You’ve seen them at every coffee shop, take-out window, burger joint, and bagel place in town. They come in all shapes and sizes (my favorite is a giant old shoe they use at a juice bar in my neighborhood) and often sport little hand-lettered cardboard signs with trite platitudes like, “It’s better to give than to receive,” or downright pleas like, “Help send a kid to college!” But it’s nearly impossible to grab a espresso decaf or a bagel with schmear these days without encountering the most ubiquitous of early twenty-first century icons: the tip jar.
When are gratuities gratuitous?
The other day I wandered into a local coffee place and asked for a double latte with extra foam and a dash of cinnamon. Perhaps a persnickety request, but not totally off the wall either. In any case, the woman behind the counter appeared more than happy to fill my order. The total came to $2.68 and I plopped three faded bills on the counter. I received my latte in one hand and with the other hand tossed my thirty-two cents in change into the tip jar by the register, happy to contribute to the local economy. “Oh, thanks a lot,” sneered the woman behind the counter, like I had just kidnapped her baby.
Her reaction floored me. How could I have possibly offended this woman? We had just conducted a friendly business transaction. She had prepared the product I requested and I had paid in full. Rather than let the thirty-two cents linger in my pocket, where it would probably end up in my dryer’s lint catcher, I tossed it in her tip jar. This was simple, unemotional commerce. Did she think I was being cheap by putting a few pennies into her tip jar? Was I being cheap?
As our economy becomes more service-oriented, the line between people who deserve a tip for their services and those who do not has become blurred. For a long time, the rules were clear: waiters at sit-down restaurants always deserve tips (unless they’re lousy), as do skycaps, bellmen, and decent cab drivers. I always give my barber a tip, mostly as a way of saying thanks for not slicing off my ears. Usually, people in these businesses depend on tips as part of their overall compensation package, so if you don’t tip them, they don’t get paid at all. But how do the rules apply to the angry woman behind the coffee shop counter and her millions of colleagues in the “fast service” service industry? I decided to do some investigating.
I live within walking distance of a dozen businesses that have tip jars by their cash registers. All of these businesses are in the food service industry and all are staffed by hourly wage-earning employees. I wandered from business to business and asked the managers about their policy on tips, especially how tips figured into their employees overall compensation. I received a dozen versions of the same answer: tips left in the tip jar are simply a bonus. Employees at these establishments receive at least minimum wage for their efforts and are not expected to rely on tips as part of their overall earnings. Only corporate giant Starbucks has a written policy on tips: they are evenly divided amongst all employees that work a particular shift and do not count as reportable income for tax purposes.
Which brings me back to my angry friend behind the coffee shop counter. Here’s my real beef with her (and with tip jars in general): she’s not relying on my paltry thirty-two cents as part of her pay. What’s more, part of the $2.68 that I paid for my latte goes towards her salary. If I tip or don’t tip, she still goes home with a paycheck.
My purpose here is not to completely decry the use of tip jars. As I’ve said, our economy has become increasingly service-oriented and it is acceptable to reward excellent service. But customers should not feel obligated to reward excellence in the “fast service” industry and should certainly not expect to get scoffed at when they do. The woman at the coffee shop indeed made a great latte and filled my order to the tee. But did she really expect me to add another dollar bill to the stash in her tip jar? Besides, the thirty-two cents I gave her amounted to 12% of my total order, not too far from the 15% tipping standard. Really, all she did was spend two minutes making me a cup of coffee.
To get another perspective, I spoke with Cecilia Moreno-Mead, the proprietor of one of my favorite local restaurants, the Crest Café in San Diego. She agreed that the rules of tipping have become nebulous. But of this, Ms. Moreno-Mead is certain: waiters wouldn’t darken the doorstep of a sit-down restaurant unless their customers tipped them. She asserts that there is little comparison to be made between a good waiter and the person slinging lattes behind the coffee shop counter. A good waiter must be knowledgeable about a restaurant’s food, its wine list, and its specials. A good waiter must make her customers feel welcome and at ease and take time to establish a rapport that builds repeat business (the waiters at Crest Café are especially good at this). For these reasons, says Moreno, waiters expect and deserve tips. Indeed, tips account for the bulk of a waiter’s paycheck since most state laws do not require that waiters receive minimum wage. No tips equals no pay.
On the other hand, the guy at the bagel place or coffee shop has fewer demands on him: the menus are fixed and simple, customer interaction lasts for only a minute or two, and the business is usually oriented around the product, not the service. Says Moreno, “I’ll sometimes tip at those kinds of places if the service is really good, but I don’t feel obligated.”
And neither should the rest of us. I’m happy to drop a few cents into a tip jar that helps a kid make a few extra bucks from her summer job or helps someone make ends meet (one Starbucks employee told me that his monthly tips from the tip jar pays for his car insurance). But I’m just as likely to save my change. If ever little bit helps for the guy or gal behind the counter, then every little bit helps for the rest of us, too.