In the early morning, you place a coffee order at your local coffee shop and the barista whooshes the screen in your face, prompting you to tip or not. The experience turns transactional and forced, making it difficult for you to decide whether to leave a tip or not. This is due to low wages and inflation, which can be detrimental to any barista, including one employed by Starbucks.
A Pew report found that only 27% of Americans said they sometimes tip baristas, while 24% said they never do. Factoring in low wages and inflation, not tipping can be detrimental to any barista, including one employed by Starbucks. Starbucks pays their baristas so well, making the equivalent of $22 an hour, and they have benefits. However, customers want to support their independent coffee shops, as smaller coffee shops are less likely to be able to fairly compensate for people.
At the gratuity-free Parable Coffee in Columbus, Ohio, a latte starts at $8, meaning they can pay the staff more of a living wage and have a “pay what you like” program. As a rule of thumb, Humpert tips a dollar a drink, even on drip, because of all the additional labor and maintenance that goes into brewing the coffee, cleaning the machines, and interacting with customers. However, if you order more than one drink or if there’s some conversation that has to take place about what’s going on, then you’ll usually tip more than a dollar a drink.
Tips are a big part of her income, and at times, customers are quite generous with the tips. Catalina said tips are a big part of her income, and at times, they don’t want to tip on a drip coffee. When she worked in a smaller town, a lot of people were tipping a lot less than in a bigger city.
One issue that creates a barrier between the barista and the customer is the tipping screen powered by programs like Square and Toast. The screen prompts the customer to tip a certain dollar amount or percentage or not tip at all. Despite that technology, some coffee shops additionally have a tip jar on hand for people to toss in extra change.
Jonathon Sepulveda, the director of coffee and sales for roaster Utopian Coffee in Fort Wayne, Indiana, got his start in specialty coffee 25 years ago in SoCal as a barista and coffee shop manager. He believes there shouldn’t be any obligation across the board unless it’s genuine. At Catalina’s shop, she doesn’t have to turn the screen around, but she thinks tipping should be private. “They can tip if they want,” she said. “I understand why you wouldn’t tip because it’s your money. If it’s good, you’re going to tip more. If it’s not as good, you’re going to tip less. Now that more people rely on tips, you just should do it anyway.”
Tipping a dollar a drink is not a radical idea, but it is important to consider the cost of the beverage and the quality of the service. For example, if a customer spends $20 on multiple espresso-based beverages, a $4 tip isn’t crazy. However, for a cup of coffee where the cost is $2 or $3, a 60-cent tip is more appropriate.
Although Dry January is expected to examine alcohol consumption, a month dedicated to caffeine consumption doesn’t exist. Coffee is considered a more essential part of daily life than alcohol, and it is important to show respect for the person making it happen. If someone can’t have a cup of coffee in the morning, most Americans would lose their mind.
Baristas are both front and back of the house, and the first interaction people might have in the morning is with their neighborhood barista. The stakes are much higher if the coffee is bad, as they will never return to the coffee shop again. In 2022, the average price of a cup of coffee at a coffee shop hit almost $5, so leaving a small tip shouldn’t seem outrageous.
Sepulveda sees tipping as a cultural issue rather than a right or wrong one. Consumers must understand what goes into making their lattes and cold brews and tip appropriately. Giving an extra buck to a local barista who spends time brewing batches of coffee throughout the day or using more time-consuming methods like pour-over should be normalized.
Catalina believes that the act is what counts, and tipping should be a regular thing people do.
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