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‘Tip creep’ at the coffee shop. Should we tip our baristas?

Compass Coffee barista Brittany Pugh makes and serves a latte in the Shaw neighborhood. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The New York Times reported over the weekend that Americans are feeling a “bit of tip creep.” The concept of tips is expanding, Hillary Stout wrote in the article, and, with the increasingly ubiquitous iPad payment systems prompting customers to tip after every transaction, people are now tipping more than just their waiters and bartenders.

The article cited a man who tipped $2 on a $4 cup of coffee — a whopping 50 percent — after he swiped his card on an iPad and was asked if he wanted to tip either $1, $2, $3 , or gasp, nothing on his purchase. That $2 might seem like an absurdly generous tip — particularly considering that baristas, unlike waiters and bartenders, generally make at least minimum wage — and the article sparked debate on how much, if anything, we should tip the workers at coffee shops.

The Awl’s Matt Buchanan weighed in Monday and attempted to squash any ambiguity on the practice, writing that people should tip their baristas at least $1 per drink, a norm that typically applies to ordering a drink at a bar.

In the District, there’s been a recent onslaught of new, swanky coffee shops — one even offers a $30 cup of joe! — and while there is far from a tipping standard, it seems that, yes, people are tipping their local baristas.

“I would say that 75 percent of people leave a tip,” says Max Brown, the owner of Chinatown Coffee, which uses the tablet-based Square payment system. “It’s such a subjective thing.”

It is still very much a subjective practice. Unlike a restaurant where people consistently tip between 15 and 25 percent, tipping for a cup of coffee that normally costs less than $5 can seem a bit awkward. Leaving an extra 60 cents for a$3 cup of coffee is a generous 20 percent, but tipping less than $1 on anything can feel a bit chintzy. Some people don’t tip at all, some just put whatever change they have on them in a tip jar, and others tip a buck or two, which often amounts to a generous 50 percent tip.

Take Pleasant Pops in Adams Morgan, for instance, where a regular cup of coffee costs $2.40. Emily Platt, the store’s marketing manager, said customers regularly leave a $1 tip on their coffee. Pleasant Pops also uses the Square payment system, which has preset tip options, and Platt said the store does about 80 percent of its sales on credit cards.

Not everyone feels a tip is required.

Some say that if they order a standard cup of coffee, they don’t see the need to tip. But if they order a more complicated coffee — for better or worse, an increasingly common art — they’re more compelled to leave one.

“Generally, I’ll tip a barista [a dollar or two] if they are making a cappuccino or something more intensive,” said E.V. Elington, who did not tip for a plain coffee at Shaw’s Compass Coffee on Tuesday morning.

At Compass Coffee, the baristas, who are paid a little more than minimum wage, each earn an extra $3 or so per hour from tips, according to general manager Tim Hayes. At nearby La Colombe in Blagden Alley, Steve Steinruck, the shop’s regional wholesale manager, said baristas typically make an extra $50 a day from tips. (La Colombe does not use a tablet-based payment system.)

Steinruck said customers are more likely to tip if they are regulars and know their barista. Sometimes he’ll have a customer who doesn’t tip frequently, but will tip $20 once a month. (At Starbucks, customers cannot leave a tip when paying with their credit card, but they can when using the app on their phones.)

“I think [people should tip,] it’s the service industry,” Steinruck said. “But customers are certainly not going to get a different type of service if they don’t tip.”

Same goes for Wydown Coffee Bar on 14th Street NW. Barista Bryan McTiernan said most people tip a dollar or two on their coffees, but it’s not expected and service does not change for customers who opt not to.

“Most people in D.C. are tipping,” he says. “I’ll take anything.”

So do you tip your barista? Leave your answer below.

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