Flipping on Tipping
December 26, 2014
I don’t permit tipping at Bread Furst and now am wondering whether my opposition to it can be justified.
For me this is an aesthetic issue and I take my lesson from what I have experienced as a customer:
I order at the counter from a young woman in torn jeans and a wrinkled and slightly soiled shirt. I want a coffee to go. She turns around, takes a cup, presses a spigot, asking, “Leave room for milk?”
She turns back, hands the coffee to me and with a few strokes hands me an I-Pad that says:
Gratuity ______ 10 %
______ 15 %
______ 20 %
I think, “Jeeze, she’s filled a cup. Why should I tip her?” I look up querulously. She is looking directly, expectantly into my eyes.
I didn’t want customers to have this experience here and so I banished tipping.
Bread Furst’s first barista insisted that if I didn’t permit customers to tip, we would attract only substandard coffee makers. But Anthony who came to work here at the beginning put the lie to that and my position was vindicated.
But was it?
I tip happily in restaurants but don’t like tipping in retail stores. Is that rational? I think those big labeled jars carefully placed at cash registers are vulgar. I never know how much to tip for someone who fills a soup container. Should it be 20 percent? Surely not but that’s what I tip in restaurants?
So how much if at all?
It all makes little sense to me. Why should I tip at Five Guys but not at the dry cleaner? How much should I tip a taxi driver? Why does it seem right to some customers to tip a higher percentage in a really expensive restaurant where the waitstaff earn a lot from their tips than in a really inexpensive one where the waitstaff do not?
All questions that led me to banished tipping when we opened. Here is what makes me now question my decision:
First, some customers want to tip. That’s what staff say. They report they are forced to say all the time to customers holding out cash, “The owner doesn’t permit tipping.”
Second, it is said that tipping produces better service. There’s more eye contact between customer and server, more smiling, more engagement, more effort if money is at stake.
I am not so sure about that. In restaurants at least tipping is expected. Really egregious service might have some effect but I think most people tip according to a formula they carry into restaurants with them – 12, percent, 15 percent, 17 percent or something. It’s a habit.
But what leads me now to question my no-tipping policy is that although we pay staff well compared to other small independent stores, I cannot pay people what I would like to pay.
The minimum wage in Washington is $9.50, going to $10.50 this July. But $9.50 an hour is less than $20,000 a year. Bread Furst pays no one less than $12 but $12 an hour is only $25,000. This not a living wage and it’s more than we can afford.
We can’t pay more than that. Of all the difficulties faced by small businesses one of most insoluable is that very few of us can pay people as much money as they want to earn. That in turn means we can’t attract and hold full-time people. That in turn means we are dependent on part-time people. And that means a revolving staff. I would like an engaged full-time staff always at the front of our bakery.
One of our best part-time retail staffers is now reducing her time at Bread Furst from 50 hours a week to 16. She has an opportunity to do an internship she thinks will look good to admissions offices when she applies to the MBA program to which she aspires.
An MBA? Why? Why does our nation need one more MBA? Because she can’t earn in a small business like ours what she wants to earn in life. She can’t get in a small business like ours the benefits she can get from Price Waterhouse Coopers. I cannot pay enough to hold this young woman and she cannot imagine a career in small business. (She may, of course, change her mind after a few years in the smothering, stultifying organizations about which she now dreams.)
Tipping is not going to solve that problem. But my refusal to allow it combined with the financial realities of a small business depress earning power here. Is that fair to staff?
On the other hand, is it fair to assign to customers the responsibility for raising the incomes of the people who work at Bread Furst?
My advisor, Mark Spindel, sent me an article that just appeared in Vox (http://www.vox.com/2014/7/17/5888347/one-more-case-against-tipping). It makes a good, if hyperbolic case against tipping. I know the great case against it and I think about what it would be like for the customers if I change my policy. I think about how such a change in policy might get made.
I confess to you that it is the aesthetics that I cannot imagine. I can’t imagine putting one of those jars on the counter.
Indeed, I don’t want to change; and yet am I being fair to the staff? Am I preventing increases in their income that Bread Furst can’t afford to pay?
And what about customers? Is it true that customers feel coerced in tipping establishments or is that just my problem?
My grandfather used to say, “Sometimes you have to rise above principle in order to do what’s right.” Is this one of those times?