An Espresso to Grind

Dear Helena,

Every morning I buy a large latte for $3.05 at the same coffeehouse, and each morning I face the same dilemma: to tip or not to tip. Should I tip the same 20 percent that I would on a restaurant meal? That doesn’t seem deserved. Sure, they have to make the beverage, but they don’t have to bring it to my table. And let’s say I do decide to tip 20 percent. That’s only 61 cents. It’s such a paltry sum I feel it’s insulting to the barista to drop it in the tip jar, and I’d almost rather not tip at all. What should I do? —Latte Addict

Dear Latte Addict,

Jacob Grier, a barista at Baked and Wired in Washington, DC, and cowriter of the blog Smelling the Coffee, says he tries to tip a dollar per drink. “You tip a bartender if he creates a good rapport, so why not tip a barista for the same?” Naomi Hunt, manager and co-owner of Murky Waters in Lafayette, Indiana, says customers should tip 75 cents to a dollar, and even more for what she calls “latte art.” This includes “faces, apples, and once, a lion with a mane and whiskers.”

What do you expect them to say? Unfortunately, much as baristas—who sometimes make up to 50 percent of their wages in tips—would like you to, you are not obligated to tip them. Though it’s nice for baristas to express themselves artistically, they shouldn’t expect payment for it, since it’s typically not asked for or expected. Customers don’t say: “I’ll have a nonfat decaf cappuccino with a mandala on top.”

And the bartender analogy doesn’t work. For one thing, bartenders in many states make what’s called a “server’s wage,” that is, less than minimum wage, with the expectation that they will make up the rest of it in tips. Not so baristas, who by law earn at least minimum wage, and sometimes more plus health benefits. Bartenders have also memorized the recipes for a litany of cocktails, and you’re paying for their expertise. If they make you a crappy drink, you can forgo their tip. But if you do, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be ignored for the rest of the night. Unlike tipping baristas, leaving extra money for your bartender is a cultural convention that, should you reject it, you’ll be made to suffer for.

Many people argue that a good barista is a skilled craftsperson, and that it’s hard to make a quality espresso drink. They’re right. A great barista considers everything from how fine the beans are ground to how hard the grinds are tamped to how long it takes to make the shot, how aerated the milk is, and what the milk-to-foam ratio is. There are now competitions around the world in which baristas compete for top honors for the speed, tastiness, and creativity of their coffee concoctions, just like bartenders.

But let’s face it. Not every coffeehouse takes lattes that seriously. Some chains have automated the various steps in making espresso drinks, so all a barista has to do is push a button here, a button there, put a cap on your cup, then call your name. (And, at chain stores especially, stuffing a buck into the tip jar at the cash register doesn’t mean your barista gets the dough.) If you aren’t tipping the girl who makes your half salad/half sandwich combo at a weekday lunch counter, why should a barista at an establishment like that be entitled to a tip?

When it comes to the person who makes your coffee, I say use the same rule of thumb you should use for any food-service counter worker (ice cream scooper, deli sandwich-maker, boulangerie attendant, taqueria employee): If you feel he or she has gone beyond the industry norms, made you laugh, given you something extra she needn’t have, in some way noticeably improved your life, if only for a moment, tip her. How much? The baristas I talked to don’t consider it demeaning if you drop in the coins left over from your purchase. If, like most people, you visit the same coffeehouse over and over again, this is more than a tip—it’s insurance. Sometimes it pays to be remembered as the gal who tips.

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