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January 30, 2017 /
Towards A Tip-less Cafe

Cafe Griensteidl, Vienna (1896). Via Wikimedia, Public Domain.The discretionary dynamic of tipping can set up vicious cycles of expectation that undermine service work and quality of life, for both server and served. Earning tips can also be a fantastically fun, lucrative experience for service workers, and a cherished way for guests to show appreciation for and financially support chronically under-appreciated and under-compensated service workers. Tipping is full of dualities.I am tempted to argue in defense of tipping, because as both guest and service worker I usually find those positives in the experience. However, last week, I wrote in depth about the social dynamics of tipping, and came to the conclusion that my position as a white male who can pass for straight if he wants to and knows how to speak rich white person well makes it much easier for me to experience only the positive sides of tipping.

Even if tipping somehow didn’t have deep problems of patriarchy, racism, and classism, I think that in the end, eliminating tipping should be the goal of all establishments aspiring to truly professional service. Even if the existing dynamics of tipping, and especially tipping in relation to coffee service, makes that an especially difficult task for a specialty coffee shop.

A quick refresh on tipping and social exchange from last week: basically, the intimate emotional work of hospitality is seen as something above and beyond the mechanical serving of paid-for product, and this excess of work being done creates a feeling of social imbalance, which is solved by payment of tip. This idea is built on the fundamental dynamics of social exchange, namely that all forms of social interaction that involve exchange are about creating and resolving a series of social obligations.

When I refer to the work of hospitality, I’m talking about the kind of hospitality that Jared Truby advocates in his excellent piece “To Serve And…”. This kind of service is I think the ideal that all truly stellar hospitality establishments should aspire to, and it is telling that Truby’s story is specifically about a service interaction that goes beyond the economic. Proactive, human, community-oriented service is challenging emotional labor, and all but impossible to do for economic motivation alone.

Giving a guest that kind of hospitality requires deep emotional engagement with your work, and if you view that engagement as something to be compensated by tips alone, you will be disappointed—the rewards for that kind of service come just as much from the genuine emotional connections you (sometimes) get to make with guests, as shown by Truby’s story and his obvious pride in the guests’ experience and his own professionalism.

Here is the damning duality of tips: on the one hand, professional hospitality like Truby’s is hard work no matter how you slice it and needs to be financially compensated accordingly; on the other, economic motivation alone is not rewarding enough to sustain that level of hospitality commitment (at least, in most coffee contexts). Even worse, doing service work expecting a tip can set up a terrible cycle of expectations, where the worker is (pre-) judging every guest along purely economic lines. This adversarial relationship can rub off on guests, and this is magnified by tipping’s discretionary nature: guests’ last thought at the end of a service interaction being “were there any objectionable things I should knock this person’s income down for?”

So what about eliminating tipping? A number of high-end food service establishments in the US have done it by shifting to included service-fees, or in some cases sales-sharing, and many other cultures accomplish most of their service work similarly. It’s certainly also possible to do fast-food style coffee service without tipping—though Starbucks puts out small tip boxes, the miniscule amount of change that gets thrown in there is a largely vestigial amount. The trick is figuring out how to do high-quality, professional coffee service in a way that leaves the guest comfortable with a service fee.

Going back to social exchange theory, sharing food with someone is an act with an intimate, fraught history, such that being served creates a feeling of social obligation in the guest. In tipping cultures, this feeling of social obligation is resolved through direct, discretionary economic means, and it’s notable that even in the tip-free examples above, a ‘service’ charge is still usually broken out. Even in largely tip-free cultures, some small amount is often left as a gesture for more intimate and involved service like dining. The guests want to make sure they are still resolving their social obligation to hospitality by paying appropriately.

What changes without tipping is that what is deemed a socially ‘appropriate’ payment for the hospitality provided is no longer discretionary. By setting a service fee, an establishment declares that their hospitality is at a specific level, and it is up to the server to provide that level for every guest. The essence of truly stellar service and hospitality is consistency for every guest, so it’s no surprise that so far it has mostly been high-end establishments going to service fees. The question then is: what sort of coffee establishment can provide consistent service and hospitality worth paying a fixed fee for?

Returning to Truby’s example, it’s the kind of coffee establishment that staffs truly engaged, professional service workers, who are committed to giving a high level of heads-up service to every guest coming in the door. Hiring, training and retaining the kind of staff capable of giving consistent high-level coffee service is a huge challenge.

To begin with, there is the question of paying professionals a professional income. The low-margin nature of the coffee business makes this hard, and consumers’ strong price sensitivity on coffee may make it hard to include a sufficiently high service fee. On the other hand, the high volume of coffee service, and the extremely variable amounts that people tip, might mean that a $0.15 – $0.75 per transaction fee coupled with banning tips may be sufficient to cover increased wages and actually feel like a decrease in overall price, at least to the loyal customers already tipping a dollar or more.

The high-volume nature of coffee service presents the second, deeper challenge of going tip-free. As I discussed in my 2014 SCAA Symposium speech, there is a concept called ‘emotional labor’ which explains the work that is done to put on a smiling, shining hospitality presentation for every guest. Emotional labor is magnified when you have to put on that performance for dozens or hundreds of guests in a row, which means providing consistently high-hospitality service to every guest a particular challenge for coffee service. As I explore in the talk and Truby’s post elegantly shows, the only way to really sustain that sort of service commitment over the long term is for a service professional to deeply feel the love—for their caring hospitality to be a genuine performance of their internal feelings for all guests.

And here we arrive at perhaps the strongest argument against tipping: the true professional service worker is already valuing their guests beyond a tip, and conversely, truly professional hospitality is already being rewarded with outsize tips (excepting the complication I explored in part one). The economic dynamic of the social exchange of service is already de-emphasized with professional hospitality, so why not take it further out of the equation with a fixed service fee?

That is, assuming that one can reliably train up, maintain and organizationally support a staff capable of giving that level of service and hospitality to every guest. Because nothing is going to rankle a guest more than having their level of social obligation for service dictated to them by a service fee, and then not receiving the expected high level of hospitality in return.

This then is the case for a tip-free cafe: it holds the service of the place to a higher standard of hospitality and professionalism. Because of the high-volume, high-emotional labor nature of coffee work, this is a particular challenge, and in its ability to amplify emotional rewards, potentially a huge boon.

Speaking from experience, working in an establishment and with a team capable of providing that level of hospitality to guests is a unique thrill, with immense potential emotional rewards. If a service fee can enable staff at such an establishment to more reliably be paid a professional wage, and help focus priorities towards these higher, more human rewards of service, then why not?


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Jose Pereyra
Jose Pereyra

I like to make every drink like I’m making it for my mama and wouldn’t expect a tip from her, so I don’t expect them from customers. Though they do help pay the bills, I can’t say they make my shift any more enjoyable(or worth the effort). They can be detrimental in an establishment where there is a lack of passion amongst staff.

Evan Joseph-Piñero
Evan Joseph-Piñero

The difficulty with this, I think, is that many customers do not view tips in a coffee shop as something required, expected, or even gently suggested of them. So rather than not tipping out of displeasure with the service, many simply do not understand that a tip for coffee is a common and desired thing. Unlike, for example, restaurants or bars, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a person (in tip-heavy cultures such as the US) who is not aware that tips are expected. It’s possible that establishing a no-tip policy, along with a clearly designated service fee, would in… Read more »


The silent weakness of this post is that it is looking at things almost strictly from the perspective of the service personnel, and conveniently leaving out customer expectations and also the business needs of the cafe owner. I have many, many good customers who don’t feel the need to tip for a $2-6 drink. If I start charging them a fee for something they already feel like they’re paying the appropriate price for, there is a fair chance I will lose those customers. If I lose a large portion of my business, then for obvious reasons I will not be… Read more »

Alex Bernson
Alex Bernson

I agree that tip pooling is a nice middle ground, as long as it feels like everyone is pulling their weight. If staff dynamics are off though, I have seen it sow some discord. I think that’s my point in the end, that a service fee would be radical, and only the most radically on-point, firing on all cylinders cafe should attempt it, at least to start. As with all things, change starts with some on the bleeding edge and eventually trickles down. You’re right though that there are a number of tactics to take short of a fee. Maybe… Read more »

Gregory Levine
Gregory Levine

There are many restaurants that charge service charges on large parties. I think this is a move by the restaurant to ensure that servers are happy catering to large groups. It also guarantees that the server won’t be stiffed or forgotten in the process of breaking up a bill. I’ve never been to a restaurant that charges service fees on all orders, so I’m inclined to think the number of high end restaurants charging service fees is probably very small. I have a friend who works as a bartender and server at a five-star boutique hotel frequented by celebrities. The… Read more »

Michael Goddard
Michael Goddard

I own a small “To Go” café called Steampunk Cafe in the Kwazulu Natal Midlands in South Africa.I work it alone, 7 days a week and have been for the past 7 months. I insist that I don’t get tips and explain to my customers that feel the need to tip me, that the daily interaction needs to be social and light, never with obligation to tip as that eventually makes things awkward:) This in turn ensures return customers, higher turnover and in essence, the Barista could be afforded a higher salary and invokes a higher level of professionalism. Reviews… Read more »

Tito Pena
Tito Pena

I like the concepts here however I do feel a service fee may be too radical at the moment in most coffee shops. My shop pools and shares tips over the course of the week. I think this is a nice middle ground. Employees are not providing service with a mind towards the tips as any one particular interaction is insignificant over the course of the week and split up between all the other baristas. However it does provide a significant income boost without which I most wouldn’t be make a living wage. It also provides the customers with a… Read more »

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