Flipping on Tipping

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: 

Coffee                              $2.95

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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21 thoughts on “Flipping on Tipping

  1. I think your staff deserves tips. They work hard, offer great service. And I don’t share your aversion to tip jars, aesthetically or otherwise!

  2. I think a tip “jar” leaves the customer more free than the check box on the e receipt. And I’m sure you could find one that was as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of the shop (maybe a rustic pottery jar or one wrapped in the kind of embroidered fabric that graces the staff’s “hats” so you don’t have an unsightly jar of cash on the counter – I certainly wouldn’t mind to drop in some extra $ for such helpful, friendly servers! We love Bread Furst!

  3. We are in Bread Furst on a very regular basis and we always are a bit uncomfortable about not tipping your terrific staff. We would be happy to tip in whatever way you decide is appropriate, and applaud your willingness to revisit the issue.

  4. Tipping was originally meant to be for exceptional service. Now it is expected by everyone no matter how little they do. I hate tipping…it is unfair to the customer who didn’t get any special service, and it is unfair to the exceptional employee who doesn’t get tipped! So I would like to live in a world where everyone does there job and NO ONE gets tipped! That’s called pride in your work and fairness.

  5. Dear Mark,

    I am against tipping at service counters and don’t do it. For what it is worth, I find it awkward and offensive to face those tip jars.

    Thanks for asking, Susan

  6. What a refreshing website and blog. I am a big fan of Breadline, and look forward to being able to buy a loaf of “real” bread during the weekend at Bread Furst.

    As for tipping, I don’t mind tip jars, but I understand they’re not the most beautiful features of a bakery counter; however, jars or no jars, customers should be able to say “please keep the change” if they wish, without anything but a “thank you” in return (i.e. no explanation about how or why tipping is not allowed). Live and let tip!

    PS Does the fact there is a photo of a muffuletta on the website also mean they are available in store? I didn’t see them on the online sandwich menu.

  7. What to do? What to do? It is a question of good taste versus thoughtfulness for your wonderful, friendly servers. Perhaps, if you must, a bowl made of bread at the checkout counter for tips would be appropriate.

  8. Like others, we are regulars at BreadFurst and so appreciate you and what the bakery is about, very much including the wonderful staff like Anthony and the young woman reducing her time to prepare for an MBA.

    I’d respectfully suggest your honest and wonderful question about tipping is the wrong question to be asking, though I do think some tipping, in a way right for your business and values would be both possible and good.

    The question should be ‘How can a small business like mine identify, attract, inspire and retain the kind of staff we most value and need?”

    The answers to that are multifaceted and go way beyond tipping. I’d be happy to talk with you about it if interested.

  9. A lot has to do with how your staff would deal with a tip jar. If it is inconspicuous and off to the side of the counter, let customers tip if they’d like. When it is a large jar with a sign pointing to it, and staff expect to get something from everyone, then that will make me not want to come back to the store.

    One of your other posts mentions wanting criticism and feedback– but there’s not a clear venue for it.

    One thing that would make me stop by more often is to have at least an estimate of calories in the foods (lack of calorie info, and cash only, may have hurt some of the breakfast sales). I treat the bakery as an occasional treat, and just assume the worst for calories. I also live alone, and the breads will usually go stale before I can eat most of it (I think my most recent corn rye purchase this weekend was stale before I left the store– with my nice bread knife, and even just my hands, I could barely tear a piece off!). I loved the ficelles because they were a one-person size, but was told after stopping in several times to ask, that they didn’t sell well and won’t be made any longer. Summary– let me know if Bread Furst is an indulgence or can be worked into my diet, and help all us single people enjoy the bread, too (demi-loaves on weekends???).

    • I hope that our bakery, like traditional bakeries, will become a store in which you can find a great deal more than an occasional treat. We offer foods that mostly vegetarian and low in calories. We offer sweets that are small and therefore lower in calories than larger ones. As for bread, the mainstay of traditional foods, it too, particularly our whole grain breads, is filling and fairly low in calories.

      You can buy the size of bread you want. We do sell baguettes whole but all the other breads we sell we sell by weight. You can buy half a pound or a quarter of a pound or even less.

      Thanks for all these thoughts and if you have others, you and all may write to me at MHF@remarkablebreads.com.

  10. I wouldn’t spend too much time struggling with this issue. Tips really produce relatively little income for workers at this level, and it isn’t stable enough for them to include in any budget decisions (such as choosing an apartment or making a car payment). It imparts a significant feeling of power and control to the worker though, which many entry level staff don’t get via their normal work duties.

    The low wage floor is an issue, and suggests that your business model may not provide enough income for the staff you desire. But individual businesses really can’t impact the labor market enough to resolve this. A higher area minimum wage would make your prices somewhat more elastic perhaps, but many of these lower end jobs rely on the public to subsidize much of the labor cost via SNAP or Section 8. Your other examples are of far different industries and labor dynamics. The fast food franchise is predicated on speed, not service. Taxi drivers lease their cars or buy them and pay cab companies for dispatch services daily. All of the meter fare goes to the driver. You aren’t really tipping in that case, you are just paying more than the legal fare.

    I feel that there are ways to offer the option of tipping, post-sale, where there is little or no pressure on the consumer.

  11. I visit your store regularly to purchase bread. Just bread. In addition, coming from europe, I have a general aversion to tipping. So, I’m not one of your customers asking you for the permission to tip. This being said, if some of your customers want to tip, please let them. I personally would not feel coerced to tip the person handing me my baguette because of the presence of a tipping jar. And I would not mind having your coffee-drinking, breakast-eating, tip-giving customers improve the bottomline of my corner bakery a bit more.

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