Starbucks: How Much Your Drink Costs Depends On How You Order It

An Americano is espresso and water.

If you order a “Tall Americano” with an “extra shot” at Starbucks you will receive 3 shots of espresso in a 12 oz cup with water added. You will pay $2.30.

If you order a “Grande Americano” in a “tall” cup, you will receive 3 shots of espresso in a 12 oz cup with water added. You will pay $2.00.

Why? A columnist at the Sacramento Bee spent 2 months waiting for an answer from Starbucks. Their response? “That’s a great question.” Isn’t it? We’ve found that it’s harder to ignore these sorts of Starbucks pricing oddities than it is to find them. —MEGHANN MARCO

A cup of confusion [Sacramento Bee via Starbucks Gossip]
(Photo: cmorran123)

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  1. dbeahn says:

    That’s what happens when you let people order things the way they want to order them, rather than the way you set them on the menu…

  2. Slytherin says:

    Another tip from a frequent Starbuck-er…when you order a regular coffee and would like to add cream or milk, always order, for example, a tall coffee in a grande cup. This will give you room to add as much (or as little) cream as you want without having to dump coffee in the trash bin to make room for it. Saves about 25 cents each time.

  3. VG10 says:

    I just don’t get the big deal with starbucks. i drink my jamacian blue mountain coffee at home and I get it in any cup i want.

  4. Fuzz says:

    I avoid Starbucks because i can’t figure out what the hell constitutes a medium cup of coffee. I don’t understand what the have against small, medium and large. It doesn’t make you more cultured because you can decode their menu. It just makes you more pretentious. Plus, their coffee sucks.

  5. Tex Texerson says:

    You know what else is weird? When I go to McDonalds and order a Quarter Pounder with medium fries and a medium drink, it costs more than ordering a Quarter Pounder combo, which comes with medium fries and a medium drink. Can the Sac Bee investigate that too?

  6. RayWertJr says:

    I love my Starbucks, but when I go in there at 5:30 am and half asleep and “mistakenly” order a medium coffee, and they correct me, I want to order another to poor over the cashier, err barista.

  7. classic10 says:

    Oh This is old. I remember ordering Grande Cafe Americano on a Tall cups 7 years ago!

    I was working in an office that we used to play with the cashiers at the Mall.

    There is another funny one from Au Bon Pain. This this one was one of my favorites. This used to work before they’ve changed their menu about 3 years ago. When you order a Chicken Mozzarella Sandwich it will set you back $6.95 but if you ask for a Lettuce Tomato Sandwich (@2.95) with Chicken ($1.00) and Mozzarella ($1.00) it will cost you only $4.95! Yay! ;-)

  8. @Tex Texerson: Roly-poly and Jimmy Johns both have either their employees or their cash registers recognize when you order a group of items that’s also a combo. I always check to make sure the discount comes up and it does no matter which way I order.

    McDonalds probably doesn’t want to spend the money on smart registers or training employees.

    Starbucks, from what I hear, is expensive enough that they ought to be able to train the employees to recognize that a “Tall Americano” with an “extra shot” is the same as a “Grande Americano” in a “tall” cup and should cost the same amount.

  9. PenguinBlue says:

    @RayWertJr: I understand the frustration, but I’d guess that most baristas aren’t doing it just to remind you of the correct names. When I was working at Starbucks, it was customary to repeat the order back to the customer (or at least announce it to the baristas making drinks). Starbucks policy, unfortunately, dictates that all employees only use its size names, so too many “medium” coffees can result in an unfriendly meeting with the manager.

  10. lo_fro says:

    Okay, during my college years, I worked at Starbucks. When I realized that was the case with the Americano, I would just charge the customer for a Grande rather than the tall add-shot.

    Rarely did anyone ever notice that their, tab was 30 cents less. But at least I felt like I was stickin’ it to the man a little bit.

    He also didn’t notice.

  11. Melov says:

    It’s the same thing at Taco Bell. If you order a chicken soft taco, they ring you up for a Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco, take off the tomato and sauce, instead of a ringing you up a Regular soft taco and subtitute chicken instead of beef. It ends up being almost $1 more. When I worked there in HS I used to tell the manager it was completely unfair to customers and also never rang it up that way. She hated me, but would never fire me because I’m a hard worker.

  12. drduran says:

    @Fuzz: I go to starbucks and just order small/medium/large, they don’t even bat an eye, I don’t care what they call it, I just know what I want.

  13. lo_fro says:

    @PenguinBlue: When I worked there, I definitely got a stern talkin-to about my inability to follow “Frappuccino” with “blended coffee/creme” when I called out beverages.

    “You HAVE to say it, ‘Frappuccino’ is an adjective!”

  14. kerry says:

    @Slytherin: People who dump liquids into the trash bin and not the drain are the bane of a barista’s existence. Most places will have a liquid waste receptacle (whether a bucket, a small sink, or a specially-labeled trash can). Please use it. I spent a year and a half of my life getting disgusting used coffee/cream/tea/crap on my legs trying to change out trash cans full of liquid waste. The bags break and leak and it’s a huge mess.

  15. Fuzz says:

    @drduran:

    Thats a cunning plan. I’ll try that next time I’m stuck at Starbucks. :)

  16. joeblevins says:

    I still think it is funny that the fast food monkey behind the counter at a coffee place is a ‘Barista’ I saw an add for McD’s that said they are baristas too.

  17. RayWertJr says:

    @PenguinBlue: Normally, I’d agree with you, and at first, that’s what I thought was happening. Until I was more awake than usual one day, and realized the guy was just saying it snotty, just to be uppity.

  18. lo_fro says:

    @joeblevins: I’ll preface this by saying that I am an ex-employee and also not really a starbucks advocate… BUT, before the Verissimo automated espresso machines took over, making drinks did actually take effort and skill, and you could be either “good” or “bad” at it.

    I, of course, was good at it.

  19. tcabeen says:

    @ Tea Drinkers: Sick of getting TWO bags of tea for ONE cup? Order it wrong!
    It’s a PITA to deal with baristas who aren’t used to this, but you can order a small in a medium or large cup and have them fill it up with water (whatever the appropriate sizes are, if you wish). Hot water is free. The only difference is you get one tea bag, which is all you need.

    @Fuzz: Or just don’t go there. Vote with your dollar!

  20. nweaver says:

    If the expresso machine has you just push a button and expresso comes out, you are a coffee chimp, not a barrista.

  21. jharrell says:

    A better deal still is to order a short Cafe Americano. You get 2 shots espresso (same as a tall) and a little less water for even less. The thing is the short cup is not on the menu but all of them have it stocked.

    (around $1.60 if I remember correctly – lately I just brew my own at home even cheaper…)

  22. robbie says:

    @kerry: i have only been to one or two starbucks that had a receptacle for excess coffee. the majority do not have one. i have always assumed that it ensures that baristas ask about leaving room for cream in the coffee lest they face the messy consequences.

  23. TheCFC says:

    I wrote Starbucks about a similar issue. I could order a Venti iced coffee for about $3.00 which is made with coffee that’s been sitting around all day. Instead, I order a tall brewed coffee with no room and a Venti cup of ice for $1.55. I pour the hot fresh coffee over the cold ice and it magically reaches the top of the Venti plastic cup. It’s like getting 50% off my drink and tastes better than the old coffee.

    When I wrote Starbucks, I wanted to save them the cost and waste associated with the Tall hot cup that I was throwing away every time. If they would just offer a Venti Fresh Iced Coffee ™ for $1.55 they could save a cup and a lid. They never wrote back. I guess they are not as concerned with the environment as they proclaim.

  24. cindel says:

    What’s the problem? The extra shot in a TALL will cost you; rather just order a GRANDE and pay the cheaper price and ask for a Tall cup. Here’s a tip; we don’t fill up all the way to the top so it’s basically the same thing. I used to work for BN cafe; granted not starbucks but damn people are so fickle about their drinks.

  25. Mojosan says:

    Oh man, thanks to this article my order now got longer.

    “Good morning. Tall notfat cafe latte extra hot in a grande cup, please.”

  26. rmz says:

    @drduran: Same here. I do that at Jamba Juice, too — their menu may say “Sixteen,” but it’s just a freaking Small, dang it! So I call it that.

  27. Triteon says:

    Bobby: I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
    Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
    Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.

    …and Bobby got his wheat toast!

  28. zolielo says:

    @kerry: I have not worked in the food service industry but as a consumer I have been a bit grossed out by bins leaking a mix of the days trash. Very few places seemingly have a liquid only bin, as far as I have seen.

  29. gorckat says:

    I went to a (not my usual) Wendy’s ~7 years ago and got my usual combo- 99 cent medium fries, medium drionk and Jr Bacon Cheeseburger (now 1.29, iirc). Came to 3.14 at my usual Wendy’s.

    But at this one, the mananger made the guy ring it up as a four dollar and change combo totally almost five bucks. The guy taking the order said it was bogus and I argued with the manager through the window for a minute before demanding and getting refund.

  30. amyjay says:

    Starbucks welcomes crazy orders. When our store opened we all got shirts that said: You Call It, We Make It.

    The one thing that bothers me about Starbucks is the automated machines they have now. I started on a normal, “manual” machine, and I loved it. I came home smelling like coffee. Then they switched and I came home smelling like steamed milk masked by sanitizer. Plus the amount of time and materials they save was not reflected in decreased prices. Some drinks it’d take me three time to pull a good shot that wasn’t too long or too short, but with the automatic it’s just hitting one button. It did make it easy to cover hot and cold bars at the same time, but it sacrificed so much quality.

  31. kadath217 says:

    As a former manager for a BN Cafe and Starbucks barista, I can say this is not a Starbucks policy issue. I trained all my baristas to ring up orders in the way that would benefit the customer – especially with Americanos. This sounds like your barista is just not paying attention – any good barista would let you know that a grande americano would be cheaper.

  32. wobudong says:

    When going to Starbucks, bring your own coffee and food.
    I wouldn’t go to anyplace that overcharges and calls its counter jockeys anything more than waiters and waitresses.

  33. tylerkaraszewski says:

    How much fuss is it worth making over a $0.30 pricing discrepancy? I mean, it’s 30 cents.

  34. ambushbug says:

    I was in Starbucks once and asked about this. I was told that the Grande actually only has 2 shots (I’ve since watched them prepare Grande Americanos and sure enough only two shots go in). I asked why the price was different compared to the Tall, and they shrugged and said, “dunno; bigger cup?”. I prefer to buy my coffee at the local shop that charges $1.75 for small, med, and large Americanos, thankyouverymuch.

  35. jeffj-nj says:

    I once noticed a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu at a restaraunt I used to frequent cost more than a fried egg & cheese sandwich. Only because I was curious, I asked a waitress why the sandwich containing more actual stuff cost less. She didn’t know, but agreed it was interested, and asked her manager. Turns out, the answer was quite simple. The grilled cheese sandwich is popular. That’s it. People order it alot, so they charge more because they can. Plain and simple. So, yeah, if you wanted, you could probably order the egg & cheese without the egg and save a couple of cents, but at the end of the day, you’re the guy trying to save pennies, and no one wants to be that guy.

    Compeltely different note: If the smallest size available is called “medium”, I absolutely refuse to order it by name. If I want the small, I’ll order the small. If they tell me they don’t have a small, I’ll tell them, “I want the smallest you have”. I despise that naming scheme. Middle, by definition, needs something which is larger than it and something which is smaller.

    Along the same lines, if I want a “large” soda, and the sizes available are “medium”, “large” and “larger”, I will order “the middle size”. Usually, they’ll ask if I meant “medium”. I’ll repeat, “No, the middle size, please, whatever it’s called.” “It’s a large.” “I really don’t care what it’s called. I’d like the size which is inbetween the others.”

    I know they don’t make up the names, but I’m a sticklet for words and using them for what they mean. I guess I’m that guy instead. ;)

  36. buk-was-right says:

    This is not just a starbucks issue. I used to work at a Peet’s coffee and our medium + extra shot (3 shots) was more expensive than a large (3 shots). More money, less milk. Weird right?
    I was met with similarly dismissive “yeah that is weird… oh well” responses when I brought it up to management.
    I had to teach co-workers how to ring up a “large in a medium cup” even though it defies the laws of physics.

  37. jeffj-nj says:

    ACK! Proof-reading, I noticed I said “alot”, and offer my deepest apologies.

    I also wrote “interested” instead of “interesting”, mispelled “completely” and “stickler”. Tsk, tsk. I hang my head in shame.

  38. buk-was-right says:

    @jeffj-nj: Seriously… Have you seen the “medium” at Carl’s Jr.? It’s like a double Big Gulp!

  39. lizzybee says:

    @Slytherin: My experience has been that whenever I order a coffee of any size, Starbucks almost always leaves “room for cream.” It sucks, because I don’t get the full amount of coffee I ordered and I always drink it black ;-) But if I order a latte or mocha, the cup is always full… Weird that.

  40. Havok154 says:

    All I know is that I stopped at a rest stop on my way to a client today and I ordered a medium hot chocolate from Starbucks. $3.80 later, I was mighty disappointed.

  41. jesseraub says:

    I work for Starbucks (hey – health benefits). This isn’t a Starbucks exclusive! Standard practice at ANY coffee shop is to charge about 50cents for an extra shot. The price is relative – the actual price of the ground coffee used is only like ten cents – but the extra charges go towards the heating pump and electricity used in the espresso machine. If you’re ringing up a latte and you want an extra shot, it’s going to cost fifty cents extra regardless of where you are.

    The Americano is a casualty of this. Anywhere you go, hot water and espresso is going to cost a bit more than just espresso. Starbucks is a national corporation. Nobody decided that an Americano with an extra shot was a profit catcher – it just happened.

    A similar situation is a Chai Tea Latte with added espresso shots. A Chai Tea Latte costs about $2.50, but it’s only milk and our chai syrup. Add two shots and that’s easily an extra dollar. But what you can do instead is ring it up as a latte (2.86) with Chai syrup added (syrup only costs 30 cents). Voila! It’s a whole lot cheaper.

  42. clickertrainer says:

    The best deal of all? Buy a pound of coffee, get the free coffee that comes with it, then make your own for the next few weeks.

  43. cde says:

    @jeffj-nj: Well, that guy is usually called a jackass and ends up with a little extra in their medium “large” drink… Atleast in most of NJ ;D

  44. EtherealStrife says:

    @tylerkaraszewski: Actually it’s a $109.58/year discrepancy for the daily Starbucks drinker.

    I personally will stick with my $0.99 liters of Tejava and laugh at all the Buckophiles.

  45. asherchang says:

    I took advice from one of the commenters here and ordered a mocha frapp with a biscotti blended in. Although the experience was exhilerating (I’m weird, don’t ask), and I enjoyed the uber chocolately, gritty experience, I realized that I was losing out on maybe several tablespoons worth of frappaccino that the blended biscotti displaced.

  46. puka_pai says:

    @nweaver: If the expresso machine has you just push a button and expresso comes out, you are a coffee chimp, not a barrista.

    If the computer has you push a button and misspellings pour out, you are a keyboard chimp and not a geek.

    Espresso. Barista. It’s not that hard.

  47. swalve says:

    kerry- I hate dumping coffee down the garbage can too, but “room for cream” is supposed to mean “ROOM FOR CREAM!”

    How ridiculous does it sound to order a Medium Americano in a Small cup?

    I love me a big-ass cup of Joe, but Starbucks’ lids seem specifically designed to funnel splashes directly in my face, shirt and tie. So, it’s a Grande coffee in a Venti cup for me.

    jeff-nj- How does abusing the 14 year old popcorn girl at the movie theater solve the problem of not having a small size?

  48. ChapstickAddict says:

    One thing I learned from my years in food service is that the people behind the counter probably hate the stupid naming conventions even more than you, the customer, do. Also, they have no way to change it. Being an ass to the counter worker only makes you more likely to get a little something extra in your food or drink.

  49. Lee2706 says:

    I don’t drink at Starbucks, but I do find it sad that they’ve changed to automated espresso (“expresso,” hah!) machines to bang out more drinks, at the same price. You’d think streamlining production could pass the savings on to loyal customer. Nah, too easy.

  50. hop says:

    mickey d’s for the senior price…..never entered a starbucks……….

  51. Little Miss Moneybags says:

    @TheCFC: Actually, the “old” iced coffee sitting around is not the same as the fresh-brewed coffee. It’s house blend, brewed twice as strong (more coffee to water), and made fresh every day. What you’re doing works, too, and if you drink it quickly it shouldn’t get watered down enough that you’d notice–but the reason for the price difference is the amount of work that goes into making it and carrying it around in the giant dispenser thing.

    I’m another former barista, and I’d always try to find ways to give my customers deals. I knew the drinks and the register better than them, and often the way they’d order something would not give them the best deal, so I’d call and ring it up differently than they ordered and tell them it’s the same thing, I just got them a better price (like the guy who always ordered a grande coffee “with lots of room”–I’d call it as a tall in a grande cup and ring it up that way for him). I tried to do this with all the customers, but I admit I made sure to point out ways to save on their favorite drink more often to the customers who treated me nicely early in the morning (though I did NOT base this on tipping, which I think is stupid at Starbucks. I’m not waiting your table, there’s no need to tip, and I don’t tip baristas if I go to Starbucks now).

  52. jeffj-nj says:

    @swalve: I wouldn’t call it abuse, or call her 14, but it teaches whoever is behind the counter basic english, such as what “small” means. If someone ordered a small from me, and I worked someplace that didn’t have a specifically labeled “small” size, it would require exactly one brain cell and two nanoseconds of thought to determine they want the smallest size we have, regardless of what it’s called. Most of the time, that is what happens.

    When people say, “We don’t have a small, only medium, large, extra large, jumbo, giant, extra extra large, super dooper large, etc”, sure, it isn’t their fault the establishment made up these ridiculous names, but it is their fault for having forgotten what a word as simple and mundane as “small” means.

    That all said, it’s perfectly possible to say, “I’d like a small Coke” or “I’d like the middle sized french fries” in a perfectly polite and reasonable tone of voice, followed by “please”, as if you aren’t doing anything except ordering, and that’s exactly what I do. I don’t act like I’m trying to prove a point, even though, yeah, I am, even if it’s just to me. Medium means inbetween. Period.

  53. @jeffj-nj: If I went someplace and ordered a medium and got the smallest size they serve I would be pissed off*.

    *Assuming of course that their medium actually is small. Nowadays they serve soda like you plan to swim in it instead of drink it.

  54. jeffj-nj says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: As well you should be ;)

    … because – say it with me, class – medium means inbetween. ;)

    *so true.

  55. nidolke says:

    I don’t think Starbucks is out to get us with this price discrepancy, stuff like this just happens. Think of it as a little bonus to you as the $0.30 noticer that you get to save money, and the other poor suckers who order the menu version are missing out ;)

    And a small is a small, not a tall dangit! I’d really love to know Starbuck’s thinking behind this, and if it actually fools anyone, boosts sales, or whatever the heck it’s intended purpose is.

  56. Muerte99 says:

    I’ve been told by the baristas that in cappuccinos and mochas, talls have 1 shot, grandes have 2 shots, and ventis have 2 shots. I asked after noticing I always enjoyed grandes more than ventis….which makes sense, since it seems ventis are just watered(milked?)-down grandes.
    Since that day, I have never ordered a venti. I usually put that cost into getting a triple grande whatever.

  57. CyGuy says:

    This is why I always order Hamburger Happy Meals for my kids. If they want a Chicken Nugget Happy Meal, I just add-on a 4 piece nuggets. If they want a Cheeseburger Happy Meal I add-on a Double Cheeseburgers. Both add-ons are on the Dollar Menu. Cost of getting a Hamburger meal plus a 4-piece nuggets is about $3.30; cost of getting a Nugget Happy Meal alone, about $3.10 – so for $.20 more I get a bonus burger. Do this for both kids and MY meal of two burgers costs $.40!

  58. Pipes says:

    @jeffj-nj:

    Do you know why the counter jockey always asks for clarification when you say “the middle-sized drink”? It’s because people are idiots. Plain and simple, many people will fudge their order up, and you’ve got to hold their hands throughout or end up with some angry people. “I ordered a medium, and you gave me the smallest drink!” “Well, our medium IS the smallest we have…” It’s for this reason that I also hate eliminating the “small” size, but you can see why we always ask for clarification.

    Fun note for people who go to Bob Evans: the one piece grilled chicken dinner and the senior size grilled chicken dinner is EXACTLY the same thing, except you’ll pay about $1.50 less for the senior size. (Ditto for the one piece meatloaf / senior size meatloaf and one piece fried chicken / senior size fried chicken.)

  59. dougb123 says:

    First to everyone out there making coffe at home or going to Mickey D’s. Your not SB’s target because your cheap or have no/low taste level. To the idiot buying JABLUM aka Jamaican Blue Mountain. JABLUM is $9 a half pound and the JABLUM you get here is old, typically contains mold and or just plain stale tasting coffee, so again you dont get it. 5 years ago I was big SB customer, but they have cheapened their product so much and the baristas are so poorly trained that I can’t bring myself to go into their shops anymore. Wish all my family and friends would figure it out already and stop with the SB gift cards!