Why are cafes still charging extra for coffees made with non-dairy milk? (2023)

There are myriad reasons why an increasing number of us are opting for dairy alternatives in our coffee orders – and that comes with a hefty fee.

It’s such standard practice that most of us, in our daily caffeine-hungry haze, probably take it for granted. If you’re lactose intolerant, trying to avoid dairy for environmental reasons, vegan or just prefer the taste of, say, coconut milk, it’s likely you’re accustomed to paying a rather hefty additional fee for your coffee order. In fact, coffee lovers across the country who forgo dairy are likely to be handing over an additional 50c to a dollar to make the swap from cow’s milk to soy, almond, oat or coconut milk. So how fair are these additional charges?

There is, of course, a very simple financial reason behind why cafes so often charge more for alternative milks: non-dairy milks tend to be at least slightly more expensive than cow’s milk. But whether that warrants the steepness of the charges you’ll find listed on the menu at your local cafe is debatable.

While not a completely accurate reflection, as cafes are likely to buy in bulk, if you take prices of milk from the supermarket, a one litre bottle of Anchor blue top milk costs $3.09, whereas one litre of Boring Oat milk costs $5 – a $1.81 difference between the two. A litre of milk makes around six flat whites, which means that an additional 30c charge per coffee would likely be enough to cover the increased cost – significantly less than the 50c (often a full dollar) standard, not to mention that when you order a coffee with alternative milk, you’re paying on top of a price that presumably has the cost of dairy milk worked into it.

It’s admittedly a rare find, but not every cafe in the country charges this extra fee for alternative milks. Since opening in November last year, Brother Cafe in Hawke’s Bay has charged customers exactly the same no matter which milk they order from their varied lineup. Whether you go for almond, macadamia, oat, soy, coconut or cow’s milk, you won’t pay a cent more.

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Why are cafes still charging extra for coffees made with non-dairy milk? (1)

Brother Cafe owner Halle Evans explains that she incorporated the charges into her business planning from the beginning. “Alternative milk is far more expensive, don’t get me wrong,” Evans says. “But because I planned it this way from the start, I was able to sink that loss and cover it by mixing those costs into other products instead.”

Her reasoning is twofold: partially it came from a discomfort around charging those with allergies or intolerances more than those without, as well as a desire to make sustainable choices more accessible to her customers.

“I’m not intolerant to dairy, so it’s not something that really resonated with me in that sense,” she says. “I just thought, I don’t think it’s really fair to charge people if they do have an intolerance, it just didn’t sit right with me to do that.”

Beyond that sense of solidarity with lactose-intolerant flat white lovers, Evans likes the idea that by removing the barrier of cost, she might tempt those who ordinarily choose cow’s milk to consider other options that might be more sustainable.

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Evans estimates around 40% of Brother customers opt for alternative milks. “The number of alternative milk coffee sales we do, I could make a lot of money if I charged more,” she says. “It’s a constant debate between my accountant, my husband and me, but I’m just standing really, really firm that it’s not something I’m ever going to charge for, and I’ll never change.”

Why are cafes still charging extra for coffees made with non-dairy milk? (2)

Lactose intolerance affects more of us than you might think. Primary lactase deficiency, which is the main cause of lactose intolerance, is thought to affect around 8% of New Zealanders, and with substantially higher rates among people of colour, including Māori, Pasifika and southeast Asian peoples – arguments have been made overseas that alternative milk surcharges are inequitable because of this ethnic disparity when it comes to lactose intolerance.

While alternative oat milks might often cost more to buy in pure monetary terms, there’s a more philosophical question around whether the social and environmental “cost” of dairy compared to alternative milks could or should be considered within that equation of how much customers are charged for their coffees.

Overseas studies have found that the carbon footprint of cow’s milk is around three times that of plant-based milks. But that’s not to say plant-based milks are without their own pitfalls. While evidence has shown plant-based milks produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than cow’s milk,​​ the environmental footprints vary wildly between these cow’s milk alternatives. For example, the growing demand for soy, which is mainly used for animal feed rather than milk, is driving deforestation in the Amazon. And then there’s almond milk, which uses more water than soy or oat milk, with a single glass requiring 74 litres of water.

Morgan Maw, who founded Boring Oat Milk, says there’s space to think more holistically about the price we pay for alternative milk in our coffees. “When it comes to food, the true cost, and those hidden costs which include greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, cost to human health and animal welfare, that stuff is never taken into account in terms of what’s represented in the retail price that you see on the shelf,” she says. “I would love it to, but in a capitalist world that’s just not how it’s done.”

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Local research commissioned by Boring Oat Milk and The Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust and released earlier this year found that oat farming releases just 7% of the greenhouse gases emitted by dairy farming per litre of milk, and that land use for farming oats is more efficient, with oats using 70% less land than dairy to produce a litre.

Why are cafes still charging extra for coffees made with non-dairy milk? (3)

Bottles of Boring’s oat milk sit at the higher end of the price pecking order among both dairy and alternative milks, something Maw puts down largely to economies of scale. “In terms of the actual cost of the product itself, and the cost of it to cafes, a lot of it is down to the fact that dairy has been around for decades and has so much more technology and just the pure scale that’s in it,” she says.

And while other oat milks might sometimes cost less than a dollar more than dairy options, and therefore be more accessible, Maw explains that there’s a fine line between making the product cheaper and forgoing on other values, pointing to Boring’s use of more expensive New Zealand oats rather than oats imported from Australia, the company’s use of pricier PET packaging over cheaper but less sustainable Tetrapack, along with the relatively small size of the operation.

Beyond simply relying on cafe owners removing fees, it’s at a structural level that Maw believes real change needs to occur in order to see prices eventually come down.

“In an ideal world, before it even gets to the cafe, all foods would have a system where it does take into account that true cost to human health, animal health and environment,” Maw says. She thinks of it in terms of excise taxes on alcohol, or the way sugar taxes have been introduced overseas.

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“It will be interesting to see in the next 10 years, as plant-based milks become more developed and mature, what that does in terms of the price,” she adds. “So much change comes from consumers themselves – the more they buy of a certain product like plant-based milk, the more you’re able to make, and then you get those economies of scale, and efficiencies that allow it to come down in price.”

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    Some cafes that currently charge more for alternative milks are beginning to reflect on whether change is due. Tom Worthington is the owner-operator of two cafes in central Christchurch. At both spots, Tom’s and Estelle, customers can switch their coffee order from the standard dairy milk to either oat or soy for an extra 80c. Those 80 cents have been weighing on Worthington’s mind lately though – especially since he reckons around half his customers order their coffee with alternative milks.

    “It is hard out here,” Worthington says of the hospitality industry, “and I will always be OK with someone’s decision to be charging extra for something that does cost more.” But looking forward, Worthington can imagine our coffee culture shifting to a place where a more holistic and complex equation for milk costs is normalised and where being charged extra for alternative milk might become a thing of the past.

    “Perhaps us cafe owners are a bit stuck in the habit of charging extra,” he says. “It could be time to have a good think about why we are.”

    (Video) Angry Customer Throws Soup in Restaurant Manager’s Face


    Why are cafes still charging extra for coffees made with non-dairy milk? ›

    There is, of course, a very simple financial reason behind why cafes so often charge more for alternative milks: non-dairy milks tend to be at least slightly more expensive than cow's milk. But whether that warrants the steepness of the charges you'll find listed on the menu at your local cafe is debatable.

    Why do cafes charge extra for oat milk? ›

    Many nondairy milks cost more than dairy milks, in part because the U.S. government subsidizes the dairy industry. Bay Area-based chain Peet's Coffee said in a statement, “Alternative milk products continue to cost more than dairy milk; for this reason, alt-milk customization is $0.80 per beverage.”

    Does Starbucks charge extra for milk alternatives? ›

    The chain committed to no longer charge extra for all five of its plant-based milk options, including oat, almond, coconut, soy, and Starbucks Original Nut Blend. The latter is a vegan milk option Starbucks developed over the course of 15 months from a blend of light rice milk, hazelnuts, and cashews.

    Why is non-dairy milk more expensive? ›

    Plant-based milk tends to be more expensive than animal milk because of the research and development required within the plant-based milk industry, the processes to manufacture the milk, the packaging, and the fact that animal milk is usually subsidized by governments.

    Why is oat milk so expensive right now? ›

    Oat milk is only getting more expensive and harder to get a hold of, says Ballinger. That's due to increased demand over the years, inflation, rising energy and production costs, and the war in Ukraine, which has choked the supply and driven up the price of various grains.

    Why is oat milk suddenly popular? ›

    “Many consumers prefer oat milk because of its neutral taste and similar mouthfeel to cow's milk,” she says. “This familiar texture makes it popular among those who want to make a switch to plant-based milks.”

    How much extra does almond milk cost at Starbucks? ›

    If you are vegan, lactose intolerant, or simply don't consume dairy, chances are your coffee run comes with an additional fee. Starbucks charges its US customers roughly 70¢ extra for oat, soy, almond, and coconut milk, and such additional costs are common at other cafes across the country.

    Does Starbucks still charge for non-dairy milk? ›

    The chain currently charges 70 cents per drink to substitute cow's milk with vegan options like oat and soy. That policy, PETA argues, is bad for cows and potentially for business. The group has been advocating for the change since 2019, the same year it became Starbucks shareholder.

    Does Starbucks still charge for almond milk? ›

    Most Starbucks locations charge 70 cents for soy, oat, almond, coconut, or almond milk; however, the upcharge can soar up to 80 cents in certain key areas such as New York City.

    Does oat milk cost extra at Dunkin? ›

    Does Dunkin' Charge Extra for Oat Milk? Yes. Dunkin' has a 50 cent upcharge if you'd like to add Oat Milk to your morning coffee.

    How much extra is oat milk Starbucks? ›

    Most Starbucks locations charge 70 cents for soy, oat, almond, coconut, or almond milk; however, the upcharge can soar up to 80 cents in certain key areas such as New York City.

    What's the big deal with oat milk? ›

    Oat milk has less sugar than cow's milk (12.5 grams per cup), but more than unsweetened nut milks such as unsweetened almond milk or cashew milk, which only have 1–2 grams of sugar per cup. Plus, oat milk is the clear winner when it comes to fiber.

    What oat milk do cafes use? ›

    The Alternative Dairy Co. Barista Oat Milk provides a great alternative to dairy milk, and is perfect for creating deliciously creamy coffee and hot drinks. Specially blended for cafes and baristas, it's made for easy pouring and creates a silky foam with ease.


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