Keep the Change

Published on: February 8th, 2011

So I am second in line at the local coffee place and two large jars are staring at me. “Support the Barista Education Fund,” says one. The other asks, “Don’t like change? Give it to us.” And it’s decision time once again.

It’s not whether to tip—I almost always do—but how much. I don’t want to leave too little and feel guilty or leave too much and be miffed at myself.

After all, I’m just standing in line for a damn cup of quality coffee and I won’t be getting a refill. All they’re doing is pouring it. I’d do that myself if I could.

If I order a fancy drink—I like a large skinny latte with an extra shot—I’m more than happy to tip. A good barista can be a culinary artist. But then I think: I know what these folks are getting paid per hour. They depend in part on tips.

Back when I was a professional dining critic I tipped with the newspaper’s money, and I was pretty generous, 20 percent and above. Now, I’m a semi-employed freelance writer and every single penny counts. If anything, I’m more critical of restaurant service now than when I was a paid reviewer.

But, that kind of tipping only counts at eateries where there is some actual smidgen of service being provided to me. What am I to think about the new generation of fast-casual chains, many of them birthed in Colorado, including Chipotle, Larkburger, Smashburger and Noodles & Company? The only service provided at these establishments is when somebody brings the food from the kitchen to the table and then never returns. Is that 10 percent? 5 percent? Change?

You order at the counter and get your own drink. There’s often the expectation, stated or suggested, that one should clean their own table afterward. There’s a tip jar on the counter or a tip line on the card receipt and so we leave a tip. It should also be noted that these fast-casual workers make very little per hour and deserve as much as they can get.

Circumstances always matter to me, even at a sandwich shop or a hamburger joint. Eye contact matters. Acting entitled to a tip matters to me. Making me wait because you want to finish a debate about Lady Gaga really matters.

If I’m a regular and the staff recognize or at least acknowledge me, I tip more. If I’m picking up a big, complicated takeout order and they take pains to make sure it’s perfect, I tip more. Breakfast waitresses who call me “Hon,” bring lots of coffee and touch my shoulder always get more than 15 percent.

Listen, I understand just how hard restaurant work can be. Years ago I worked in a succession of Boulder restaurant kitchens. I tip well even though I was never tipped during my years on the line in the heat.  

By the way, I finally got to the counter and ordered my coffee. On automatic pilot I put my change in the jar. The guy behind the counter smiled and said, “Thanks.”

For once, it felt right.

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