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Modern tipping: Who's included?

Akron native Patrick Winney works behind a bar on Buffalo’s Hertel Avenue. He makes complicated drinks for lines of patrons, exchanges money with customers, and exhales friendly banter between orders under the jamming hum of a Phish soundtrack.

One would think that tipping a busy man like Winney is a given. But it isn’t — because he serves coffee, not cocktails.

Such a discrepancy was once accepted. But times are changing…for some. Winney’s barista position at Spot Coffee is just one of the many modern service jobs challenging traditional tipping norms. And it’s confusing consumers in the process. For generations, gratuities have been bestowed on low-hourly-wage gigs like waiting tables and tending bar. Now, they’re solicited via jar, digital receipt or app by everyone from fast food cashiers to grocery shoppers to Uber drivers.

All are looking for monetary acknowledgement of their dedicated — and, at times, demanding — service. But while tipping wait staff and bartenders is regular practice, it’s still ambiguous in these other service sectors.

“I’d genuinely hope patrons would consider tipping anyone in the service industry who they believe gave them good service, up to and including burrito chefs, ice cream scoopers and baristas,” said Thomas Jablonski, co-owner and bartender at Buffalo’s Lockhouse Distillery.

Jablonski does note that servers and bartenders rely more heavily on tips for income, however. The minimum wage for tipped food service workers is $7.50 in WNY, compared to $10.40 for general minimum wage workers (including baristas and other service workers).

For many, that’s where the confusion – and resistance — lies. Despite the tip jar — or the “suggested” tip boxes that come when signing digital receipts — some consider the heightened prices of goods or discrepancy in starting wages as points that make some tips seem unnecessary.

But others consider gratuities a nice extra for service workers who go beyond their typical duties.

“Blender drinks take so long to make, and there’s so much that goes into them,” said Winney during a recent Saturday night shift. Cranking through espressos, cappuccinos and caramel macchiatos, the four-year Spot veteran isn’t exactly pulling black coffees. Depending on the order, his work can be as complicated as any martini-mixing bartender — but that’s hardly reflected in his nightly tips, which range anywhere from $15 to $30 per shift.

So what’s the final word?

Consumers are now expected to tip everyone from manicurists to tattoo artists (15 to 20 percent on final sale) and your local coffee curator, whose (stellar) service should earn up to $1 a drink, says Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. As for ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, tips can be added to the final transaction after trips are complete. The typical 15 percent assigned to traditional cab rides is customary.

No matter what your current outlook, the act of tipping is still, in essence, an altruistic means of compensating all manners of service. According to Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management, the confusion is understandable, but that’s mostly because of tradition.

“Social norms play a big role. Customers expect to tip and are expected to tip in some service areas, and not in others,” said Lindsey, whose consumer behavior research has been published in numerous academic journals. “In domains where tipping is commonplace, the type or nature of the service experience — whether quick-service versus full-service, etc. — impacts attitudes toward tipping.”

That’s the easy answer to any service situation: exceptional service warrants extra compensation. Whether it’s customary or not, the hustling bartender, efficient driver or multitasking barista may all warrant a little extra for going above and beyond the product you’re paying for.

This establishes generosity as the new social norm — and we can all drink to that.

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