A discussion on why tipping needs to be an ongoing conversation topic amongst leaders and managers
By Ashley Rodriguez
8 . 3. 2016
For all the years I’ve worked in service, I have never gotten comfortable with tipping. Every single day, no matter how hard I try to put tipping out of my mind, I always look for and notice when someone does or doesn’t tip. I always remember the people who never tip. I always remember the people who tip generously, and perhaps tip more than I would have if the situation were reversed. And sometimes I like to tell myself that in the end it balances out. All the bad tippers get washed away by the good ones, and I should feel ok about that, right?
However, good feelings about some customers don’t cancel out the bad, and the culture around tipping in coffee is incredibly emotional and taxing on baristas (and I would guess the same for most service professionals). Don’t you get jealous when you see a bartender completely snub a shitty customer who stiffs them on their tip, wishing you could do the same to a probably not inconsequential number of your regulars? Doesn’t it incense you when you’re out to dinner with friends and somehow, you — the barista, who makes the least amount of money out of anyone at the table — are putting down the most money for the tip? I certainly breathed a sigh of relief when my mother told me she tips everyone well, no matter how bad or good the service is. “You don’t know what their life is like,” she said, and I gleamed with pride.
Tfw you leave a tip but the barista doesn’t see it so you go back and try to tip again, but they think you’re stealing, like George Costanza on Seinfeld
Right now, the rhetoric around tipping in the coffee industry is that it’s wrong to assume you should be tipped, and that great service should be given no matter what the customer does or doesn’t give. Tips are a sign of gratitude, not an expectation, and there’s no room in our current discourse for baristas to complain about tips (there’s definitely a larger discussion on how businesses should handle tipping, if they want to include it as an option at all). To an extent that’s fair, and I do think there’s a certain amount of empowerment that statement yields to baristas. To take ownership of a space and have pride in your work might convince someone who might not have tipped to throw a dollar or two in the jar. But that ignores the dozens, hundreds of customers that we serve who no matter what tactics we employ will not tip. It also ignores the necessity of tipping to the livelihood of most baristas.
This is why business owners and managers need to talk about tips. For all the different jobs I’ve had, I’ve been routinely promised far more in tips than what I would actually get at the end of the day. Every single coffeeshop has the 5–10 customers who either know the owners or are related to them are lifetime regulars who, despite the fact that we aren’t supposed to charge them, will not tip. Many baristas have reported unclear or unfair tipping practices that compromise the amount of money they were meant to receive. And this is just a small list of the ways in which tipping, and the practices surrounding the expectations, collection, and distribution of tips, affect baristas everyday. This is why a conversation about tipping needs to happen.
So first off, if you don’t think this is an important conversation, then you’re basically sweeping under the rug one of the primary ways in which most baristas make money. If you’re a business owner who thinks this is a silly conversation, you’re not only doing that, but are likely using tipping culture to your advantage. How many times have we been told that we can’t be paid more than a few dollars above minimum wage but don’t fret because tips! Many businesses will use the expectation of tips to offset (at best) and underpay (at worst) the wages of their staff, and it’s unfair to make baristas feel embarrassed or greedy if they complain about tips when the whole concept of tipping works to the gain of businesses.
Second, the conversation doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable. Tipping, or anything involving money really, can feel very strange to talk about, but simply opening the door for baristas to share their frustrations is a step in the right direction. Feeling heard is so much of what can quell resentment and anger, so just listening to how no one in a group of 20 business professional with expense accounts left a tip is at least removing the taboo around talking about tipping. It shows that yes, you understand that this affects their lives everyday. There’s a big difference between leaving the cafe with $40 versus $35 in tips, and listening to what that difference might mean creates trust and and removes potential negativity from manifesting itself on the floor in front of customers later.
When a customer says, “Oh wow you’re making a lot in tips,” and you tell them all that money is yours to pad the jar.
Listening is important, but to really affect change, business owners and managers also need to talk about tipping. And they need to do so openly, honestly, and constructively. All three need to be approached separately:
Openly: You should know how much your baristas make, on average, in tips. Without question. You should know what days are slower, what days are money makers, and you should understand how the specific dynamics of the neighborhood your store is in or the clientele you attract affects how much your baristas walk away with. You should be asking baristas how should tips be handled, if they have ideas to improve tips, or if they think certain shifts make more money than others. Tips need to be as important to you as they are to your baristas, and the only way you can begin to understand that is to ask questions and treat it as a big deal. Because — surprise! It is.
Honestly: One of the stories I’ve been told about tips and revenue is that the busier a cafe is, the more money baristas make in tips. That’s not always true, and business owners need to make an effort to understand where and from who tips come from. For example, you might want to add an additional task or item, like a pourover menu or maybe a second register that necessitates another person on shift. Your first inclination might be that’ll increase revenue, which it might, but the marginal uptick in sales could mean a huge decrease for barista tips (adding an additional person to split the pool with, pourovers slowing down the line so it seems like service has gotten slower, etc…). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make more money or experiment with new sales tactics, but you have to balance what making more money means to you and what it means to baristas. And if you push the idea of more sales equalling more money for baristas, then you better well have a plan to increase wages.
Where tips come from is important, but I find that what personally offends me the most is who tips and who doesn’t. I worked in a cafe where the owner’s parents would come in, and when I tried to buy their coffee, they’d insist on paying to “support their son’s business,” but then wouldn’t tip. When I tried to talk to the owner about it, he said he couldn’t do anything about it. But again, that’s not true, and this is probably the single most salient memory I have of feeling disrespected and angry towards someone who didn’t tip.
As a business owner or a manager, it’s your job to represent the values and ideals of your business, and if barista tips and wages are important to you, you have to be ready to stand up for them. It doesn’t have to be confrontational or aggressive, but it does need to be important. For example, everyone has been to an event, like a wedding or some other social gathering where maybe the drinks are free or there’s an extra bar set up to make getting alcohol as easy as possible. Usually, someone reminds the group to make sure to tip the bartenders. For every free drink I’ve won at a trivia night or discount I’ve been given at a happy hour (especially 2 for 1 drinks) there’s usually someone around to remind me to tip the bartender.
Conversations about tipping don’t have to be awkward. Listen to a complaint from a barista or lend a supportive ear.
So why can’t coffee shop owners do the same? I’m not sure — maybe its easier to guilt people when there’s booze involved, but we can begin setting that expectation now. It doesn’t have to be overt, either. Maybe if you’re meeting a business partner and you both get drinks, which are both free obviously, but maybe try, “Oh shoot, I’m out of singles, can you throw the tip in for me?” Or for family members: perhaps a friendly reminder that you didn’t open up a business for them to use as their own personal cafe so maybe supplement some of the labor costs? And these are just some ways you can deal with this problem with kid gloves because, and excuse me if this is being crass, people who don’t work at a place and get free stuff and don’t tip are shitty people. You might feel uncomfortable saying that to your friends and family, so maybe one of the above strategies might make your friends and family realize they’re being jerks to your employees.
Constructively: Whenever I’ve talked to bosses or business owners about barista tips, most are at a loss as to how to respond or give support. We don’t give baristas strategies on how to make more in tips because it’s not something that most business owners put a lot of value on.
However, by giving tipping its due platform, we can both alleviate some of the emotional burden it causes and talk constructively about how to increase tips. Which is exciting because it’s surprisingly easy to manipulate tips. Here’s 10 ways right now:
Bigger tip jars that are clear = better
Always hand out five singles and not a five dollar bill
Compliment an item of clothing or a piece of jewelry the customer is wearing
Use the name of the customer when you talk to them
Wear something distinctive or something that everyone likes (perhaps a Huey Lewis and The News shirt…)
Repeat a person’s order back to them (which also ensures you don’t make mistakes, another way to increase tips [although some mistakes are ‘good mistakes’ and can actually increase tips])
Suggest a pastry or another item to increase the bill total
Forecast good weather
Create reciprocity — give a customer something beyond what they expect and they’ll give more to compensate (put out samples of a cookie you might throw out, or give someone the rest of some steamed milk if you steamed too much milk for a latte or hot chocolate)
My first thought: “Oh good, no jerks tipped pennies.”
I compiled these suggestions from my own personal experiences and a five minute google search. It’s not hard to give suggestions and improve tips. So don’t treat tipping as this unknowable force you have no control over. It’s a chance to empower baristas again to take ownership of their space and curate meaningful and positive experiences for customers.
And if that’s not important to you, then you probably don’t own a business. It should be clear that baristas who make a lot in tips probably care a lot for their customers and provide excellent service. Getting people to tip more is a win/win for business owners, and it comes from the guiding principle that your baristas are your front lines, and anything they do or put out to customers will reflect on you and your business.
You might disagree with the whole concept of tipping or want to reevaluate the way in which tipping is done in the service industry, but this article isn’t about that. This article addresses, right now in real time, what baristas go through with tips. Bigger discussions on tipping are definitely necessary, but not at the cost of what is happening to barista wages right now.
So please, it shouldn’t be this hard to talk about tipping. It shouldn’t be a sign of selfishness or greed on the part of baristas. Because ultimately, baristas help live your vision and reach your goals. We expect baristas to be these perfect altruistic beings (or we treat them as expendable, which is another issue) meant to serve the good of the cafe, but they have to be able to make a living, and really they do the selfish bidding for business owners in making sure things run everyday. They deserve to feel financially comfortable and respected for their craft.