As Cafés Close, Baristas Start Virtual Tip Jars

Café and service industry workers across America brainstorm alternate ways to make cash during coronavirus-induced business shutdowns.


Cover photo courtesy of Refuge Coffee Co.

In just a couple of short weeks, the spread of COVID-19 has turned the United States’ service industry on its head. In an effort to keep staff and guests healthy, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants across the nation have had to adapt their service models, whether that looks like shortening hours, only serving to-go options, or closing entirely. In the face of this, baristas are suffering.

Circumstances vary. In places hardest hit, city or state governments have shut down restaurant service entirely, and many baristas are not working at all. Some coffee shops, notably bigger chains like La Colombe, Blue Bottle, and Stumptown, but some smaller and independent cafés as well, are still paying hourly wages. However, for many, hourly wages do not fully cover their living expenses. Tips can be as much as half of the take-home pay, and without that, these baristas are in real economic danger. For those who are not even making hourly wages right now, the situation is dire.

Baristas are setting up virtual tip jars to keep them going through the business shutdowns caused by COVID-19. Photo by GoFundBean.

To try to combat the financial strain, many are setting up “virtual tip jars.” These come in the form of Venmo accounts, GoFundMe fundraisers, and PayPal.Me links. Usually they’re in the name of the entire staff at a café, and donations are split among all the baristas working at a location. In that sense, they replicate the physical tip jar in the store—what is donated will be split among many. 

Links by companies are being tweeted out, posted on Instagram and Facebook, and emailed to café newsletter subscribers. Some of the funds are directly handled by the café, while others are managed by baristas independently. Each plea for help reads a little differently, but the message is the same: With most people’s rent still due in a little over a week, unemployment will not come through fast enough. 

Adam JacksonBey, a leader in the Washington, D.C., coffee community, started GoFundBean to centralize and help promote these virtual tip jars. With the help of a few others, namely Jenn Chen, Bailey Arnold, and myself, Adam has been working around the clock since Tuesday, March 17, to consolidate a list of all the active funds that are supporting cafés across the United States. 

The staff of Golden Boy Coffee in Denton, Texas, is one of many coffee shops creating virtual tip jars, and is also offering free cold brew and coffee to grocery store workers. Photo courtesy of Golden Boy Coffee.

When I asked him why he created GoFundBean, and why now, Adam replied, “I had the idea for GFB during competition season and watching a lot of folks set up GoFundMes to help them get the funds for competition (hence the name GoFundBean). But it was important for me to do this now because I felt like I had to do something, and I had a platform (the Instagram account and website domain that I already made and paid for respectively) that could be used to consolidate and share as many of the tip jars that I was physically and mentally able to handle. So why not do it? My philosophy is that if you can help someone, you do it.”

As of this writing, nearly 90 tip jars have been listed. Each has a spot in the list on the website, as well as an individual post on the GoFundBean Instagram and a post with a link directly to each virtual tip jar on the GoFundBean twitter. Each tip jar represents several baristas who are struggling financially because of COVID-19. The total number of people is in the several hundreds, and growing. 

It’s easy to give in to panic when confronted with problems on such a scale. The late Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

There are people trying to help, like Adam. Mike Greene of Prima Coffee is collecting a list of small roasters who need support. Customers are buying gift cards at cafés for future use and donating to the virtual tip jars. The owners of Elixr Coffee are matching donations made to their barista relief Venmo. If you don’t see a helper near you, be one.

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Valorie Clark (@TheValorieClark) is a freelance writer with a background in specialty coffee. She is based in Los Angeles.

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