tim savas


January 2, 2023

I had an interaction with a barista at a café in Miami yesterday, as I write this, that was nothing short of a miracle.

The café in question was Pura Vida located in Miami’s Design District. It’s one of the top cafés that I’ve ever been to, and lest I get sidetracked from the main point of the story, I’ll just offer the strong recommendation to go if you ever get the chance, in particular to experience some of the best people watching available this side south of Manhattan.

I enter the café and take to the line. The first time I was there was the winter of 2021 when COVID was still in the foreground, and so I immediately become nostalgic for the fallen dream that I might never have to physically interact with another person again for the rest of my life.

The space has various plants—real ones—hanging from the ceiling and walls (the kind that get their water from the air instead of the soil, I forget the latin name). Numbered wooden blocks are perched on the round whicker tables to signal to the staff which party is where, really driving home the sense that you’ve now entered a well engineered social experience like, say, a wedding reception, or have at least exited Ordinary Life for the time being. No one seems to be in a rush.

Eventually it’s my turn to order and so I ask for a black coffee and garden salad with tuna. My body dysmorphia was hitting all-time highs in Miami, a place where the decision to wear articles of clothing elsewhere considered to be essential (shirts, shoes, underwear) is entirely up to you. The barista rang me up, as one does, and my pocketed hand clenched my phone like a rosary, bracing for the inevitable tipping procedure set to come. 

I’m speaking of course of the new tradition whereby the barista flips the tablet around and says, “It’s just going to ask you a few questions.” Cool, I’d love to ask your manager a few questions.

It's a cultural phenomenon brought on by iPad-based point-of-sale systems, and seemingly made permanent by the pandemic, when tipping became an unspoken opportunity for once-regular patrons to bare penance for their absence, on the occasions that they did brave to emerge.

Like clockwork the woman twirled the iPad around one-eighty. “Here it comes,” I thought, bracing for impact.

“Sir, we already consider a small service fee in our prices. So you really don’t need to enter anything here.” She said while making eye contact, as if resuscitating me from a dream.

I looked back at the woman—nay, angel—stunned. “Pardon me? It’s broken or something?”

“No, I’m just letting you know that you can ignore it. You don’t have to enter anything there.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t going to leave a tip anyway. You’d really need to have tiled the walls with fliers about an employee’s Lost Brother in Ukraine or something equally wrenching for me to consider giving up even the slightest ground to this hoax of a custom we’ve imposed upon ourselves. But that I was explicitly instructed not to do so by the would-be beneficiary herself—that the serviceperson and business have prioritized hospitality over an otherwise ruthless social norm that so deftly crept in and ratcheted itself into place—leveled my expectations of how great such an establishment could be and hereafter inscribed in stone the sliver of remaining allegiance that I could have to this one.

The sky split apart and a vertical tube of sunlight beamed onto the young Latin woman who just relieved me of my duties.

“Wow,” my inner voice spilled out. “Okay, cool.”

Not all heroes wear capes. I grabbed my cute numbered block and stumbled away to the dining area, not quite thinking fast enough to offer a sufficient thank you or bow, but at least certain I would be coming back again, and perhaps continuously, to have plenty more chances to do so. I sat down now awash in the Pura Vida Kool Aid and looked over the café with a now heightened awareness of the management’s attention to detail for the customer experience. At second glance the illusion that the battery powered miniature windmills in the vitrine were there for decoration broke and, though they do look compelling, it was obvious they were there for keeping flies off of the saucer-sized cookies with the modest air movement. 


The whole morning launched the Design District Pura Vida into the upper echelon of not just the café category for me, but retail spaces overall—oases where I can go to seek refuge from the chaos of the city and recharge my vibes in the presence of Nice Things, maybe use a restroom or WiFi. The Apple Store comes to mind, for instance, where 98% of the time that I go I don’t buy anything, and actually already own most of the stuff in the store to begin with, but like to drop by because the presence of milled aluminum does something to me.


And I can’t help but contrast the events at Pura Vida with the gauntlets I’ve been put through at cafés around the Northeast this year. One that comes to mind is Three Fins Coffee Roasters, the pop-up ring of hell serving cappuccinos on Route 28 in Cape Cod. I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve dropped the ball from a retail experience perspective  over at this place. 

Consider for instance that Three Fins’s big claim to fame is that they “roast our own beans.” And it's true, they have the big roasting machine with the hopper on display just beyond the counter, their best shot at a showpiece for the space, and you can watch a guy practically shoveling raw beans into it like he’s trying to keep a train running. So they’ve got fresh beans coming off of the line at the top of every hour. But here’s the problem: absolutely no one is buying them. You can see the dates stamped on the bags on the retail shelf. They’ve been trying to sell the same “fresh-roasted” beans since before the queen died. Apparently whoever devised the crack business plan for Three Fins forgot to consider that the last nontraditional caffeinated drink Cape Cod ever went for was the Coffee Coolata in 1997.

Anyway the tipping procedure at Three Fins is something of a case study. The first thing to know about it is that the barista who takes your order is the same one who fetches your coffee from the machine just behind him, at least if it’s a simple cup of drip like what I get. So you step up to the register and you tell him your order, nothing surprising.

“Would you like any room in that?”

“No, thank you.”

“Is that all?”


“That’ll be $3.09, please.”

You pay on the credit card machine. You hit OK, and the transaction goes through. 

Easy enough. But this is when darkness starts to fill the sky. With the purchase now seemingly complete, instead of adjourning from the register to get the coffee—which really would afford the customer just the right amount of time and space to fill out the obligatory on-screen tipping menu in private, à la the way a waiter drops the check off at a table—the barista instead, shoulders square to their feet, waits there and proctors you at the register. And yes all of the baristas at the place do it, so it’s clearly an official protocol either coming down from the top or one they’ve devised amongst themselves.

So, I don’t understand, are you doing this so you can factor the tip into how well you’re going to make my coffee? Because it’s supposed to be the other way around, bro. And what am I even tipping you for right now? Pushing some buttons? I’m pushing the buttons now, too. Do I get a tip?

But okay, you want to just stand in front of me and make this awkward? Cool. You’re looking at International Most Awkward Guy Alive 35 years running, bro. I’ll take you into deep water. Not only am I about to not enter a tip for you, I’ll convince you that I’m going to. I’ll mime elaborate hand motions on the iPad so you think I’m trying to figure out how to calculate 40% of $3.09. I’ll spin up all kinds of small talk, too. Ask you how your week’s going, what the latest is—really have you thinkin’ we’re pals, bud. Just to maximize the distance between your expectations and the impending reality that’s about to hit when you turn the screen around and see that I answered “No” to all of the “questions it asked me.” Looking for a tip, bro? Maybe drop the XBox controller this weekend and scope out plans for a data science certificate next year. You need to get out of here.

I need to go. There’s much more to be said about the subject but that’s all for now. Another thing to consider: couches in cafés. I believe they don’t belong. More to come on this as well soon.

775 670 3447 / tsavas[@]media.mit.edu