The Tipping Point


Pint in hand, I joined my friends at their table at the Lescar, one of Sheffield’s many traditional pubs. Unsure of the business transaction I just concluded, I posed a question to the table. “What’s a good tip here?” After sharing a good laugh at the clueless American, one friend said, “Anything!” “So a quid [a dollar fifty] is a decent tip?” I asked. Eyes got round as one friend said, “Mate. You just made his week.”

The experience turned out to be educational for both parties. The idea that service industry workers could make a steady salary and live off their base pay was novel to me. For my English friends, the concept that customers should provide a large portion, if not the majority, of a server’s take-home wages was as foreign as American football.

As American coffee professionals have embraced European cup sizes and roasting styles, perhaps it should come as no surprise that some leading coffee thinkers are now questioning the way baristas earn income. Alex Bernson, editor of the popular website Barista Hustle, says, “In a nutshell, I don’t think your ability to pay rent should be dependent on a stranger’s review of your job performance.” Although Bernson concedes most baristas like leaving a shift with extra cash in their pocket, he says, “It’s an unreliable source of income.” Given the unreliability of tips, Bernson believes baristas should be paid a set, liveable wage by their employers.

The conventional wisdom behind tipping is that it incentivizes better service through the promise of financial reward. Customers tip when they receive service that meets their criteria, giving even more for an exceptional experience. Bernson, however, doubts that logic. “I think there are other ways to incentivize good service,” he says.

Although Bernson concedes most baristas like leaving a shift with extra cash in their pocket, he says, “It’s an unreliable source of income.”

Robbie Melton, manager of coffee quality at Nashville’s Barista Parlor, agrees. Tipping “is not really my motivator for working harder,” says Melton. “It’s the customer’s experience.” Melton, however, is skeptical that America is ready for a new system. “When I see these conversations, I agree with the overall premise. But I do think that it’s so ingrained in our culture I don’t know if it would be possible to eliminate it,” he says. “If my total income could be achieved in a more consistent and reliable fashion that would be more favorable. But if I can get paid six to eight dollars more an hour, I’ll take it.”

Bernson, however, is optimistic that things could change. Eliminating tipping has been gaining traction in the service industry for several years. Restaurants as esteemed as New York’s Per Se and Napa Valley’s the French Laundry, both owned by Thomas Keller, refuse to take tips, opting to build their labor costs into the price of their food. Many cocktail bars likewise have switched to charging a flat service charge rather than leaving gratuity up to the generosity of the customer. Some restaurants, often in response to minimum-wage hikes, have dropped tipping outright.

“American coffee service hasn’t changed in fifteen years, twenty years. I don’t think tipping will change with that model,” says Bernson. “Hand-in-hand with eliminating tipping is giving better service.”

Rather than conducting all customer interactions at the counter with a POS system, Bernson advocates for coffee shops offering table service, complete with hosts, bussers, and food runners.

Compared to the fast-food service model employed at most coffee shops, this system gives each customer more face time, more opportunities to make a purchase, and eliminates the abrasive custom of calling out drink orders. “People think that they’re paying for service by tipping,” says Bernson. By offering better hospitality without accepting tips, cafés can improve the customer’s experience and surpass their expectations. Bernson also sees a business incentive. “Guests would buy more if they didn’t feel they needed to tip a dollar each time,” he says.

Café owners, well acquainted with the small margins or the service industry, might wonder where the money to pay their baristas full salaries will come from. Berson suggests a fixed service charge, bonuses on sales goals, profit sharing, or bonuses based on percentage of sales as viable alternatives to tipping.

“If you want to give a higher level of service, if you want to ask more of your employees, you need to pay them for it,” says Bernson.

While I was in England I never could bring myself to order a drink, coffee or otherwise, without leaving a tip. Perhaps it’s just my cultural conditioning, but I enjoy being able to tangibly express my gratitude for hospitality. But as a working barista with a family to support, I’ll gladly take the stability of a regular salary over the feast-or-famine of the tip jar any day.

Michael Butterworth is director of education and a barista at Quills Coffee, and the co-founder of the Coffee Compass.