Viral Video Sparks Debate Over Drive-Thru 'Pay It Forward' Trend

A viral video by a Starbucks customer sparked online discussion about the increasingly popular trend of "paying it forward" at drive-thru restaurants.

TikTok user Cody Katrina racked up 2 million views after posting a clip about her experience of being part of a Starbucks "pay it forward" chain.

"My order was $10 and because you had to go and order for the person behind you, my anxiety ridden butt couldn't be like 'oh okay, thanks bye,' I had to pay for the person behind me. $30!" she said in the video, in a tone that she later admitted was exaggerated for humor.

"People did not pick up on this and chose a hypocritical approach where they bullied me directly for indirectly bullying a person in response to a kind gesture," Katrina told Newsweek, referencing the backlash to her "dramatized for entertainment" stance on paying it forward.

"Pay it forward is a scam," she added at the end of the video.

Although she explained that the way she told her views was for entertainment, her views were serious. "For me, if this bill had been $100, I still would have felt obligated to pay it. It was a very kind gesture on the part of the person that paid for my drink, and if I saw them I would thank them," said Katrina.

"I just wanted to open a discussion on the discomfort that comes along with the tradition of pay it forward."

Pay it forward has become a regular occurrence at fast food chains, especially in recent years, with customers paying for the order of the person behind them. Often it will start a continuous chain, with each person carrying on the good will to the car behind them.

In 2020, a Dairy Queen managed to continue a chain for over 900 cars, lasting over two and a half days, and according to CNN, earned $10,000 in sales.

When the store closed for the night, a car left $10 to begin the chain again the next morning, and again the next day.

Similarly, 2014 saw Starbucks host a chain that accumulated almost 400 cars, and made national news. The chain lasted a whole day.

However, the trend isn't without controversy. When a woman, customer 379, in a white Jeep Commander ended the 2014 Starbucks chain, she was met with mass criticism and one headline even referred to her as a "cheap b***ard."

Like with Katrina's video, debate opened up on whether or not a customer should pay it forward, and how they should be perceived if they choose not to

In response, Fast Company compared the chain to an escrow account, writing: "When Customer Zero started the chain and put down the original money, that person functionally set up the world's smallest escrow account inside that Starbucks. The money then sat there unclaimed, as each successive customer opted instead to pay for their own drink."

Paying a Bigger Bill

For most, the difficult issue lies with having to pay more than you otherwise would have done, like in the case of Katrina.

"Happened to me last week. Mine was $8 and the car behind me was $27. Chain broke with me," commented one TikTok user.

"Can we normalize saying thanks and going away," added another.

Some people felt the chain was a good gesture, and that if customers don't want to pay then they can simply say no. "If you have $30 to spend, do it! If not, just say no. Don't say being nice is a scam."

In response to comments suggesting that she should have just said no, Katrina explained that her anxiety played a part in this. "Everybody's anxiety is not the same," she said.

Some users suggested ways to get around paying it forward when you're unable to, or don't want to, without completely saying no. "I've always said just pay what your order was. If it was only five and the one behind you is 20, that's five bucks they're saving. Still a nice surprise," recommended one user.

What do the workers who have to connect the chain think of it? "Don't continue the chain please! I work at Wendy's and I hate it," wrote one TikTok user.

In MyRecipes' investigation into pay it forward chains, a major coffee chain manager said it makes things more difficult: "Most of the time you are alone on [drive-thru], taking the order and inputting the order while simultaneously greeting the car at the window, accepting their payment, giving change, and handing out drinks. It's a lot in general. Throwing a pay it forward in the mix [means] none of your screens are showing you the right orders and you have to remember who got what and who paid for what."

Newsweek contacted Starbucks for comment.

Car in Starbucks drive-thru
Starbucks worker Freddie Arteaga assists a customer with her drinks order at a Starbucks drive-thru on December 28, 2005, in Wheeling, Illinois.

Update 07/16/21, 10:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments from Cody Katrina.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts