Monday, April 11, 2005


Tipping for coffee

Earlier this afternoon, I took advantage of the beautiful spring weather to walk across the street for a cup of coffee. A new coffee shop recently opened here with an interesting backstory. It's a project of Next Shift Enterprises, a business group that helps minor league hockey players transition from the sport into the business world. It's a good coffee shop, made better by the fact that it is within walking distance.

While ordering my drip coffee, I had my usual awkward moment where I try to decide how much to put in the tip jar. I'm wondering whether my readers tip for coffee. On the one hand, it seems like a nice thing to do. On the other hand, if you get back a few coins of change like I did today, it almost seems insulting to drop such a paltry sum into the can. I discovered a lengthy and often hysterical (in the non-funny sense of the word) comment thread on this subject at the Starbucks Gossip blog, on which the consensus seems to be that baristas are just doing their job and thus don't deserve one more red cent of the customer's hard-earned cash. The militant stinginess in many of these comments kind of misses the point of tipping, I think: it is a gratuity after all, which means it is a gift in the purest sense of the word. Unless you are dining out at a place where tips are factored into wages, a tip is not compensation.

So I'm happy to give a little for my ambrosial brew, but I'm always unprepared when the moment comes. What I drop in the tip jar ends up being a few coins of change or nothing at all. Does anyone have some rough and ready etiquette to guide tipping for coffee?

P.S. Paul Musgrave has a congruent post about cultural variations in tipping practices. I'll limit my question here to tipping for coffee in the United States.

P.P.S. Evan Roberts at Coffee Grounds offers his take and very ably summarizes the Starbucks anti-tipping thread I linked above. I think we can all agree that Evan is the expert here, given the name of his blog. Also, he knows how to serve coffee.

Collective Improvisation:
I use the following guidelines whenever I'm getting a drink/snack for myself; different rules apply when I'm getting a tray full of drinks for others. At Starbucks or Peet's (e.g. chain-ish places), I tip whatever change there is, up to $0.50. At indie coffeeshops/the coffeehuts on campus, I always tip the change up to a buck.  

Posted by JM

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/11/2005 05:13:00 PM : Permalink  

My attitude toward tipping is dependent on several factors: Sterility of ambience; legal protection for the waitstaff; prevailing local wages; and the marginal inconvenience of coinage. Unlike in a restaurant or even a taxi cab, where there is a possibility that the server or driver can provide a superior experience, a barista has a limited ability to vary from a tight script, and so there is no particular service-based reason to offer a tip. Nor are there any cultural barriers or traditions here (Ireland, not generally a tipping place, has tip cups at coffeeshops too). Therefore, I use my alternative calculus. Generally, I offer more tips at non-chain places (unless it's a chain place with low staff turnover I visit frequently),in countries where waitstaff don't receive minimum wage (or, actually, where the minimum wage is abysmal), and when I'm sick of lugging dimes and nickels around (seriously).

This had the interesting effect, by the way, of vetoing any potential tips at Starbucks in China, which were chain places that paid high wages and where most change came in bills.... 

Posted by Paul

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/11/2005 06:36:00 PM : Permalink  

I tend to get food as well as coffee when I'm in coffee places, so I usually tip, since they bring the food out to me (I realize that's not a huge deal, but hey, better them than me, so I'll tip). I tend to give them change if it's ca. 75 cents or so, or throw in a buck - but if I have neither change nor buck I will stiff them without too much guilt. I tend to actaccording to the rule of self-interest, and tip generously, for two reasons (one practical and one sort of existential): the existential reason is that I don't particularly want to wait on people in a coffeeshop myself, so the tip is a way of marking my distance from the barista. The practical reason is that I tend to go back to the same places and I figure if I toss in nice tips they'll be nice to me and prepare my stuff with maybe a little extra care (and add nothing unwanted to it...! That sounds a little paranoid, but hey, I want to be able to trust the folks preparing my food/drink...) 

Posted by New Kid on the Hallway

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/11/2005 06:52:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the, uh, tips.

Everyone seems to agree that whether and how much to tip relies a great deal on the relationship to the place. That fits my experiences and intuitions too. I want to support this place across the street, and since I'm already there a lot, it makes everyone a little happier if I toss a tip in the jar. (They bring your food out to you as well, New Kid, which I think deserves a tip in virtually every case.)

I guess I also tend to just tip the change at coffee places, so mainly you are all just putting my conscience at ease. I also like the idea of rough ceilings for change: "up to" or "circa" a certain amount. Like Paul, my ceiling hardly ever reaches into paper bills, unless the barista really wows me by, say, not charging me for my drink.

One of the things I still wonder about: the tipping is supposed to make the barista happy, but is there a certain low-ball amount that just makes them bitter? If I drop two pennies in (that was my change for the coffee this afternoon!), I'm I actually getting a negative return on my tip because I look like such an utter scrooge? Would it be better in such cases not to tip at all? Is there a "floor" as well as a "ceiling"?

All of this is so much easier when dining out, when all I have to do is calculate a percentage, and where there is a clear obligation to pay a service charge. The empty jar, on the other hand, has always thrown me for a loop. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/11/2005 09:32:00 PM : Permalink  

I think the fact that one must question whether or not to tip at a coffee shop (this seems to be a pretty common dilemma) makes any tip an appreciated tip. Granted, if I'm a barista and someone throws in two penny's, I'll probably call him an asshole to myself, but any silver seems safe. I question how tipping at coffee shops differs from tipping at a bar. You are buying a drink in both cases. The theme for bars seems to be overtipping, while at coffee shops you're not even sure if you should tip. Perhaps your tip should depend on the type of drink you get. It's just about as easy to pour a coffee as it is to pull a beer, but what about cafe mochas and lattes and various mixed drinks. The bar(rista) tender does more work in these cases. Personally, I've always been about overtipping, whatever the case. It makes you feel better, and it makes the server feel valued. 

Posted by chiefjason

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/13/2005 08:37:00 AM : Permalink  

Admirable sentiments.

Unfortunately, mired in poverty (and hurt by exchange rates) as I am, I continue to look for ways to stretch my budget, and tipping people making EUR9/hr just doesn't feel right, somehow.... 

Posted by Paul

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/13/2005 08:04:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the additional comments, chiefjason and Paul. If you're interested, discussion continues over at Locus Solus . 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/15/2005 04:02:00 PM : Permalink  

I used to work in an indy-university cafe and our consensus was, any tip is better than no tip.

You worry they might be offended by a few cents? I thought anyone who couldn't be moved to even drop in their change was a total scrooge. Who knows, maybe times have changed and baristas are more professional, or small change is worth less.


On the upside of tipping, we would definitely notice the regulars who consistently tipped $1 or more; the favorites gave $1 plus their change. Most of them saw us every day were friendly acquaintances. It was nice, and we did make better drinks for them, no doubt about it...the ones who always ordered the same drinks had them ready to go before they were even done paying.

Tipping isn't mandatory though, but it does buy you a service.

One old-rich-Italian guy always conspicuously left $5 -- and he drank the best cappuccinos made in the cafe, and maybe even the best cappuccinos in the city (seriously). I usually made his foam from a new container of milk with special care: his foam was fresh, creamy, hot, and delicious. (With even a little design on top from those of us who could).

It's up to you if you want the little bonus that come along with tipping (not the least of which is how good it makes you feel from helping another person). We never made bad drinks for anyone or thought too poorly on them just because they didn't tip -- especially if we could tell they didn't have a lot of extra cash (times are tough for everyone!). Though I will confess we sometimes used whole milk for non-fat drinkers who were obviously underweight, and sometimes obese people who didn't need the extra calories. Is that wrong?

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/07/2009 12:33:00 AM : Permalink  

Sorry, I meant non-fat milk to people who didn't need the calories of whole milk. And this was done very rarely, but I know I wasn't the only one.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/07/2009 12:36:00 AM : Permalink  

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Posted by Blogger Chris Morris on 10/02/2015 05:58:00 AM : Permalink  

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