East Williamsburg

How baristas really feel about tip-free service

October 26, 2022 Lindsey Scharold
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In the Summer of 2022, an idealistic coffee shop — aptly named Principles — opened in Gowanus. This shop serves up specialty coffee and vegan baked goods in a bike-friendly storefront, all without the expectation of tipping. Principles is the second of two gratuity-free coffee shops in Brooklyn, along with East Williamsburg’s hustling and bustling staple, Sey, which opened in 2017. Underlying these coffee shops’ tipless service models are high morals, but for the baristas behind the counter, the matter is more complicated.

Until recently, Principles was a one-person operation, but owner Katie Bishop just hired her first employee. As she reflected on past experiences in service, Katie grew uncomfortable with the reality that service industry workers have long been reliant on variable tips from customers, rather than on a consistent wage provided by their employers. For Katie, tipping has many drawbacks, not least of which is the emphasis tipping places on performance and the ways it over-privileges customer opinion. Service industry workers like Katie feel they “[have] to jump through hoops for a customer that may or may not tip you based only on your service.” “It feels wrong,” she says. “I don’t like my pay to be dictated by the whims of [customers].” Katie told me she has priced Principles’ menu items accordingly, which enables her to stock the products of her choice, afford the fair wages she wants to pay staff, and avoid the negative connotations of tipping.

The financial landscape for tipped workers has become increasingly fraught in the wake of widespread changes to the service industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid the inflation that has followed on its heels. Many restaurants in New York City that have tried to operate gratuity-free in recent years have now returned to tip-based service. Under a gratuity-free model, the value of service is skewed for both employees and customers—and turns both of them off.

A complicated and subjective arithmetic goes into considering whether a wage—paid or received—seems “worth it,” and tips are just another variable in this equation. In coffee shops, tips are often pooled and split between workers at the end of the day, based on the number of hours worked. This way, baristas who work during slower times still benefit. Less frequently, tips are distributed at the end of each shift. In this case, a business owner can reward an employee with more lucrative shifts at no cost to them. A similarly complicated thought process lies behind whether or not a business feels that they can reasonably hike up the prices on their menu in order to pay workers more without turning away customers.

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The exterior of Sey Coffee in East Williamsburg. Photo: Lindsey Scharold

Both Principles and Sey, whose logics are similar, have received favorable press for their ethical, tipless business models, and this praise has focused on the perspectives of the shop owners. But what do the baristas of gratuity-free coffee shops actually think about this service model?

“It’s complicated,” said one barista at Sey who explained that, although a new system has been put in place for raises, there are barriers which stand between baristas and the standards they must meet to earn a raise, not least of which is time. Earning a raise can depend on when and if their supervisors have time to provide extra training. This process might take a preventatively long time before a barista sees an increase in their wage. This barista told me that when they received tips in the past, they appreciated that they could immediately put cash into their pocket, or even ration it and treat it separately from their paycheck. For them, a tip jar full of bills was motivating.

“I don’t really like it,” said another, who told me that if Sey weren’t such a busy shop, they might feel differently. As it stands, however, the shop is probably one of the busiest in the neighborhood. This level of traffic places a high demand on their service, the number of customers they help, and the amount of effort they must put into their work, all without necessarily receiving the instant gratification that a full tip jar can symbolize. Even on a weekday afternoon, for example, seating was mostly full, with several staff shuffling behind the counter and folks in line to order. But, for better or for worse, this won’t have an impact on what the baristas earned that day.

By many people’s standards, the baristas at Sey make a very good wage, at upwards of $22 per hour, and the MIT Living Wage calculator puts the living wage for a single person with no dependents in King’s County at $25 per hour. It seems that for baristas, the issue with tipping does not necessarily lie in the take-home income, but rather in baristas’ perceptions that their work ethic is improperly valued by their employers—a problem most likely shared among the working class, regardless of their industry, and which cannot be solved through the dilemma of tipping alone.

Lindsey Scharold is a graduate student at The New School and former barista.


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