Tip Drill

When I first arrived to Japan as a young airman in the Air Force I had to go to this extended long, two-week orientation at the First Term Airman Center. For me, it was a break from having to work on the flight line. We sat through countless briefings and guys with a few stripes trying to impress the young women fresh to the island. Besides the work and weird stuff, we also got a chance to tour the island and eat at local establishments off the base. I took mental notes of a few places I wanted to revisit and only ate what was recognizable because these were new flavors, AND we had a community bathroom in the dorm, not worth the risk. The island tour and some of the briefers relayed a few customs, courtesies, dos, and don’ts of Japan living. One of the briefers that I wasn’t paying attention to said, “it’s no need to tip, they’re just doing their job” and I thought he was just a cheap bastard, so I blew it off and kept on thinking of where I was going when the day was over. 

One of the places I wanted to revisit was a little sit-down spot that served “pizza”. Pizza is in quotes because they put corn on it and as a Chicagoan well versed in pizza, I disapprove of this topping along with pineapples, broccoli, pine nuts and arugula. Look, if you want a salad get it as the appetizer, don’t ruin a perfectly fine pizza with these things. Moving on. Outside of their questionable tastebuds, the service far exceeded anything I witnessed to that point in America. When the check came, I paid, and it was like I could hear the briefing replaying in my mind “no need to tip” and I recalled what I thought of that guy and attempted to leave a tip anyway. The waitress was insistent that I take my money back, which really just means she told me twice “no tip”. I thought it was odd, but surely wasn’t complaining because we weren’t getting paid well as young airmen.

Just Doing My Job

photo of japanese lanterns
Photo by Audrey Mari on Pexels.com

I noticed after that, in many of the restaurants I went to near the base, there would be a sign that said no tipping please. I just viewed it as a win-win situation and kept it moving. After being there for almost 4 years this was ingrained in me. When I went to Belgium it was the same way, but they didn’t have signs up and whether they would take it or not was a toss-up. The service in Europe was damn near terrible compared to Japan so, many cases I was actually happy that tipping was such a rare thing. I was in Belgium for slightly over 2 years, with a total of just under of 6 years overseas I couldn’t imagine moving back to the states. It came down to option a, stay in this bad career field and extend time in Belgium or option b, cross train and potentially go to a stateside base. Yeah, I took the long-term view and went with option b.

Back To Reality

As expected, my overseas assignment luck ended with that decision. I went to San Antonio to cross train into a different career field and it was a major eye opener on every front when I got back. Not only was I getting paid a lot less, everywhere I looked the streets were dirty, all of the food I ate tasted super sweet, portions were enormous, and the service was worse than Europe by a great deal. I went with a group to a decent sit-down establishment, with borderline trash service and so-so food. When the bill arrived, I looked and they added 18% gratuity automatically and there was still a line for a tip. In that moment I wanted to go back to Europe or Japan because to me it was unacceptable. I’m not a jerk, so I added like $2 to the cost of my meal, but that was easily $2 more than the service was worth. 

I never lived overseas after that, so I was reconditioned to pay extra for mediocre service and think that’s normal. It didn’t take long, but I always felt a bit salty giving these people, clearly indifferent or unconcerned, a bonus for doing the league minimum. There was a place that I went to with bad service…I still left a tip because I knew that waitress was making next to nothing as an hourly wage. The waitstaff in the overseas places I have lived make a livable wage, so the “tip” is already reflected in the price of the meal much like fast food establishments here. 

Feel The Pressure

For the first 41 years of my life, I rarely ever went to a Starbucks establishment and by rare, I mean 10 to 20 times tops. When I did go, I was with other people, and I’d only get something to not be empty handed, much like a social drinker in a bar. Most of those trips though, the other person paid for my drink. Fast forward to the last 2 months of my life (as of me writing this), I have been to Starbucks at least 20 times and I’ve paid about 95% of the time. I typically get tea, if not tea then it’s one of the lemonade options, never coffee, never anything that requires skill to make. Since so many places have gone cashless, I am now conditioned to not bring dollars with me anywhere. As a result, I’m reminded and basically pressured into leaving a tip every time I pay at Starbucks. Though the people are typically nice, I won’t lie to you, the tip prompt on the card reader annoys me. 

Starbucks made $32B in gross revenue, $23B in gross profit in 2022, their average barista makes about $12 to $15 per hour. If your math is mathing right now, it costs them $9B to break even and they are profiting a little more than 2.5 times their break even point…yet pressuring consumers to pay a lil extra for their employee’s wellbeing. If they allotted $2B of the $23B in profit towards paying their workers more, then they could stop shaking me down for an extra dollar or 3. My company makes nowhere near what Starbucks makes and I can’t even imagine paying my employees the bare minimum and leaving the ability for them to make ends meet up to the kindness of strangers. Different industries for sure, but that shouldn’t matter. 

It’s Bigger Than That

In the U.S. we are conditioned to pass the buck to someone else. Corporate greed and insane income inequality are baked into our lives and we aren’t better off for it. With all of the bonuses, kickers, stock options and so on, the CEO of Starbucks could make $28M a year. That is almost 1200 times the salary of an average barista. We have been conditioned to think this is not only OK, but a goal to strive for. Sometimes you have to ask yourself “where does the buck stop” in these situations. Being the CEO of any company is a hard job and warrants a higher pay for sure, but 1200 times that of the average worker is criminal. The greed is so crazy that these executives are preying on everyday people to ensure their pockets stay swollen while their employees are praying that those same people will help them out. As soon as I move into my new home this won’t be an issue that directly impacts me any longer, because I’ll make my tea there like I have for the bulk of my life. However, the trend of corporate greed is ruining all of our daily lives one way or another, sometimes subtle and indirect like property crime, others blatant and in your face like paying a tip. 

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