How to Handle a Coffee Interview

Meeting in cafe
••• Images By Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

An informal meeting over a cup of coffee has replaced first-round interviews for some employers, especially those who are recruiting prospects for employment opportunities rather than interviewing for a specific position. 

When it comes to this kind of interview, you may have a lot of questions. For example, what's the best way to prepare for a coffee interview? What should you wear, and do you need to bring anything along? You may also be wondering who'll pay for the coffee and what your next steps are if the meeting goes well. 

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, coffee interviews—like other interviews and meetings—are often moving to a virtual environment. But the same guidelines for how to ace the experience apply whether you're meeting in person, over the phone, or on a video chat.

Here's the scoop on informal interviews held at a coffee shop, restaurant, or online.

Why Do Companies Hold Interviews Over Coffee? 

Hiring managers and potential employers often begin with this less formal approach in the early stages of the interviewing process. The meeting is set up more like an informational conversation so that both the employer and applicant can get acquainted without the constraints of a formal interview:

  • For the recruiter, it's a way to meet a potential employee on a more casual basis to determine if there could be a role for the person at the company.
  • For the candidate, it's a way to learn more about a company without having to participate in a formal interview, at least at the start. 

Sometimes, employers opt for this type of interview when there isn't a job description in place yet. Interviews may help influence the role's structure or help the company determine if the role is necessary. 

Some companies may have a more informal culture—an interview over coffee may make more sense for these organizations than an interview that takes place in a conference room. In some cases, companies may not even have a conference room—or even an office space—to hold the interview. 

Tips for Handling a Coffee Interview

Even though it's "only" a cup of coffee, it could be a stepping stone to a new job, so it's important to take the time to prepare. At the very least, it's an opportunity to meet someone in your industry, which is always helpful from a networking perspective. 

Here's what to keep in mind as you prepare for a coffee interview so you can be assured of getting the most out of the experience. 

Do Some Research Before Your Meeting

It is important to prepare for your coffee meeting, just like you would for an interview in a more formal setting. Researching the company and its mission, services, and recent achievements will prepare you to engage fully in a dialogue.

Before the meet-up, look up the person on LinkedIn. This will enable you to have a visual in mind. 

You should be ready to talk about yourself, what you’re looking for in your career, and how you could add value to the company. This is your time to make a great first impression, so be ready to explain how you can help the company.

What to Do Before You Interview

Confirm the exact location, including the cross streets or corner. There's a Starbucks on nearly every street in New York City, and the same holds true for many other national and international chains. 

For example, confirm that you're meeting at the XYZ diner on the South East corner of Main Street and 10th Avenue. You'll also want to confirm if you should meet inside the location or outside the coffee shop's front door. 

Be sure to ask how you will recognize the person you're meeting with and let them know what you look like or what you'll be wearing.

Make sure you get the interviewer's cell phone number so you can call or text them in case you're delayed. 

If this meeting is happening over the phone or on a video chat, make sure the logistics are clear. Will you be calling the interviewer, or will the interviewer call you? Do you have the meeting software downloaded? Make sure you're clear on the answers to these questions the day before the coffee interview, so you're not scrambling five minutes beforehand. 

What to Wear

Because of the nature of the meeting, it’s not necessary to dress in formal business attire. Typically, business casual wear is appropriate, so consider the meeting place before you purchase a new suit.

Still, you don’t want to be sloppy—your clothes should be neat, ironed, and clean.

If your meeting is occurring over video chat, take a look at your background. While this is a casual get-together, it's helpful if your background is neat and professional. Ideally, you'll also find a way to complete the interview from a quiet location. 

What to Bring

It’s always advantageous to have several copies of your resume and a business card if you have one. Also, bring a list of references. You will likely want to take notes, so it never hurts to bring a pen and a pad of paper to write on. 

Having a virtual meeting or phone call? You may still find it handy to have a copy of your resume available to consult, and pen and paper for taking notes. 

Ordering Your Coffee

If you get there ahead of the recruiter, you can either wait for them to order or go ahead and grab a drink yourself. However, the recruiter will typically pick up the tab. When you’re taken out by a recruiter for a coffee interview, there’s no need to worry about paying.

It’s better not to order food during this kind of meeting. While the interview itself is more casual, you will be conversing back and forth with the hiring manager, and food will just be a distraction. The less there is to spill, the better. Plus, if you don't order food, you won't have to be concerned about accidentally speaking with your mouth full! 

Focus on the Interview and Interviewer

It may be noisy in a public place due to distractions such as loud customers, background music, and waitstaff coming and going. Try to focus on the interviewer as best you can:

  • Keep the interview focused by staying on topic.
  • Even if you order a light snack to go with your coffee or tea, don't think about the food.
  • Think about what you need to say to make a good impression.

A ringing cell phone or pinging text message will distract you as well as the interviewer, so be sure to put your cell phone on mute or vibrate and tuck it away in your purse, bag, or pocket before you sit down to the interview. That's true for virtual interviews, too. 

Have Questions Ready to Ask

Less formal interviews and coffee meetings allow the candidate the opportunity to ask many questions about potential job openings, information about the company, and even career advice.

Learning about the types of positions and the company’s employees will give you an advantage in understanding how you can be a unique asset to their work. It will also give you a better picture of whether or not you would be happy working at that organization.

The Next Step

At the end of the meeting, exchanging contact information is a great way to expand your network and to reach out to thank the recruiter for taking the time to speak with you. This will keep you fresh in the interviewer’s mind.

You can also reiterate your interest in moving forward in the hiring process.

Even if you’re not interested in this specific position or company, it’s a good idea to send a quick thank you email or note and to connect on social media outlets such as LinkedIn. While you may not be interested in the company, having a new connection can lead you to other opportunities that may be exactly what you are looking for.

Key Takeaways

PREPARE BEFOREHAND: While this is an informal interview, you'll still want to be prepared to discuss your work history and skills, and demonstrate knowledge of the person you're meeting with and the company the individual works for. 

DON'T NEGLECT PRACTICAL MATTERS: There is a certain etiquette to coffee interviews, so make sure you're dressed appropriately, have your phone on silent, and allow the interviewer to pick up the tab. 

FOLLOW UP AFTERWARD: Whether or not you're interested in the position or company, you'll still want to follow up to say thank you for the coffee. That's just polite! If you're interested in the position, mention it in your note, but otherwise, think of this as an opportunity to grow your network.