The Gestalt of Gratuities… The Context of Tips… The Background on Bakshish…

By Tim Castle, Author & President of Castle & Co.

Supposedly, the term “TIP” first came into use shortly after the founding of London’s Lloyd’s Coffeehouse in 1688. Perhaps apocryphally, the word is said to have been an acronym signifying “To Insure Promptness”, and may have even come into use first at Lloyd’s. It is chilling then, to think that today’s coffeehouse could have christened, if not helped to foster, such a retrograde, unwholesome, and widely practiced custom.

Why am I criticizing tipping in its modern-day form? Let me share an anecdote…

Many years ago I was invited by the Ueshima Coffee Company to present a paper at a coffee conference that they were sponsoring. Upon arrival at the Osaka airport there was a porter waiting to help me. When my host’s representative located and took me to the taxi, I attempted to tip the guy helping with my bags. He immediately recoiled and the UCC rep waved my dollars away. “This is Japan,” they said in unison, “there is no tipping.”

After a couple of days I got the hang of it and accepted that it was NOT my place to augment the compensation of anyone already being paid to perform their job. Indeed, everyone seemed to take pride in what they were doing and in doing it well. Even the busboy took pride in his efficiency, attentiveness and discretion — in a restaurant, plates would arrive and depart with magical grace; and only after I was actually finished with one course and ready to proceed to the next. There was no, “are you finished sir?” as I was lifting another bite of food to my mouth or a clueless, “no worries,” (in the current parlance) as if I was the offending party when I noted that I was still trying to enjoy the food in front of me.

There is a dynamic in this country and indeed, throughout the “West,” that if someone has ended up with the job of serving tables, opening doors, hefting luggage, cleaning rooms, driving cabs, etc., that they’ve gotten a raw deal. Indeed, there are drawbacks to this type of work. First of all, they are paid substandard wages because their employers (and the employees themselves) assume that a good part of their income will be in tips. Second, when we DO tip, there is always the unspoken question as to whether it is too much or too little and, I find at least, that every “transaction” of this kind is always freighted with a little touch of anxiety and antagonism. “Did I give him/her enough? Too much? Do they resent me? Do they think me a fool (or worse) for over-tipping?”

Anyway, to finish that anecdote, when I arrived back to the US from my trip to Japan I walked out of baggage claim, dragging my bags, to the next taxi. The driver, a huge man, stood there doing nothing while I loaded my bags into the trunk. I will never forget the large hole in his t-shirt that showcased a good expanse of his belly. When I got into the car and told him where I needed to go, he then proceeded to rant, for the entire ride, about his disgust with the current political situation and his solutions to correct it. Meanwhile, trying to tune him out, I remembered the Japanese drivers waiting outside our restaurant one afternoon while we concluded a long, delicious lunch. They had already vacuumed the interiors of each taxi, changed the cotton doilies on the headrests and waxed the cars (in their black suits, white shirts and ties). Then, having nothing to do, one driver was removing the excess wax that got stuck in the nameplate of the otherwise perfectly buffed car with a toothpick.

When my US driver got to my office, I tipped him generously, telling him to “keep the change.” I was afraid he’d beat the crap out of me if I didn’t.

Now, it has to be said, we are dealing with different cultures, and centuries, if not millennia, of tradition. It is fair to say, and mutually accepted, that Japan is a more collective and less entrepreneurial society, and that the “West,” and particularly “USA” is more focused on the individual’s potential (or lack thereof) and, at the same time leaves that individual, however ruthlessly, to fend for his or her own success or failure. (Over time, “Western” culture has become more divided in this regard, and many nations have demonstrated that a meaningful social safety net can coexist with the potential for tremendous entrepreneurial success, but we’ll leave that for another article).

The inspiration for this opinion piece was found in an online article that Tracy Ging, the former Deputy Director of the SCAA, pointed out to me. It was about a restaurant in Austin, co-operatively owned by its employees, that has adopted a no-tip policy. [http://bit.ly/MHoCda] At this restaurant at least, the practice seems to make for more satisfied workers and customers.

One problem: such a tip-less system requires a culture we lack, a mutual respect for the customer and worker. Regardless of the busboy’s or server’s or bellhop’s eventual life goals, most “hospitality” patrons have a hard time respecting the roles these workers serve. Nor is the customer always respected; at times, they are seen as rubes to be conned.

In the retail coffee industry, a lot has been accomplished to elevate the role of the barista from a sometimes exceptional but often fallible milk-steaming-automaton to a dedicated and even accomplished (sometimes award winning!) professional. Many retailers have also made the commitment to pay their coffee bar employees a “living wage” that does not pre-suppose a certain percentage of tips.

But for a “tip-free” system to flourish (as it seemed to in Japan when I was there) there needs to be a relationship of mutual respect between customer and employee. Anyone would be hard-pressed to provide great service—or a great cup of espresso, for example—to someone who looks down on the job. It is equally difficult to accept and appreciate great service while worrying exactly how much is expected in cold hard cash once we’ve received our coffee.

Without the option of tipping, though, there’s the fear that we may just get an average cup of coffee and we (selfish individuals that we are) lose the opportunity to buy our way into some sort of special service (or uber-latte?) of which the person behind us in the line is unaware. We have to have faith that the people serving us are always doing the best job they can. With an entrenched system of gratuity-motivated service, however, we’re almost guaranteed that they’re not.

Culturally I would suggest that our industry is at the cusp of an opportunity to proclaim that every link in the supply chain of specialty coffee is artisanally focused and deserving of commensurate, tip-free compensation. We are not yet at the point where it is accepted that throwing the “change” into the tip jar is clearly expected or not. Unlike bellhops, even the best baristas are not yet at the point where they will glare nastily at the patron who dares not offer a healthy gratuity. (Do you dig into your purse, wallet or pockets for spare change if you charge your coffee to a credit card and aren’t even offered a receipt many times? With no slip to sign, there’s no line to include a tip, after all.)

We can make the promise to our final customer, the coffee drinker, that if they choose to support our businesses by buying our product, whether by the pound or the cup, that they have a right to insist upon an exceptional experience every time in every aspect from, as we are wont to say, bean to cup. Specialty coffee customers have already agreed to pay a premium for great coffee — if we fulfill that promise let’s dispense with the tip jar and tell them, “There is no tipping in specialty coffee land.” But that statement commits us to ensuring everyone in the supply chain is adequately acknowledged (that would include, but is not limited to, financial compensation) for his or her contribution to that final cup of coffee.

Did you like this article? Did you enjoy reading it? If so, please feel free to send a small token of your appreciation to me in care of the Chronicle, and you better mark it “personal and confidential,” just in case…

For 30+ years, Tim Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup, (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991. Presently, he is launching a blog: www.CoffeeCurmudgeon.com. (Even though he has been told that no one reads blogs anymore.)

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