At Kopplin's, tipping is out so workers get a raise

Order up
Andrew Kopplin serves up lattes and cappuccinos on January 27, 2015, at his shop in St. Paul, Minn. Kopplin's Coffee recently changed its compensation system, starting with the removal of the tip jar.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

If you're looking for raspberry, pumpkin or cookie dough-flavored drinks, Kopplin's Coffee probably isn't your best bet.

The cafe on St. Paul's western edge is modeled after traditional European coffee shops. It doesn't do decaf. There aren't any fancy toppings. But everyone seems just fine with that.

There was, however, a bit of commotion last month when Kopplin's eliminated one of the staples of American coffee shop culture: the tip jar.

"We basically decided we wanted to ban it," owner Andrew Kopplin said.

Some customers of the Marshall Avenue shop assumed taking away the tip jar meant taking money out of employees' pockets. But Kopplin said it's just the opposite.

"We raised our prices and then we gave our employees a significant raise so that they no longer have to rely on gratuity as part of their compensation," he said.

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For Kopplin, the standard coffeehouse business model — lower wages supplemented by tips — never felt quite right.

"It rewards employees who work in the mornings because that's when we're busy," he explained. "But it doesn't reward employees who clean the whole shop afterwards because that's not 'tippable' work."

Kopplin's wife Amanda, who co-owns the shop, looked into pooling tips and redistributing them based on hours worked. But she said pay inequalities remained.

"If you were working an evening shift in July, there were literally people who made 50 cents for their whole shift in tips," she said. "Then a Saturday morning in September you're making $35 in tips. How can we say to people, 'Oh, you're just as important even though you're making less'?"

Kopplin's is "part mom-and-pop shop, part specialty coffeehouse," says employee Oliver O'Doherty.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

The Kopplins decided to eliminate tips completely and raise the base pay from $9 an hour to $12.50. To do this, they needed to increase prices by 20 percent, adding about a buck to each drink. But before moving ahead, the owners wanted the approval of the nine employees who work the counter.

"If I'm going to put out a little sign that [tells customers] we'e charging you more to benefit our employees," Andrew Kopplin said, "the employees better agree that they're benefitting."

So the first week in December, Kopplin presented his proposal to employees.

"He gave us pie charts and graphs," recalled barista Anna McFall. "I think he was pretty nervous about how we would receive it, but everyone at the table was just beaming."

McFall even remembers some clapping.

Amanda Kopplin was taken aback by the employees' reactions.

"A couple of them almost started crying," she said. "Like, wow, these are people who totally trust us and are behind what we're doing and that's amazing. It's so important that they know we value them."

A month ago, a cappuccino would have cost $3.50. Today it's $4.25. The Kopplins worried about how customers would react to such price increases, but they've received very little criticism.

New business plan
Baristas Oliver O'Doherty (left) and Anna McFall prepare orders at Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul, Minn.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Some even champion the change.

"Actually with the price increase, it equals to what I was paying with the tip before," said one customer on a recent morning. "And to know that they're going to have a steady wage every day is a good feeling."

There is one recurring and unanticipated complaint.

"The major problem," Andrew Kopplin said, "has literally been people being like, 'Well, I still want to tip.'"

Some customers say they feel like bad people if they don't tip, employee Tabitha Blanchard said.

"Usually the response I give is, 'We don't have to rely on tips anymore so you're already supporting us enough by buying these drinks,'" she said.

Still, there are some who will do just about anything to leave a tip, Oliver O'Doherty said.

"They'll wink at us," he said, "and say, 'Oh, you can put this towards the next customer's beverage. Wink wink.'"

Kopplin's Coffee owner Andrew Kopplin (right) jokes around with a customer.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Others leave change on the bar or tuck dollars under the cash register when baristas aren't looking.

Those "forced tips," as the employees refer to them, end up being donated to a local food shelf.

The way Andrew Kopplin sees it, gratuity can come in forms other than financial. That idea inspired one employee to put out a comments book.

"Writing in it can be a sort of replacement for tipping," Kopplin said. "It's a way to show you're grateful. You can express gratitude without giving money, even in a coffee shop."

"My favorite entry is from one of our regular customers who drew a picture," Blanchard said, "and then wrote a haiku and then wrote a comment encouraging other people to write haikus. So there are a number of haikus in that section."

Customers take their own individual approaches to it, Amanda Kopplin said.

"Some write personal stories, like, 'Oh, I remember the first time I came here. It was on my first date with my husband,'" she said. "Others write about the great mocha they had or whatever. I love that people are using it in their own way."

Many Minnesotans complain about the pervasiveness of tip jars. But complaining is one thing and being deemed a non-tipper is another, said Amanda Kopplin, recalling a recent conversation with a wanna-be tipper.

"She said, 'Well, how do I thank you then for the gesture? You just bringing that out to my table was so nice and I just want to tell you it was a really nice experience,' Amanda Kopplin said. "And I was like, 'That's how you say thank you, by saying thank you."

Barista Anna McFall catches up with customer Julie Quinn, who brought her one-month-old baby in to meet the staff.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Nice words aren't a replacement for tips in most coffee shops. But at Kopplin's, O'Doherty said, the elimination of the tip jar has been a perk.

"There's a lot of minor psychic white noise in the background as each person decides should I tip or not tip," he said. "Or there's the, 'Oh, that person never tips.' And as much as we'd like to be above that sort of mentality, it's nice to do away with it."

McFall, the barista, said the cafe's ban on tipping means more natural interactions with customers.

"I was already pretty proud of this place and proud to work here," said McFall. "But I feel even more so now. I feel like I get to declare every day that this is a progressive, good place to work."