Once a mainstay of bars and crowded clubs, the tip jar has spread to restaurants, coffeehouses and ice cream parlors. If there’s a counter, there’s probably a glass jar stuffed with bills on top of it — and it’s driving some customers nuts.
There’s a moral dilemma playing out at cash registers everywhere: to tip or not to tip?
Once a mainstay of bars and crowded clubs, the tip jar has spread to restaurants, coffeehouses and ice cream parlors.
If there’s a counter, there’s probably a glass jar stuffed with bills on top of it — and it’s driving some customers nuts.
“Sometimes I pay with a credit card just to avoid having to throw change in there,” Janae Boudin said. “Now takeout places are throwing that maddening little tip line on the receipt.”
Boudin said she is “wholeheartedly against” the concept of tip jars.
“Your job is to make my coffee. Your job is to make my sandwich,” she said. “Workers are already compensated with wages. I shouldn’t have to pay them for doing their job.”
It’s an assessment with which some etiquette experts agree.
James G. Lewis, who writes the online reference www.tipguide.org, advises against tips for food-service employees who don’t wait tables. He believes tip jars at counter-service restaurants are out of place.
The Emily Post Institute —founded by the titular etiquette author in 1946 — offers a somewhat kinder evaluation of the increasingly common practice. According to the organization’s Web site, www.emilypost.com, customers are not obligated to use tip jars but may occasionally want to reward exceptional service.
But for the customer actually navigating the countertop landmine, tip jars still represent a moral gray area.
“I hate how you practically have to reach over the tip jar in most places to get your change,” said Kent Carson, a self-described “Starbucks regular." “I don’t need that 57 cents, but it would be nice to have options.”
Carson said he isn’t opposed to the use of tip jars — he just wonders if they’ve become a little too ubiquitous.
“Tipping has become so automatic it makes it hard to reward a job truly well done,” he said. “Do I owe everyone my spare change, or just my favorite barista?”
When he tried to slip her an extra dollar, Carson said, he was directed back to the tip jar because it’s against company policy for individual employees to accept tips.
Most places divide the tip jar money among all employees on duty during a particular shift, not unlike full-service restaurants that expect servers to pool their tips or share with busboys.
“We split the jar evenly based on whoever’s here,” said Jess Derendt, manager at Cafe Andiamo. “You may only see two people in front, but we want to keep it fair for the kitchen staff.”
Employees of counter-service establishments are fiercely protective of their tip jars. Even though they’re not a significant source of income (Derendt said his usual take is about enough to pay for parking), they’re a way to pull in a few extra bucks.
Kelly Boettche, a longtime Bentoh’s employee, said she might get $20 at the end of a busy shift. Most of her tips come from regular customers, who usually throw a dollar into the fishbowl on the counter. The average meal at Bentoh’s costs about $10.
“You don’t have to tip, but if you eat in, we will carry your food to your table and clear your dishes after your meal,” Boettche said. “We’re courteous and thank them (the customers) regardless.”
Employees at Bentoh’s put a dollar in the tip jar each morning to encourage tipping, Boettche said. But the location of the jar — right next to the cash register — isn’t meant to inspire guilt.
“We’ve had people try to take our tip jar, especially back when it was more of a tip bowl,” Boettche said. “They’ll ask for water, try to trick us into turning their back. We had one woman actually get out the door with it. She came back in about a year later, but we didn’t take our eyes off her.”
Boettche said she imagines it would be much harder to steal from the new tip jar, which is big enough for several goldfish to call home.
Tip jars can help counter-service restaurants project their overall image. While the fishbowl at Bentoh’s is unadorned, the large plastic jug at Cold Stone Creamery is affixed with a “For Fun Well Done” label.
That’s because employees are expected to sing ice cream-themed tunes whenever a customer makes a contribution.
“When we first opened, people wanted to hear a song, so tips were good,” employee Kelsey Smith said. But that was four summers ago, and the novelty has since worn off. “Now people have backed off.”
Employees don’t interview at Cold Stone — they audition. Owner Cathy Gonet said she doesn’t look for the best singers, but for animated people who aren’t afraid to ham it up in front of customers. A little enthusiasm can go a long way, she said.
“I tell them to sing even if they don’t get tips,” Gonet said. “A happier customer is more likely to tip, and if there’s a line and someone tips, it’s pretty much tip, tip, tip after that.”
So which customers are the best tippers? Adults, said Gonet, many of whom will throw in a dollar or two for a $4 order.
“Most teenagers will just dump their change,” she said. “Adults have more money, more life experience.”
Cold Stone customer Liz Smith-Stanley said she tossed in a buck and earned an off-key rendition of a Disney tune.
“The singing gets a little old, but it’s an ice-cream parlor,” she said. “You don’t go in if you don’t want a bit of good cheer. Besides, they’re just kids. People who don’t tip don’t remember what it was like to be 16.”
The take from the Cold Stone tip jar can range from a few bucks on a slow night to $10 to $20 on a busy weekend. Employee April Howlett said that although everyone is treated equally it’s hard not to be frustrated when customers don’t tip for large or complex orders.
“Sometimes there’s a line of people, and the person paying for everyone is at the end,” she said. “So you’re rushing to put together their $50 order, then they pay with a credit card. It’s like, come on. Couldn’t you at least give a buck?”
Some customers do consider quality and quantity as their hands pass over the tip jar. James Beard said he did not leave a tip for a simple order from sandwich shop Head West.
“If I’m ordering for myself, I don’t usually tip,” Beard said. “If I’m ordering two or three sandwiches to take back to the office, then I throw in a buck for holding up the line. I call it the ‘one person, one sandwich’ rule. You only have to tip when you’re in violation of it.”
Beard said he also tips when restaurants accommodate special requests, like when his son, a picky eater, asks workers to hold the tomatoes, lettuce and mayo.
But another customer, Brian Walsh, said he’s tired of all the justifications. It’s time to return the tip jar to where it came from, he said.
“You tip a bartender to make it easier to get the next round. You don’t need another round of espresso, sandwiches or ice cream — no tip.”
Elle Moxley can be reached at (217) 788-1532 or email@example.com.