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NEW YORK CITY — A barista named Jarvis inside the Japanese home-goods Muji store in Hudson Yards is drawing in customers and media attention — but not for his coffee making skills.  Jarvis — a robotic barista who got his name from the AI butler in the Marvel comic Iron Man — is receiving scrutiny because he accepts tips on a digital checkout screen.  

In a city where the current average rental price of a Manhattan apartment is $4,886 per month, and where coffee shop owners, customers and baristas alike have difficulty covering their rent, the mere idea of giving a robot a gratuity has revealed yet another fault line in the argument over tipping best practices.

“I think it’s ridiculous and such a slap in the face to actual human workers,” said Jennifer Garcia, a former Starbucks barista who added it was hard enough to get tips without the animatronic competition. “We made $300 per week in cash tips, but it was divided between all the staff. On average, at Starbucks, I only made $21 in tips per week.” 

On the customer side, the glut of tipping demands leaves some coffee aficionados feeling torn.

Robyn Metzger, a Brooklyn resident and daily coffee drinker, said she typically tips $1 per drink because of her relationship with her local baristas in Downtown Brooklyn. She said she would never consider tipping a robot, but added that the demand to tip on every transaction — even for buying a bottle of water — feels overwhelming.

“It’s just become too much,” Metzger said, “Everywhere you go, it’s expected.” 

In August 2023, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center polled 11,945 U.S. adults over a three-week period and found that only 25 percent of Americans said they always or often left tips when buying a drink at a  coffee shop — compared with 92 percent who say they always or often tipped when eating at a sit-down restaurant. 

That leaves the owners of independent coffee shops stuck in the middle of a difficult standoff — whether to count tips towards the base price of their employees’ pay, or make up for the difference themselves.

New York state permits employers to take a tip credit — or setting the hourly pay lower on the assumption that tips will make up the remainder — to offset labor costs. In New York City, that would mean a food service worker could be paid $10.65 per hour with a tip credit of $5.35.  However, many employers say they choose to forego credit because it would lower employees’ take-home wages and make it nearly impossible to find staff.   

STEAMED UP: Han Flanagan and his wife, Vanesa Kim, opened the independent artisanal roaster White Noise Coffee in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2019. (PHOTO/Agatha Khishchenko)

Han Flanagan and his wife, Vanesa Kim, opened the independent artisanal roaster White Noise Coffee in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2019. They’ve since opened a Hell’s Kitchen location — leaving them to split their time between the sites, a task that has become even more difficult since Kim gave birth to their daughter last year.  Both continuously work the counter with their staff, simultaneously greeting customers by name while juggling multiple drink orders. 

Flanagan and Kim say tipping and labor costs are among the toughest ongoing issues they face in their struggle to find and maintain reliable staff who share their ethos of good service. They say they offer competitive wages, $18 to $20 an hour, plus tips, commensurate with experience.  

Minimum wage rose 60% in New York City between 2015 and 2019  — from $9 to $15 an hour for small businesses with less than 10 employees, according to the New York State Department of Labor.  As of Jan. 1, 2024, minimum wage rose again to $16 an hour and will continue to increase $0.50 annually over the next two years

Flanagan and Kim say even paying well over minimum wage, they still have difficulty finding staff.  

“The expectation we hear from prospective baristas is $25 to $30 an hour,” says Kim.  When asked about her own salary, Kim sighs and says “as owners, we don’t even make remotely close to that.”