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Conquering the Turmoil of Tipping

November 18, 2019

5 min read

I’m in a coffee shop near my subway station. I didn’t have time to drink a cup at home, and I need a quick fix before taking the train to today’s gig. I ask for a medium drip coffee, and the barista quickly pushes the carafe lever, filling my cup. I slide my card into the chip reader to pay. $2.95 for a medium drip. The transaction is so speedy and seamless… until it isn’t.

Because the barista has just swiveled his screen to face me for a signature. And a tip. Not for the first time, I spiral into an internal turmoil.

My options are NO TIP, $1, $2, $3, and probably some other button I don’t notice to input a custom tip.

I can feel the barista looking at me. I’m sure he knows, based on where my finger hovers, which option I’m selecting. And now there’s a line forming behind me. Suddenly, I’m sweating. My forehead feels hot. But I’m paralyzed. I have no idea what to do.

Because the thing is, I’m not a “NO TIP” person. How could I be? I’ve worked service jobs. Heck, in a way, I still do! As a standup comedian who runs a no-cover, weekly comedy show, I rely on tips from a bucket my co-producers and I put out at the end of the show for my “walking around money.” Truly, I need it! And as a freelancer, I know what life is like on an extraordinarily tight budget. I’d much rather overtip a barista than, for example, incur an ATM fee. ​This​ extra dollar can add up to change someone’s life!

My finger hovers over the $1 button, but this makes me feel sick, too. With the tip added, we’re talking about a $4 cup of “just to get through the day” coffee. If I knew I were going to spend $3.95, I would have gotten something I actually enjoy, like a latte. Instead, I’m about to spend $4 on the most base, utilitarian solution to my grogginess. Drip is the windowless, studio apartment of the coffee bean world. Drinking hot drip coffee is an admission that you need energy but can’t afford to actually enjoy the process of acquiring it.

But this barista, this human being with rent and bills and maybe student loan debts to pay, this complete human being looks at me with his full, human being eyes. Sure, it was only drip coffee. It took him 20 seconds to serve me. But for humanity’s sake, I simply cannot bring myself to hit “NO TIP.”

Finally, I tap the $1 button, and rush out the door.

Counter service confusion

You’d think I’d never go back to a coffee shop after having such an internal crisis over a dollar. But it’s not just about one dollar. Tips add up. I both love and need coffee, and spend a lot of time in coffee shops writing. As a freelancer on a budget, I need to think about superfluous spending, as well as my habits. And with the recent widespread adoption of swivel iPads, I have to come to terms with the fact that I need to create a standard for myself about counter tipping, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus.

A recent poll found 27 percent of people never tip baristas and 24 percent always do. The food and drink website Eater says tipping “a buck or two” at a coffee shop should be standard, but they don’t stipulate whether that applies to a cup of black coffee. While 15 to 20 percent seems to be an American standard at sit-down restaurants–where consumers may spend as much as $600 annually on tips–we’re truly at a loss when it comes to counter service.

To formulate my own opinion, I go to the source: a barista. My friend Jenni Walkowiak had been a barista for years until a few weeks ago when she was able to quit and finally survive off her freelance photography business.

Jenni tells me that baristas really don’t expect a tip on things you pull out of a refrigerator case, like a pre-packaged sandwich or orange juice. But a cup of coffee is more complicated. When people pay in cash, Jenni and her coworkers do expect them to throw their remaining change into the tip jar. “It’s the easiest way to acknowledge that I’m providing you a service,” she says. She adds that at small coffee shops like the one she’s been working in, tips are as important as her paycheck.

Tip for service, and the space you’re taking up

But this still doesn’t address what to do when you’re paying for a drip coffee with card, and must confront the swivel-y iPad. Jenni says she and her coworkers don’t expect a whole dollar off a drip coffee (phew). But there’s an exception: If you plan to stay at the coffee shop for a long time, tip a dollar or more. Even on a drip. Because in that case, you’re paying for the valuable space you take up. “​We could be missing out on other business,” Jenni says. “It happens often that someone will walk in, see there aren’t any tables, and just turn around and walk out.”

I hadn’t thought of this, but it makes perfect sense. Still, it seems even the baristas aren’t quite sure what to do about the grab-and-go drip coffee when you pay with card. It seems the rise of convenient iPad counter tipping has actually ​created​ a problem. I decide I’m not going to let Apple’s folly run me broke.

The next time I enter a coffee shop I’m with my friend Lucas, who happens to be Jenni’s boyfriend. I notice he leaves a generous cash tip on a simple drink. Now it’s my turn to order. I think of Jenni, look into the eyes of my barista, and then remember my always-dwindling bank account. Familiar panic sets in.

“What’s that mushroom latte thing?” I ask the barista. It’s $6.

“It’s really good,” he says. “We add several mushroom powders that make the drink taste great, reduce coffee jitters, and supports your metabolism.”

“Perfect. I’ll have that.”

When the iPad swivels, I confidently tip $1 for the delicious thing he’s just created for me. I’m happy because it’s a fair tip on a great product. But later, I realize $7 coffees means I’m going to have to cut back on my coffee shop outings. And for now—until Apple, small businesses, and etiquette rules can sort themselves out—this is my solution.

No drip. Just the good stuff. But way less of it.

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By Emily Winter
Emily Winter is a writer and comedian in New York. She's written for TV Land, Glamour and Fusion TV.

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