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Austin's tip jars are rich in personality

Dale Roe
Dale Roe/AMERICAN-STATESMAN, September 21, 2011. --Tip jar at Fair Bean Coffee House, 2210 South 1st St. #1 Austin, TX. For 1112tipjars

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. "They" are probably lousy tippers.

A quick tour of Austin coffeehouses, sandwich shops and ice cream joints reveals that the tip jar is the true window to the soul. That's why funky, "Austin original" joints such as Thundercloud sport messy and unique receptacles for pocket change and spare bills that are as cluttered and full of visual irony as the inked arms of the employees who create them. The photos, clippings and refrigerator magnet poetry-esque text taped to the plastic containers — former home to gloppy gallons of condiments or passels of peppers — are as humorous and offbeat as the sub shops' clientele.

Meanwhile, chain eateries such as Which Wich sport functional but unremarkable (and probably agency-designed) tip containers that blend in with their shops' modern, industrial décor to the point of near invisibility. They're ... efficient. This is not a slam on chain restaurant food; though a tip jar might reflect the personality of an eatery, it doesn't seem to correlate to the tastiness of the menu.

In other words, "Mmmmm ... Which Wich."

Still, it's no surprise that Austin's coolest tip jars are found in its most Austin-y places. For instance, somebody at the Amy's Ice Creams shop at 1301 S. Congress Ave. digs cats. When I started working on this story more than a month ago, the tip jar balanced on the ledge at the walk-up window was a squatty, square green plastic dish plastered with dollar bills and decorated with a large drawing of a smiling cat. The hand-lettered wording read "Look @ Me Meow" and "I'm Gettin' PaPurr." Get it?

When I went back to the store this week, a new cat-themed tip jar was in place: A plush Cat in the Hat doll, arms outstretched to welcome coins and bills, popped out of a blue wire basket. "This is our health care plan," a note taped to the basket read.

Does a cleverly designed tip jar translate to more tipping from customers? Maybe.

Tipping has been good over at Kenny's Coffee & Catering at 14735 Bratton Lane, staff told me. The tip jar is pretty straightforward — a simple, square, glass affair with two pink hearts taped to its sides. Maybe the love-themed design is inspiring customers.

Over at Progress Coffee, 500 San Marcos St. (just east of Interstate 35) barista Rick Rhudy thinks tip jar design does affect contributions. "If people like it, they'll tip" he said. He suggested that the shop's regular clientele enjoyed the slogan written on strips of paper taped to the opaque, plastic receptacle on the counter: "TIP JAR — BIG BUCK$, NA$TY CA$H."

Rhudy said that Sunday customers — a different crowd than those who frequent the shop on weekdays — don't tip as well. He also offered that people who have worked in the service industry themselves tend to drop more dough into the jar.

Baristas at Fair Bean Coffee, 2210 S. First St., said tips are good but can always be better. I asked Lacey Ripberger if there is a psychology to tip jar design, a subliminal secret they employ to persuade customers to tip more. "Yes," she said, "but we haven't figured it out yet."

Fair Bean's tip jars are works in progress, according to Keri Anderson, who designed much of the one that currently graces the counter. Drawings, photos and text will be added and removed as employees (and customers) run across new scraps they find interesting enough to cut out and tape on or old bits that bore them get peeled off and discarded. Among other odds and ends, the jar is papered with foreign bills and pictures of dogs and cats. Those might have been a mistake, Anderson admits. "Some people think it's for pet donations."

The same principle is employed at Thundercloud, where bits from trade and other magazines (Rolling Stone is a favorite), vintage Playboys and even out-of-date posters and fliers from the eatery's bulletin board become tip jar fodder. The designs aren't necessarily meant to induce larger or more frequent tips. "It's more of what we think is cool," said Topher Mason, a sandwich maker who had recently added a clip from a business journal onto one of the jars. It reads:

"My team is incredibly talented, experienced and we all have strong opinions. Sometimes that makes it hard to get everyone to play nice and share their toys."

"I think that describes us pretty well," he laughed.

Another employee, Kat Moody, says that the owner likes things plain and will occasionally make a jar that simply reads "TIPS." Before too long, that signage will be buried beneath pictures from "Wayne's World" or the cast of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (the word Philadelphia, naturally, will be replaced with "Thundercloud").

It's worth noting that different customers have different ideas about what constitutes a good tip, and it's not always money.

Shelly Simon, a barista at Texenza Coffee at 3110 Windsor Road, has found what she calls "Jesus coins" in the shop's tip jar — a peppermint-striped metal box wrapped with a green bow (it's always Christmas at Texenza, at least since the original, glass tip jar broke two years ago and was replaced with this formerly holiday-only piece). They look like regular dollar coins, but are, sadly, not legal tender. The tip jar there also sports the coolest thing I saw during my research: a dollar bill intricately folded to resemble a shirt and tie. It was added, Simon says, by a guy from the next storefront over.

The young women at Fair Bean say the weirdest thing they ever found in the tip jar was a new condom, though foreign currency is common (and, they say, pretty useless). Recently, somebody dropped a Malaysian coin in the jar. "They think it's cute, but it's really not," said the shop's Danika Trierweiler. They get stuff like that at Thundercloud, too, along with guitar picks and rolling papers. Employees there suggest that rather than some kind of statement, these items are incidental — scooped up from a customer's pocket, they inadvertently make the ride to the tip jar along with coins.

The jars themselves are often items you'd find at these places anyway — condiment tubs and carafes. Cherrywood Coffeehouse, 1400 E. 38 1/2 St., uses a plastic pitcher. Progress Coffee used to have a glass jar, but somebody grabbed it and ran off. They found it later, smashed to shards, with all the money missing. That's why their new jar is plastic.

So I'm making mine out of newspaper. I know reporters don't generally accept tips, but on the off chance that you found this story informative, entertaining or helpful in some small way, I'm thinking about setting up a tip jar fashioned from intricately folded newspapers. Feel free to contribute (origami classes aren't cheap).

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923