Interrupting my blogging silence to bring you a guest post by Jeff Ruether. Once upon a time he was my server at a local restaurant and we somehow got talking about the tipping etiquette. I encouraged him to write a blog post about it. He finally did and surprised me with it in my inbox.
Tipping is such an interesting phenomenon, varying by countries and cultures. I had a funny discussion with my grandma this summer, who considers tipping disrespectful. When she was growing up in Bulgaria it was not customary to tip, and she still has hard time getting used to it. Without further ado, below are Jeff’s thoughts on the subject.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is a subject on which I’m quite biased. I’ve worked in bars and restaurants for almost a decade. I’ve been a bartender, I’ve been a dishwasher, and I’ve done everything in between. I’ve seen it all, from exemplary employee to detestable customer (and there have been many of both.) I hope to show you, the patron, how we in the business view this necessary evil called tipping. Hopefully you can learn something from a guy on the other side of the menu. Let me start with a little (possible) history…
The origin of the word “tip” is contested, to say the least. I’ve often heard it said that the word is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness.” (Never mind that it should be “Ensure,” let’s just go with it for now.) The story goes that the tip originated with people who would give a little extra up front to make sure they were well taken care of. It makes sense, but in all my time on the floor I’ve never seen anyone tip up front and I’ve never heard any of my co-workers say it happened to them. Another story is that it originates from an old slang word meaning “to give, to hand, or to pass.” If this is the case I submit it is a holdover from card games, but that is pure speculation from a long-time poker player, i.e. “tipping your hand.” If you let others know what you have, they are better suited to know what you desire in the end. Another possible slang-related origin comes from a shorthand language developed by thieves and hustlers hundreds of years ago in Great Britain. Known as the “Thieves’ Cant” or “Rogues’ Cant” (awesome name, right?), it was used to keep the normals from knowing what the scoundrels were talking about. In this slang “tip” meant to give or to share. At best, the etymology is unclear. At worst, it is simply lost in time. In any case, the term “gratuity” is often associated with a tip. This part is easy: it comes from the Latin gratuitas, meaning “free” or “freely given.”
OK, history class is over, moving on. Tipping is a very touchy subject. Depending on geography and socioeconomics it can be a brackish, tangled swamp of expectation and entitlement. When abroad it can be confusing and frustrating for the average American. Tipping in Japan is generally considered quite rude, unless, of course, you’re trying to get a good seat at the sumo match (no joke, this is a thing). There’s no tipping in China, except in tourist-laden hotels. In India the practice is becoming more widespread, but don’t go trying to pass some scratch to a Hindu priest in a temple as that would be an insult to their spiritual sensibilities – better to make an offering at the shrine. In Spain, tipping is only expected in high-end establishments. Great Britain, Australia, and Canada have somewhat similar practices to the U.S. but not the same wages – that is an entirely different can of worms (see below). In Mexican tourist cities they often won’t serve you a drink at the club unless you tip first, but can you really blame them for trying to squeeze every peso out of a rowdy crowd of drunken gringos? Go to Brazil and the only people you should tip are strippers. Don’t ask how I know that.
This brings us to the good old U.S. of A.
I don’t pretend to have a Ph.D. in economics, but I can tell you that there is something very screwy (sorry for the technical jargon) about the whole situation. The restaurant industry is unique in that it alone is allowed to pay certain employees far below the wage necessary to make a decent living, and the consumer is expected pay the rest. (Since I know you’re wondering, exotic dancers are considered independent contractors.) When you get a haircut you give your stylist a little something extra, but do you think that stylist gets paid a lower wage because of it? Nope. If you take a taxi you round up a little bit, but do you think that cabbie is getting $4 an hour? Not a chance. For some reason I have never been able to fathom most restaurants in America pay their servers a pitifully low wage, and they do it because the laws are in place to allow it and the consumer has been trained to perpetuate the system. Mind you, if the server’s wages plus tips don’t average out to at least minimum wage, the employer is required by law to cover the difference, but I have never seen that happen and honestly it shouldn’t. Good or bad, the system is what it is, and if a server can’t make at least $5 an hour in tips he should find a new job.
A tip can also cause a scene when your uncles decide to arm wrestle over who pays the bill and who leaves a gratuity. These situations are universal. Things can go sour quickly, and I’ve seen it happen many times. To simplify things here’s a simple rule: Don’t be stubborn or cheap. If you paid, let someone else chip in. If someone else paid, chip in. Nobody wants to be the ATM and nobody wants to be made to look like a freeloader or a cheapskate. Always leave an out.
And now we’ll move on to the extremely complicated mathematical formulas:
A decent tip is 15%. Don’t be afraid of a little arithmetic: 10% plus 1/2 of that
$2.80 + $1.40 = $4.20
Places that serve above average food and drinks and also have above average service warrant a higher tip, from 15% to 20%. The important part here is better than average service. If you go to a chain restaurant and your free water never gets refilled, don’t be surprised. If you go to a locally owned place that puts an emphasis on quality product and great service, tip them well. If you’re at a high end establishment that makes sure everything is perfect tip 20% or more.
We cannot leave this topic without also discussing the quagmire that is the automatic gratuity. If you go to a chain restaurant (or any place that has pictures in the menu), there will most likely be something in small type at the bottom of the page to the effect of “an 18% gratuity will be added to parties of 6 or more.” There are two big reasons why this practice is so popular. First is the aforementioned situation where an owner has to pay the difference for a server whose tips don’t bring them up to minimum wage. If a server gets stiffed on a large table after spending all night waiting on them, the owner runs the risk of having to pay the server more in wages. Owners, as a rule, want to pay their employees as little as possible. Second, people in groups tend to experience a sense of anonymity (like when driving during rush hour in a big city turns humans into a pack of wolves fighting over a fresh kill), and they will tip less expecting that no one will notice because everyone else will tip normally. Although there’s always someone out there actively trying to get off cheap, this is usually a subconscious activity and we are all susceptible. If everyone else is speeding you’re less likely to get caught, so your foot magically gets a little heavier.
For the record, an automatic gratuity is perfectly legal given fair warning. These compulsory service charges are now considered by the IRS to be wages, not tips, and should legally be included in a server’s paycheck rather than taken home that night in cash. For this reason, many companies are doing away with the “auto-grat” to avoid additional processing. If you really like your server, tell them specifically not to auto-grat and make it clear that you will treat them well. They will walk out that day with cash in hand.
Sitting at the bar and paying for drinks with cash is a little different. If you order a bottle of beer and it costs $3.50, most bartenders would be ecstatic to have that extra 50 cents for about thirty seconds of effort (a dollar a minute sounds pretty good to me). For tap beers, cocktails, or top shelf liquors I recommend a dollar per drink. That may seem excessive, but believe me bartenders remember generous customers, and when the bar is three deep on Friday night they’ll make sure you get your bourbon rocks before they start shaking lemon drop shots for the gaggle of sorority girls home on Christmas break (nothing against sorority girls, but let’s be honest: you are a nightmare when you start ordering shots and you know it).
Remember that you’re probably paying at least $5 for that bourbon rocks. Restaurants and bars have high overhead and low margins, so it’s going to cost you. You didn’t go out to save money, you went out to have fun and let someone else clean up the mess, so why be stingy? Enjoy yourself and spread the love, and never underestimate the power of a good tip to make someone’s night. If you’re worried about spending too much, I’m sure you’ve got some Bud Light and leftovers in the fridge.