Sunday, October 26, 2008

$4 latte, $3 tip?

'If you've ever worked in food service, you'll be a good tipper for life.'

The above is one of the most-repeated mantras of our society. It's a bit baffling--all teachers are former students, yet we do not expect any particular kindness from them on that basis. Other, often-crummy, jobs one has when young are not expected to elicit any particular behavior later on in life. It's only food service where there's any expectation that past experience in the field, however long ago and however brief, produces a lifelong generosity.

This is the lead-up to my question: what, if anything, is one expected to tip in coffee bars, that is, in places where workers are paid at least minimum wage? This is not an issue in restaurants, where it's well-known* that in most cases workers get well below minimum wage, with an assumption that income will come from the customers' self-determined additions to the bill, and where, if you don't tip reasonably, you are indeed a Bad Person.

But in coffee shops with tip-cups, what's the rule? Clearly, if you ask someone who works in one, they'll tell you you're an ass if you don't throw in an extra dollar for each cup of tea. When I worked in such an establishment, I of course appreciated Park Slopers' immense liberal guilt, paying $4 for a latte and adding another $3 for good measure. But a part of me understood the customers who did not do this. After all, I'd worked other jobs at similar pay rates that did not include tips (ahem, book-shelving), so it seemed arbitrary that only one such job would require sympathy-payments, even from those needing a pick-me-up on their way to or from some just-as-low-paid work.

The above-and-beyond tip is, ultimately, about intentional redistribution of wealth, about the lawyer feeling bad for the 19-year-old who can barely make rent. For those who a) are so inclined, and b) have wealth to redistribute, handing a dollar to each panhandler holding open the door of the bank, and per drink to each barista, plus whatever the 'a minute for Greenpeace?' folks are asking, is just fine. But for those without the inclination, the spare income, or either, a choice must be made. That other mantra, 'If you can afford X, you can afford X plus $1' is simply false. Paying up each time someone urges you to do so could, depending on your income, put you solidly in debt. Being poorly-paid yourself is no excuse for not tipping in a restaurant, but in a coffee bar...

Coffee-bar tipping is, again, a different universe from restaurant-tipping. The coffee-bar customer feels guiltier than the restaurant patron, and often tips a much greater percentage of the cost of the item purchased. Why is this the case? For one, the frivolity inherent in saying, 'I'll have a skim cappuccino,' makes the customer self-conscious, ergo, tip. Ordering anything but black coffee is, let's face it, embarrassing. 'I'll have the pizza margherita' doesn't seem to have the same effect. You need to eat, and are more likely to resent a $17 personal pie (ahem) than a $3 latte.

The culture of the independent coffee shop is unlike that of other parts of the food-service industry. Whereas the waiter's dislike of the customer is tacitly understood, while he pretends to have kind feelings for each table, in coffee bars whatever resentment there is is played up. Baristas are thus expected to dress in hipster-or-homeless rags, and if they don't openly speak ill of the customers, the patron is meant to feel guilty for ordering that decaf latte with soy, for making the barista go out of his way, even though the coffee bar itself urges customers to specify the level of caffeine and type of milk. Again, even though the barista arguably has an easier job than the waiter and almost definitely gets paid around twice the waiter's hourly rate.**

* The problem of the tip is, of course, that the customer cannot always know what the employee earns per hour. In restaurants it's common knowledge that the employees depend on tips; in coffee bars, it's common knowledge that, technically, they don't. But in hotels (thus the Seinfeld "what do you tip a chambermaid" dilemma)? At salons (where I tend to overtip, I've been told)? Furniture movers? If you're super-wealthy, by all means everyone gets at least 20%, but if you're not, you must make a choice, tipping more to those who otherwise get paid less.

** Another consideration: independent coffee-bar employees tend to seem like they come from the same racial and social groups as their patrons. The customer thus may see the barista as a man like himself, albeit with a 'fight the system' attitude, and perhaps an artistic bent. The Saigon Grill deliveryman will not elicit this same thought process.


Jesse A. said...

It's interesting that you frame your question in terms of the salary of the employee. I'm not sure it follows that if they're paid a lower wage in the expectation that they'll be tipped, that we as patrons necessarily owe them a tip. (Remember the first scene of Reservoir Dogs? That's the whole fight in the diner, is the tip owed, or is it extra for good service?)

I'd be kind of curious to see an economic analysis of the kind of service industry jobs that are legally allowed to be paid below minimum wage because of tips. Presumably, the restaurant could increase prices by 15%, increase salaries by a corresponding amount, and let patrons know that they don't have to tip, and it would work out more or less the same. The fact that they don't means that it's more profitable for them not to. Thinking off the cuff, this means that either plenty of people don't tip, and, as such, also wouldn't be willing to pay the increased price, or that the cultural norm of tipping is strong enough that it feels significantly different than the price of the meal. A customer might be willing to spend 11.50 for a burger, beer and tip, but when the actual price tag is 11.50 instead of 10 bucks, he'd balk.

None of this addresses your question about coffee bars, of course. In the two years I worked in Starbucks as a high school kid, we tended to earn about a dollar an hour extra in tips, on top of a pretty decent hourly wage. Most people didn't tip at all and the people who did tipped pretty generously. As you say, close to a dollar per drink. I was pretty happy with that.

In terms of what should be tipped, I think, if you're going to think about the tip as a form of redistributive justice then there's a strong argument to be made against tipping in coffee bars at all, if you know that the baristas are making decent money. But I'm not sure that's right. I mean, its a pretty inefficient way to get the job done. That being said, I'm not sure what tipping is about really. I usually dump my change in, because I like to get smiled at, and I remember that tips were my beer money, back in the day. It's not like that's any more rational than selective redistribution though. In many of these cases, I don't think there is a rational argument to be made for tipping. It's a long standing cultural practice in America, and a nice one that means something to some people (especially people getting tipped), but if that sort of thing doesn't mean much to you, and you don't mind being glared at by waitstaff, so what?

Paul Gowder said...

I have worried about this quite a lot, because I am completely addicted to my lattes, and to particular coffee shops, where I tend to be a super-regular. Which means both that I can't really afford to tip every time (an extra dollar or two every day adds up like woah).

Setting aside the overdetermined tipping (like "oh, she's cute, I'd better tip her in case I find a chance to get her number later," which, I confess, I used to think -- not anymore! -- in my younger and richer days), my policy is basically to tip occasionally, and to frequent coffeeshops that pay their employees well. (Some places advertise this, wisely.) Occasional tipping seems to quash the guilt, as well as cause enough positive emotions in the baristas that no poison has yet been slipped into my lattes.

And of course, I always tip when I get some special favor, etc.

Paul Gowder said...

(hmm... what was the second bit of the "both" I was thinking of in that first paragraph? dunno. brain no work before noon.)

Glenn said...

here's the rule--

just because somebody asks you for something, doesn't mean you have to pay.

Demanding payment for service at a cafeteria setting is a new phenomenon in america. I for one refuse to pay. Why should I? Just because you beg for it?

Phoebe said...

I'd expected comments along the lines of, 'How dare you not tip in coffee places,' so thanks for the interesting and not-condemnatory responses! (As it happens, I do tip for coffee drinks... but only when I get espresso-and-foam drinks, about which I feel especially guilty; this is maybe 2% of my outside-purchased-coffee consumption, given the cost and time involved, so mostly it's no tips except in restaurants, bars, salons, and my biennial taxi ride.)

The problem of the tip really is that it's putting economic justice into the hands (literally) of those who do not know who needs how much money to live a life better than the sort Barbara Ehrenreich describes in "Nickel and Dimed." The customer can't be expected to know how much he must tip to provide a living wage to the person handing him a latte, or whether the issue is even 'living wage' or aesthetics (tipping makes me look generous and wealthy) or a reward for good service (what tipping was supposed to be, but rarely is).

As far as I know, only restaurants pay below minimum wage with the assumption of tips, but a job that pays minimum wage plus tips brings up the question of need all the same. You may still find yourself tipping not for good service, for showiness, or for any reason other than concern that the employees can't afford rent. But again, since the customer is unlikely to know who gets paid what where, this is a matter that should be settled by the employer, when setting prices and wages, and not by the clueless coffee addict.

Paul Gowder said...

Yeah, what you said. I think employers also have a responsibility to advertise if they pay their baristas well. This seems like a good strategy for the business, to capture people who care about not contributing to workers getting screwed/suffering, without putting the onus on tipping.

Petey said...

Tipping for walk-up service is simply non-mandatory. Such are the commonly accepted manners in our locale. Contrast and compare with mandatory tipping situations like table service, haircuts, delivery, cabs, etc.

Walk-up coffee is no different than walk-up pizza slices. If you want to tip, then tip. If you don't want to tip, no harm, no foul.

And given that coffee bar tipping is fully optional, any rationale is correct. You can tip every time. You can tip none of the times. You can tip only when your beverage requires effort to prepare. You can tip only when you are with friends who will observe the act. You can tip only if you find your coffee-slave sexually appetizing.

(And the last rationale actually performs a valuable public service by drawing more sexually appetizing folks into the barista business and thus making a more pleasant day for everyone who buys coffee.)

Personally, my rationale is to tip only at coffee bars I like.

For example, there are three coffee bars I most frequent. One is an indie shop I really dig, one is an indie shop I'm lukewarm about, and one is a Starbucks. I tip heavily at the indie shop I like and don't tip at the other two.

Why? I'm not even sure of my own motivations here. Perhaps I want to encourage quality. Perhaps I want to be liked at the place I most like. Or perhaps I just enjoy the sensation of voting.

Jamie Christen said...

People put a tip jar on the counter for the same reason that people beg in the street--because someone will give you something for doing nothing extra on your part.

How much someone is paid has nothing to do with the custom of tipping.