A recent Times item about the phenomenon of “tip creep” triggered debate on sites like Gothamist, which insisted that you should be tossing $1 into the jar every time someone pours you a coffee. While some commenters agreed, others kvetched that “it is not and has never been standard to tip for counter service.”
The debate raged on from there, but it left us wondering: what do our baristas — the fine folks who bring us back to life every morning — make of all this?
In recent days we hit the streets to ask them what they tip for a coffee drink, and the answer was always the same: “Always a dollar. Hell yeah! At least,” said Brittney Benson, the seasoned coffee-smoothie-sandwich maker at The Bean on Second Avenue.
But if you haven’t spent time on their side of the counter, baristas like Cameron Smith of Toby’s Estate understand when you don’t shell out 25-plus percent on a regular cuppa. “I’m not going to get pissed at someone for not tipping on a drip coffee, because that takes, like, two seconds,” Smith told us. Just keep in mind, most of the time any tip is better than nothing. We wouldn’t suggest you try this with a bartender, but if you’re left with a few quarters in your hand at the end of the transaction, throw them into the jar. “If I didn’t get tips, life would suck,” Smith added. “Just don’t give me a couple of pennies. That’s insulting.”
But what about that espresso drink that takes four minutes to make? Something may be better than nothing, but if you’re one of those who just throws in their 50 cents or less of change for gratuity, you’re probably not making any friends on the other side. Smith’s fellow barista, Megan Irwin, broke her grin for a moment at the suggestion: “If it’s an espresso drink and they just give me the change, I’m like, you bitch.” There’s an understanding in the food-service industry that some people are tippers and some are not. Your barista has your number. Location means everything in the cafe world – whereas the ladies at The Bean pull in about $40 in tips each day, their counterparts around schools and transients make half of that or less. Benson and her colleague Nicole Cavallaro say that college students, tourists and uptowners all are notoriously bad tippers. Jared Dodd of Kondittori on North 7th is more understanding than irked about the situation, “I mean, if you’ve worked in a cubicle your whole life, you’re probably not going to be a good guest.”
Cubicle or no, if you’re a regular at a coffee shop, ante up, please. “Yeah, regulars usually tip. It helps that they know you,” says Lauren O’Connor of Elsewhere Espresso. You do it for your hairdresser and your favorite waiter, so do it for the person who knows what caffeine concoction to whip up for you when you’re bleary-eyed and barely intelligible. Yes, the coffee is already overpriced. And yes, your barista is probably making more than your average food-service worker. O’Connor and her coworker, Shantel Prado, admit that baristas have it pretty good compared to waiters and kitchen staff – most coffee shop workers they know make between $10 and $12 an hour. But in a city where coffee costs $3, even those wages aren’t going to cover things.
“It’s not about the services,” said Chris Miller of Albeit on Bedford Avenue. “It’s about recognizing that this is not a living wage. It’s about wanting someone to be able to eat and live a happy life – to afford living in New York.”
That even applies to Starbucks employees. They get some decent benefits for a cafe job, but Natasha Silva of the location at First Avenue and East Third Street reminds you, “What you pay for the drink is not what goes into our pockets.” The base pay for a Starbucks barista is around $9.50 an hour – you cough up about half that for a large espresso drink.
Don’t let your expensive coffee habit screw your barista out of reinforced pay – especially when it comes to large orders. Customers tend to tip disproportionately when it comes to higher coffee bills. Your barista is not going to look kindly on the discrepancy involved in the throwing in a buck for your office’s 20-minute, $40 drink order.
“Time and care is put into making your coffee,” said the barista at Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village. Unless you’re getting it in an Anthora cup from the nearest street cart, odds are that the drip is made from organic, fair trade, small-batch roasted beans that a cat-type creature pooped out somewhere in Southeast Asia. And that’s before your artist of a barista draws “Kurt Cobean” onto it.
Gabriel Morgan, barista at La Colombe, on Lafayette, says he rarely sees less than a dollar tip for his meticulously crafted coffees. You are paying for the experience of having someone more adept hand you a fancy drink over the counter. At Bluebird, they liken it to the bartender-patron situation: “Tipping a dollar is standard at the bar, where did that practice come from, you know?” said the barista there. “I think soon it will be the same in coffee shops.”
Until that day comes, you can reasonably be let off the hook for not forking over that dollar tip for a simple order. This sensitivity around tipping for your coffee is more on the part of the outside observers than the baristas themselves – they’re actually a fairly benevolent breed. City Grave at Kondittori enjoys the simple pleasure of a great interaction. “I’ve had people tell me that I made them the best drink they’ve ever had — that makes my day,” she said. (Dodd, her coworker, calls this the verbal tip.)
So, don’t let yourself be guilted into tossing them an extra buck — that’s contrary to the whole experience. Your barista probably cares more about having their humanity recognized than the origin of the espresso. “At the end of the day, it’s just coffee,” Miller said. Ask them for a time consuming drink? See them every day? Let the blessed liquid energy guide you, and show your daily caffeine dealer a little extra love.