Tip jars making sense

Friday, September 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

tip jar sitting beside the register at your favorite coffee shop – its mouth gaping, waiting to be fed, begging for coins, maybe a buck – can inspire a daily dose of anxiety with your morning latte.

"Am I expected to tip? But the counter guy's just pouring me a $1.25 cup of coffee. What does he expect? Fifteen percent, same as waiters, or just my change? Wait a minute, my change is 75 cents – that's a 60 percent tip! ... Fine, sigh ... Darn! He wasn't even looking. Maybe I can take my money back out and drop it in again."

Like we said: anxiety.

While tip jars are becoming ubiquitous at service-oriented businesses – popping up everywhere from doughnut shops and car washes to newsstands and smoothie bars – no corresponding tip-jar standard has developed.

To get a better feel for the subject, we visited several establishments around Dallas and randomly surveyed customers for their personal policies. We found that they fall into three general camps.

The change droppers

The most popular tipping strategy, according to our informal survey, is to tip whatever change is left over from the transaction.

Jerry Caldwell, 25, eats breakfast every morning at John's Cafe on Lower Greenville. Every few days, he'll put the 75 cents change from the $6 he uses to pay his $5.25 tab into the jar beside the register. It's a 15percent tip, similar to what he leaves for waiters.

Even though John's Cafe doesn't have waiters, Mr. Caldwell figures the staff still has to wash dishes, bus tables and do other labor-intensive chores.

He's also tipping for more intangible reasons.

"It's like anything else in life: If you do nice, it comes back to you," says Mr. Caldwell, a Web site administrator. "They let me sit here for two hours and don't charge me rent for the booth. So that's good karma turnabout for me."

John's Cafe is one of several businesses that has tip jars. Tips aren't expected at the breakfast/lunch counter, but customers often left money on the table. Owner John Spiros says customers, tired of the tabletop practice, instituted the jar (a can with a slit cut in the plastic lid and "tips" scrawled in marker).

Employees, on the other hand, replaced Vintage Car Wash's mailbox-style communal tip box with a Plexiglass rectangle. Now, everyone can see the tips inside. As a result, the average day's tips at the University Park business jumped from about $130 to between $150 and $175. The kitty is split at day's end among about 15 employees.

"Since [the tip box] has been clear, we've been getting more tips. It's kind of stimulated people to tip more," manager Margo Ruiz says.

David Sutherland is not one of those people. "Sometimes I tip relative to what something cost," says Mr. Sutherland, whose car wash cost $30. "Car washes are so expensive I can't imagine putting a tip in there."

The dollar dealers

A $3 cappuccino, though, is another story. Mr. Sutherland, a furniture importer, is among the folks who tip a whole dollar – no matter how modest their coffee order.

He frequents the Starbucks in Oak Lawn (tip jar: a 4-by-4-inch clear cube), where he says the friendliness and efficiency of the counter crew make them deserving.

"I appreciate their attitude in this day of bad service," Mr. Sutherland, 56, says, clutching his cappuccino.

"It seems ridiculous to tip $1 for a $3 cup of coffee. I don't do it every day. I do it every couple of days. My wife and I figure we have a $250 Starbucks habit."

Kasie Cates, 30, is another big tipper: a whole buck for a cup of "foo-foo" coffee. And if her change is less than 50cents, she'll dig around her purse for more.

Ms. Cates, a regular at Legal Grounds in Lakewood (tip jar: a glass fishbowl), is a full-time mother. But she used to work at a coffee counter, where the tips increased her day's wages by about a third.

A tip jar's proximity to the cash register is crucial. "Location is everything," she says.

Friendliness also is a decisive factor. Ms. Cates says the Legal Grounds staff knows her well enough to spot her on days when she doesn't have any cash. She rewards them accordingly on days when she's cash-rich.

Dollar dealers won't shell out for just anybody, though.

"There are places I've left without putting a tip in the jar because I can tell they're just biding time," Ms. Cates says.

What tip jar?

Bruno Mella, a 48-year-old Deep Ellum restaurateur, rarely tips for his $1 cup of morning coffee at Legal Grounds.

"I just buy the coffee and sit down," Mr. Mella says. "I just have the dollar on me."

On the other hand, a good martini makes Mr. Mella generous.

"Bars are different. I have a restaurant and bar, and I know bartenders are like waiters, getting $2.01 an hour," says Mr. Mella, who owns Mel's On Main. "I hope [the bartender] is knowledgeable about making a good drink. Whereas the coffee's already made."

If Pat Ivey, a voice teacher from Dallas, is buying just coffee, she typically does not tip. "My take on tip jars is they're just up there in case you want to contribute," she says, "like it's not really expected."

Web site designer David Smith, 42, echoes a common refrain when he says: "Tip jars are kind of annoying. I'm a little bit confused about their function. A tip is for somebody who's waiting on you."

Still, maybe a third of the time, he'll contribute – sometimes his change, sometimes a buck.

Behind the counter at Legal Grounds, Stephanie Bradford, 17, says she's not aware of whether people tip or not. But she can gauge how friendly she's been by the jar's contents at the end of her shift. She's also noticed that people tip better in the morning than the afternoon.

Pat Huff, who works at Smoothie King on Mockingbird Lane, says she gives the same service whether the customer tips or not.

But make no mistake: Those quarters and bills at day's end make a difference.

"It depends how far away it is to my payday," she says.

Melissa Morrison is a Phoenix free-lance writer.