Should you tip at coffee shops?

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And other questions of coffee shop etiquette

<Coffee for the Average Josh, Part 8 of 10>

A 2019 survey by creditcards.com found that 24 percent of Americans always tip their coffee shop baristas, while 27 percent never do.

That leaves roughly half of us stuck in the land of “it depends.”

Looking for clarity when you step up to the counter?  Let’s explore:

  • Reasons you should consider leaving a tip
  • Reasons you may feel compelled to leave a tip, but really shouldn’t
  • Best practices for how much to tip
  • And a few other shots of coffee shop etiquette

8 good reasons to tip for your coffee

  1. Service: Sometimes you receive incredible service, but sometimes … not. Do you leave the shop feeling well taken care of? Tipping is a way to say thanks.
  2. Craftsmanship: More often than not, the best cups of coffee are directly tied to a barista’s experience, skill and knowledge. When you receive beautiful latte art. When you learn something new. When you find the barista who always wows you with that cappuccino. Coffee craftsmanship adds value.
  3. Quantity: Sometimes you order a small cup of drip coffee, but sometimes you’re picking up for the whole office. It takes a lot of skill to make multiple drinks at once, particularly if a line starts piling up behind you.
  4. Customization: Do you order straight off the menu, or do you have special requests for your drink? It’s kind to make it worth the barista’s extra time and understanding when they go out of their way to meet the specs of a special request.
  5. Duration of stay: Do you love to park at a table for a couple hours and get some work done? That’s great, but you’re also using space that could turn away additional customers if a shop is full, not to mention the wi-fi and other utilities owners pay to keep you comfortable. Show that you appreciate this access to a “second office.”
  6. Vibe: Some shops just feel comfortable. Some invest heavily not just in your coffee but in your experience. If the place has a magnetic effect on your soul, a tip is one good way to express gratitude.
  7. Regularity: If you’re a regular, chances are you’re not only investing in a favorite shop, but they’re investing in you. They know your name, your order and the vehicle you drive. Try getting that level of relational service anywhere else.
  8. Support: I am grateful for baristas. It’s a line of work where excellence can clearly be tasted. But the average wages aren’t typically enough of a carrot for baristas to invest in the job as a career. These are also human beings who work a busy job and have bad days like everyone else. A tip doesn’t have to only be a statement of gratitude, it can also be a statement of support.

2 bad reasons to tip for your coffee

  1. Prompt pressure: These days, if you swipe a card, you can expect the screen to swivel and tip options to be presented — typically $1, $2, $3 or 10%, 15%, 20%. There are also typically buttons for “no tip” and “custom tip.” For me, prompts take part of the joy out of tipping because I’m being asked to do something I already wanted to do — but without being asked. They also usually suggest preset amounts, making it potentially clunky or awkward to change the amount that was preset — even if you wanted to tip more. If you are feeling bullied by a screen prompt, pause and take the time to leave the tip you want to leave. There’s no harm in it.  
  2. Peer pressure: Things get trickier when people are watching. And they often are, whether standing in line behind you or making your coffee. In fact, because of COVID restrictions, baristas are often put in the awkward position of asking for their own tip and inputting the amount for you. Anymore, when I want to leave a tip I often mention it when I’m taking out my credit card, something like, “How may I add a $1 tip on this?” To me, it relieves the tension. But what do you do if you are just grabbing a drip coffee to go and don’t want to be prompted about a $1 tip on a $2 drink? Press, “no tip,” and don’t feel bad about it. If you’re asked about tip options, just say, “no, thank you.” There are plenty of great reasons you may want to leave a tip, but peer pressure isn’t one of them.

How much should you tip for your coffee?

From a straight etiquette standpoint, the Emily Post Institute groups coffee shops in the “no obligation” category. Like carryout, tipping is discretionary but warranted if a “barista provides a little something extra or if you are a regular customer.”

In an informal poll of people I know who love coffee, a common rule of thumb is it’s generous to tip $1 per drink, but perfectly acceptable to tip change from a small transaction or calculate out a percentage you’re comfortable with.

If you use percentages, the ranges can swing much more wildly than they might at a dine-in restaurant. For instance, $1 on a $3 small latte is a whopping 33 percent tip, while dropping a couple quarters’ change in a tip jar on a $10 order is only 5 percent. But neither is an unusual occurrence.

Hence the word “discretionary.” Consider the good reasons to tip. Consider your own financial situation. And remember: Generosity is good for the soul.  

Other coffee shop etiquette

I asked a few coffee friends for other pieces of etiquette people should keep in mind when visiting their shops, and here are three final things worth noting.

  1. Don’t talk on your cell phone while ordering. That one feels like it should be a common courtesy, but we humans tend to have a way of self-justifying behavior in a moment that we may have criticized if we saw it elsewhere.
  2. Don’t set up an oblivious office. Working out of a coffee shop is great, but be self-aware. As a friend who owns a coffee shop told me, “one person spreading out work on a four-top table is pretty rough for us — especially now that we’re in a pandemic and at half occupancy.”
  3. Don’t ask a shop to bend to your own tastes. No, I don’t mean you can’t order what you want. What I mean is that the person who owns the shop invested a lot of their own passions and personality in picking out the décor, choosing the setlist, and selecting the recipes. As a friend put it, “I would love if people would allow the business to thrive as it is and not as they wish it was. So many businesses do the same thing as everyone else because they felt they could not succeed if they didn’t compromise their original vision to appease people.” Local coffee shops offer a uniqueness worth celebrating.

Next week: “Black Friday: Give the gift of a local coffee roast”

This is the eighth in a 10-part series, “Coffee for the Average Josh,” releasing Fridays this fall. Get your fix of Coffee 101 by signing up to receive an email when the next post drops.

Previous:

  1. Where do coffee babies come from? (Oct. 2, 2020)
  2. Growing up on the coffee farm (Oct. 9, 2020)
  3. 3 reasons to pay more for your coffee (Oct. 16, 2020)
  4. 5 factors of great-tasting coffee (Oct. 23, 2020)
  5. How do you take your coffee? (Oct. 30, 2020)
  6. What is espresso? (Nov. 6, 2020)
  7. What’s the difference: cappuccino, latte, mocha, americano? (Nov. 13, 2020)
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