… I routinely bring up their own website that explains I can get a free iced coffee “refill” even tho my original drink was an iced Americano. It’s a nice perk and I always try to be patient and polite as it’s not the most intuitive policy. No one’s ever given me problems (in the US) snapping photos with my phone, including one guy who felt the need to wear a handgun on his belt, but pronouncing Venti as Ventay just kills me (and I bite my tongue). :)

Launce December 28, 2013 at 11:33 am

I often drink decaf drip because of my high blood pressure and I know that it’s not very cost effective for any Starbucks store to keep a pot of decaf on the ready, because of waste. A few times, I’ve been offered a pour-over or clover as my only options, but at a higher cost. I wrote to corporate and they said that because of this, partners should brew decaf on-demand or offer an alternative at the same cost as regular drip. The few stores I frequent are cool about this, but with other stores, I’ve actually had to show them the email I received from customer relations.

DadCooks December 28, 2013 at 11:35 am

Simple and to the point. Starbucks should make a pamphlet of this post and give it to every Partner and train to it with quarterly re-training.

If Starbucks could be consistent on these 3 not so little things in the customers mind, life would be better all around.

I nominate this as one of the top posts of 2013 ;-)

Purple1 December 28, 2013 at 11:42 am

Ditto dad cooks very much agree. There seems to still be turnover of partners so I often see inconsistency in the knowledge of partners. Life certainly would be better if every partner was on the same page!

LaurenKom December 28, 2013 at 11:45 am

Great article – well-written, accurate & informative! I agree that it is a seemingly endless struggle to ensure that partners are modeling and upholding Starbucks policies in order to create a consistent experience for our customers – not “policing” our customers. I’m guilty too, at times!

8year_Sbux_Barista December 28, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I agree that these policies are a struggle for partners due to turnover and the time crunch to learn everything we need to know during the short training period. I also believe we need to educate customers about what we can “just say yes!” to. MOST THINGS actually…which makes my job fun. But really would it be so bad to have a sign, maybe at the condiment bar that clearly states the company policy so customers and partners alike are reminded of this opportunity and how it actually works. And hey, the refill policy especially is kinda great!

Nick Nelson December 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm

While I know the policy is no discount if you use Starbucks mug – 4 out of 5 times I do get that discount.

Soon December 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Ditto! Right on Melody. Thanks for this valuable article :-)

Narf68 December 28, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Please just remember that the refills are not free unless the customer has earned that perk through the rewards program. Otherwise there is a small charge if they are not using our rewards program.

bmommyx2 December 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I’m not sure I understand what people have a problem with exactly, maybe you could elaborate. If you went to a fastfood place & got a soda you can’t come back later with your cup for a free refill. The refill policy actually sounds pretty generous since you can get a different drink than what you started with. Most places only refill coffee or iced tea. The way I have always read the personal cup discount is that it’s for “bringing your own” if you use their for hear cup they still have to wash it so why the discount.

Eric December 28, 2013 at 2:21 pm

On this list I’d have to add the policy on charging (or not charging) for steamed milk less than 4oz.

Victoria December 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I just wish customers would understand that training a barista isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand. It takes a lot of time and practice to remember all recipes, routines and especially the policies.

Chgo. December 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm

No matter how many times I reread the policy, I will continue to forget what the actual policy is, because it’s branded into my brain to always question it. I have heard so many different versions of them, that I can’t remember the fact from the fiction sometimes. I too, like Nick Nelson, have always gotten the discount for using a Starbucks in store mug. The only problem with the using their mugs, is where have they hidden them all? They seem to have become extinct.

HipHippie December 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I agree with Eric. I once marked each cup size(and posted in the back room) 4oz from the top and it is shockingly small. It is easier to say yes than convince a customer that they have to pay. But it is one very lenient and inconsistently enforced policy.

kenyakevan December 28, 2013 at 7:00 pm

I know I’ve brought this up before…. the charge (or lack thereof) for cold soy, less than 4 oz, as a condiment. There are literally two different buttons on the register the barista can push. One of them charges you like your entire drink is soy-based. The other one doesn’t. I never know what my total will be!

Melody December 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm

In reading this comments, I realize that in hindsight, the topic of the four ounces of soy milk (or a milk change charge) would have been a great pick for #3 confused policy, rather than the cup discount.

And kudos to people who think there is nothing confusing here. I’ve never seen the situation where there’s a store where at least a few customers don’t understand that it’s is NOT a refill once you leave the store, and there are at least a few partners who don’t understand that if you’re in the store (and stay in), it’s an incredibly generous policy, allowing for refills regardless of first drink. It’s a policy that creates tension when sliced both ways – at least that is what I’ve seen.

Sarah December 29, 2013 at 10:06 am

You only get a FREE refill when you are a gold card carrier. Otherwise it’s a $0.53 charge, I’m sure this varies depending on location.

Amanda P December 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I have yet to try out the refill policy, mostly because I hardly ever drink in the store. I will definitely bookmark this article so I know what I can and can’t order for my refill. Thank you for such a good clarification article.

Organic Fair Trade Dave December 29, 2013 at 5:37 pm


Thank you for pointing out that the confusion around these policies can be a two-way street. That said, I believe we at Starbucks cause ourselves a lot of pain by not ensuring our partners are fully aware of policies such as these. When I landed at my new store I asked my certified barista trainers about the refill policy, the soy/milk policy and the photo policy, among other things, and I got different answers. I took my trainers and shift supervisors through the correct policies. I posted communications on the policies for my baristas and I left them with the final thought of: You don’t need permission to say yes to a customer. Funnily enough, SMs in my district would contact me because my customers might visit their stores and tell them we would give the customer a refill on a different beverage and the SMs would try to tell me not to do that. My point is simply that, as in a lot of other cases, we don’t always help ourselves to best serve our customers.

Melody December 29, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Over on the Facebook side of this blog, there was a conversation around this which basically boiled down to learning by tribal knowledge can do the company quite a disservice once in a while – It’s like lore gets spread around.

It happens on both sides of the table. A barista who ‘thinks’ he or she knows policies perfectly, erroneously tells a newbie, “you can’t give a refill when ….” Of course, the newbie doesn’t question it – that person has been around for a while – he or she must be right! In fact, even when faced with contradictory information, it can be hard to re-learn something you learned wrong because people don’t like to be wrong, nor do they want to admit their friends are wrong.

And, customers do the same sort of thing. It’s not as obvious, but they’re telling their friends about Starbucks experiences, and if one says to another, “You can get free Pike Place Roast by walking in with your old cup – hang on to that cup…” — It’s not malicious, but they’ve learned bad information.

I’m saddened to hear stories of store managers contact your store like that. Just say yes is still alive and well!

Actually, this whole blog post was inspired by a frustrating comment / email chain with a customer in Indiana who was pretty shut down on the idea that he couldn’t take a photo of his red cup. Man, 8 million Instagram posts would come to an end if you can’t take red cup photos.

Organic Fair Trade Dave December 29, 2013 at 9:35 pm

@Melody Excellent point! Tribal knowledge is the perfect way to describe it.

merryncole December 30, 2013 at 5:57 am

I think the policies are difficult for the new baristas to understand, especially as people get trained through “tribal knowledge.” It’s easier to ask the person next to you than to look up the right answer. It also takes time for the new baristas to learn the new policies, so there is a lag between the hiring and learning, when the wrong answer can come into play. I try to nicely ask them to go check the BRM in the back when they refuse me a refill. Usually the partners are surprised to find the real answer is different from what they’d thought it was.

Melody December 30, 2013 at 6:49 am

@MerrynCole – I get what you’re saying and I agree that happens. The thing of it is, once something is learned wrong on the first place, it can be tough to undo! There are so many reasons why. One part of it is just that people can easily get defensive when they’re confronted with the fact they’re wrong – we’ve all met people like that before. I’ve heard of it happening – though never experienced it – where stores start to say that their are “is different” and doesn’t have to follow Seattle rules. That’s a problem too – they start to believe that they’ve carved out an exception for their store. “Our store does it this way …regardless.” I think once in a while, that attitude is out there. There are more reasons, but it is much harder to undo bad learning than to get it right the first time.

Melody December 31, 2013 at 8:09 am

Once partners have learned any of these policies wrong – for whatever reason – either because they were misinformed, misunderstood, any reason – it’s very hard for them to let go. Such a powerful human nature to cling tenaciously to, “I know I’ve got this right”
I just got an email where I am reminded of this. I’m not going to change her mind – it is unbending.

Martin Stock January 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I don’t like the fairly widespread practice of their stores stopping brewing decaf coffee so early in the day. I’ve been to at least a half-dozen in my greater urban area where they tell me they stop brewing decaf before noon. (They’ll still do a pour-over for me, but that takes 10 minutes or so, and I rarely have that much time to wait around.)

EAP January 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Starbucks has many policies that they refuse to publish. Their profit margin per cup of coffee is approximately 90%. They do not publish policies so that they can haphazardly change them or give individual stores the flexibility to use policies to increase their own profits. For years, I ordered the same drink..grande single shot latte…. I asked them to put in a venti cup and fill it wih warm milk… Last week we have a new policy…. Have to charge for the additional milk. No consideration for one less shot of coffee. Said there is no charge for cold milk at the bar…yes…but there is a Charge for warm milk.

Spoke to corporate…they said it was wrong….and the regional manager after a conversation never followed up. I think we should go to other coffee places. They have gotten too big and lack what made them great.

Romeo Loh January 9, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Emm…. can anyone tell me if the refill perk are valid/available all around the world? I’m from Malaysia, and like to know if the Starbucks here also share the policy? lol
Eager to know!!

Melody January 10, 2014 at 6:32 am

@RomeoLoh – Much of what I write on this blog pertains to company-operated Starbucks stores in the US and Canada. (And many licensed US stores offer a refill policy, I think?). But a number of the international Starbucks stores are a joint business venture with a partner inside that country – India is a perfect example of that. India Starbucks are a joint venture with Tata. In a nutshell, international stores often have their own perks, and often are very different than the US stores in terms of any kind of loyalty rewards they have, and policies too. I wouldn’t count that the refill policy above would pertain to all the international stores. Just my two cents. Call Starbucks Customer Service for further clarification.

Raimie January 10, 2014 at 11:50 am

Not sure if the refill policy is available in the stores in Singapore but oh well…

DH January 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

Are you sure there’s a refill policy for refreshers? I have received mixed reactions regarding this policy at a few Starbucks stores where some baristas INSIST that refreshers do NOT qualify for a refill. Similarly, I googled this and Starbucks’ website only says “iced tea” and “iced brewed tea” and nothing specific about refreshers.

Over the weekend, we got into a shouting match with a barista about this refill policy. Would be great if you can clear it up once and for all. I ordered a Valencia Orange Refresher and requested a free refill based on my Gold card rewards status.

Melody January 13, 2014 at 11:14 am

@DH – I can tell from comments and emails that I’ve received, that lots of people didn’t understand what I was saying. I should have been more clear.

I was NOT saying that you can order a Refresher and receive ANOTHER Refresher at a “refill” perk or price. Definitely was NOT saying that.

The language on the Starbucks website says these words: “regardless of original beverage.” This means that the Refresher can be the original beverage.

But there are only four items that can ever be reduced to a refill price or perk:(1) Iced Coffee. (2) Iced Tea. (3) Hot Brewed Coffee of the day. and (4) Hot Tea.

You can order a Refresher get one of those four items at a “refill” price. If you are trying to order ANYTHING that is not one of those four items, it is NEVER offered at the “refill price” of 55 cents (prices vary slightly from area to area, and it’s free if you’re green or gold level).

If you’ve left the store, it is never a “refill.”

I’d call Customer Service too. If the barista is shouting at you, this only creates bad will for Starbucks. Starbucks strives to be a premium brand. However, if you were trying to pay only a refill price for anything in the store that is not one of those four items mentioned above, the answer should be “no.”

Shayne January 26, 2014 at 9:48 pm

@EAP unfortunately you would get charged for that warm milk. If you do the math correctly, the addittional milk comes out to 5oz. Grande beverage (16 oz- 14 oz milk 2 oz espresso). Taking 1 oz of espresso out if that equals 15 oz and then put in a 20 oz cup, the rest is 5 oz. Sorry to get technical but we’re only following directions given by upper management.

E January 27, 2014 at 5:29 pm

If management were truly concerned about costs of refills and milk….they should look at what gets poured down the drain. I was in my local Starbucks this am and watch them go thru a gallon of milk (I kid you not). For three cups of lattes (all grande) after each cup they threw out what was just poured into the steamer cup….empty it and refill it…empty and refill it. All with the same 2% milk….all fresh. If they are so worried about refills costing them….they ought to watch what goes down the drain. Amazing!!!!

Catherine May 29, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Hi I recently ordered a green tea lemonade does that count in the refill policy…because last time I asked to get a refill on it they told me they couldn’t it would just have to be a plain green tea …but I went to another Starbucks and they gave it to me without a problem…so I just wanted to be clear on the rule…can I get a refill on the green tea lemonade?…thanks for your time

Coline Benson May 30, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I used to be a partner not too long ago (I voluntarily quit because the store I worked at wasn’t a good fit for me and I wasn’t a good fit for the store in Portland, OR 97230), and I was NEVER EVER EVER told about the “refill policy”. The only thing that I was told is SB Reward customers get refills on iced coffee, hot coffee, iced tea, and hot tea. That’s it! Also, I was always told that we don’t charge for H&H, Soy, etc if its THREE ounces or less.

Coline B.

Melody May 31, 2014 at 6:49 am

@Catherine – I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. I’ve been on vacation and have not have a lot of time to write comments. A Green Tea Lemonade is not available at the refill price. There are only four items that ever have a refill price associated with them (regardless of first beverage and on the condition that you stayed inside the store) – Iced coffee, iced tea, hot brewed coffee of the day (not Clover brewed), and hot tea. Since Iced Tea Lemonade is not listed, it’s not available at the refill perk price. Iced Tea Lemonade is not considered to be the same drink as just the shaken iced tea.

@Coline – I wish I had more time to write a long reply. There are two things about your comment that struck me. First, I was always told that the free soy was for less than four ounces of milk and not three as you mentioned. And secondly, I thought your phrasing “I was never told…” is interesting. One of the challenges and opportunities that Starbucks has – at least from what I’ve seen – is that in order to be very knowledgeable about Starbucks, you may have to seek out more information about the brand, whether from Facebook, websites like this one, or something else. It seems like there’s so much to know, that you won’t be told all you need to know inside the stores. Reasonable minds may differ.

Megan June 6, 2014 at 11:56 am

I like heavy cream in my drip coffee – just a splash, probably < 1 oz. I got this for free for a long time, and then the baristas at my favorite location started charging 60 cents. I wrote SBUX customer service, and they informed me that it was up to manager discretion whether or not to charge for a splash of heavy cream. Since I like to know how much my drink will cost before I order it (and I don't want to ask every time, sounding like a schmuck), I started brewing my own coffee at my desk. I went from visiting the SBUX in my office building 2×3 times a week, to only visiting 1x a month or so. The whole ordeal just left me with a bad feeling.

Lupita Guevara June 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Im also very confused about the refills. Lets say I order a tall java chip frapp , when i finish it (considering Im at the store the whole time) and can take my cup and ask for an Iced Americano? and its free? ( with gold card level)

Justin Houk June 30, 2014 at 9:21 am

From the looks of it the “refill during the same visit policy” has been in place for some time. I can attest to them not really enforcing this rule for at least a year until this past may. I work in a mostly government office district in Portland, Oregon. I have purchased coffee at Starbucks first thing in the morning and then come back mid morning for a refill for years. Towards the end of may 2014 I was challenged for the first time on this. The barista was new and asked the manager they would said they would honor it but not after May 31, 2014. To be honest it might hurt the business of that store a bit because as a $150+ per month customer lots of my purchases were made as additional items on second visits. But it’s so busy they probably don’t care.

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