Outside the booze box

Barista Tipping

Pop quiz: you just bought a four dollar coffee. Yikes. How much do you toss in the glass jar?

April 14, 2009

This post is not about alcohol, but my second favorite intoxicant: coffee. Because despite the fact that I have a pretty wicked latte addiction, I still haven’t figured out how to handle the barista gratuity situation, particularly here in Seattle. Because people in this town really love their tip jars. I kind of wouldn’t be surprised to see one pop up on one of my colleague’s desks. After all, my dry cleaner has one, every sandwich counter has one with a cute little note attached (“Tipping, it’s not just for cows”). There’s one at 7-11. I’m not saying that working at 7-11 doesn’t have its challenges, but I don’t really expect to have to tip someone for scanning a bar code on a bag of pretzels. (Does that sentence make me sound like Andy Rooney? I kind of feel like him right now.) Anyway, one group of people that definitely deserves tips are those energetic grinders who make little lotus shapes magically apppear atop my cup of steamed milk: baristas.

I just don’t know how much I’m supposed to give them.

So I thought maybe you could help me. I leave 20 percent at restaurants unless service is really bad or really good…and even then I generally stay within the 15-22 percent range. At the bar, I tip $1 per drink/pitcher/anything that requires pouring. (Which is dumb, when you think about it, since when I order a drink at Canlis or Zig Zag there is actual chemistry going on, and here I am tipping the tender the same as I do the old lady in the minty-green hoodie who flips the tap at my favorite dive bar. Hardly seems fair.) Anyway, how much should I be tipping at the coffee shop? Twenty percent? Twenty percent on a four dollar latte would be 80 cents. But am I really going to go fishing around for dimes and stuff when there are six late-for-workers behind me in line, cursing the day my mother bore me? Plus it feels cheapie to put coins in that jar full of dollars, right? So I tip one dollar.

And with that, I’ve spent five bucks on a cup of coffee.

Which is not the barista’s fault, but damn. So then I start feeling really nervous and recessiony and I swear off the coffee shop and drink office drip for the rest of the week—which is bad for the coffee shop, of course, since that’s one less $4 latte they sell, and so ultimately bad for the barista too. After a few days I go into some nasty latte withdraw and eventually return to the cafe, slavishly, for my creamy, foamy, caffeinated fix. And then there I am again, staring down the tip jar.

So talk to me here. How much do you tip your barista? Do you tip every time you grab a cup, or save up and tip once per week? And, since it already came up, do you tip the same on a cocktail as you do a pint?

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