Customers, employees debate the tipping point

"Gratuities for exceptional service'' reads one tip jar.

"Tips welcome!" reads another.

The proliferation of tip jars at local coffeehouses, pizza places, sub and ice cream shops (even delis) are changing our tipping protocols, leading some South Floridians and tourists to wonder whether they should tip and, if so, by how much?

Shop managers allow the tip boxes to help their workers earn more dough. Some employees depend on these extra wages to boost their minimum wage, now $7.79 an hour in Florida.


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But the social pressure of whether to chunk some change into a tip cup or risk being a tightwad to a service employee you see regularly has pushed some customers to their tipping point. Experts, consumers and even the workers have different tips (so to speak) on what folks should do when they encounter these counter-top tip jars.

"There isn't really an established percentage for tip jars,'' said Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. "It's whatever you feel like giving."

Whitmore suggests tossing any spare change from a transaction into a tip jar; she does this when she orders food from the counter at Nature's Way, a health food eatery in Lake Worth.

"If you feel they have done something extra special for you, or you just want to give them a tip, I would suggest leaving the remainder of the change in the tip jar," she said. "I think those people work very hard and they make so little, it's nice if you've got the money to give them a little something extra. Tipping is good karma.''

But she noted that people shouldn't feel like cheapos if they don't leave anything in the jar. "If you go there often and you tip most of the time but you can't do it, I don't think you should feel bad. It's not mandatory."

Part of the issue, according to Steve Dublanica, a former server and author of the book "Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity," is that these jars are popping up in places that consumers wouldn't have associated with tipping a few years ago.

"I think the aggravation is that people go to the deli and they go to Subway and they see the tip jar and think, 'What is going on?'" said Dublanica who lives in New Jersey.

Recent tough economic times may be making people take notice of these tip jars and re-evaluate whether to feed them.

"When people are counting their every penny, they are probably more aware of tip jars and a server expecting a gratuity in what may not be a customarily tipped transaction,'' said Geoff Luebkemann, vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, an industry group that has a third of its members in South Florida.

Still, Dublanica thinks people should have a game plan because tips help employees who lack work benefits. "When you look at pizza places [or] little coffee shops that may not have that kind of ability to offer sick time, health insurance or any kind of job benefit, the tip jar becomes very important because it's the only benefit for that job,'' Dublanica said. "This is a way for these people to make extra, and you're the extra."

South Floridians tossed in their own two cents on the tipping jar etiquette debate through the Sun Sentinel's Facebook page.

"If you go to Burger King, there is no tip jar. You order your stuff, you take it to your table,'' said Al Llapur, a retired police officer who lives in Coral Springs. "There is a local pizza shop next to me. You go up to the counter and you order your stuff. There is a tip jar. What did they do? They didn't do anything to earn it."

Llapur, 63, describes himself as a good tipper at restaurants, leaving 25 percent, and at his local hair stylist where he said he leaves 30 percent but he doesn't believe everyone deserves money in their tip jar just because it's there.

"I just believe you've got to earn it."

Yet others think the tip jars are a good thing, a reward for good service.

"Regarding tip jars at Subway, Cold Stone, etc., I leave $1 if they're friendly,'' commented Michelle LaWall-Vargas, of Lake Worth. "If not, they get nada!"

For some local service counter employees, those extra nickels and quarters add up nicely.

"It's really gratifying,'' said Lekem Hudson, a 20-year-old employee at a Subway shop in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where he makes an extra $100 a month from the tip box. He puts most of that money into savings. Tips range from 75 cents to $1.

"I really appreciate it because I work hard, but I don't feel bad if they don't put any money in," Hudson said. "You don't work for the tip. You work for the store. The tips are like a bonus.''

johnnydiaz@tribune.com, 954-356-4939