Monday, November 19, 2007

Tipping: What You Need To Know

The application of gratuity is obviously a very American institution. In no other country is tipping expected to such a degree from so many different professions. It draws the ire of those customers who feel put upon to have to pay a premium on top of their meal. It draws the ire of servers who depend not upon their employers but upon the vicissitudes of strangers for their livelihood. And it draws the ire, in some cases, of kitchen staff who see servers making significantly more money for what is often viewed as less work.

But the fact remains that tipping is not optional. It is a de facto standard for dining out at all levels in the United States of America. If you can't afford to leave a gratuity then you can't afford to eat out. Sorry. Stay at home, get takeout, or go to McDonald's.

Where does your tip go? It really depends on the restaurant. Many restaurants operate on the traditional model where the server receives his tips in cash at the end of each night and he distributes that money at his discretion to his support staff. Typically that means 20% to the bussers, 5% to the bartender, 5% to the hostess, 3% to the kitchen and maybe 5% to a food runner or other support staff. Other restaurants will tip out each of their servers individually but will mandate the tip-out amounts to the support staff. While this eliminates the problem of the stingy server, it exacerbates the problem of the lazy busser. I'm a believer in this case of letting the market correct itself. If the server is stingy, the bussers won't help him out and his tips will go down.

An increasingly common trend in restaurants is "tip pooling." All gratuities go into one tip pool for that shift and then each server, busser, runner, host, kitchen, etc. gets a fixed percentage of the total gratuities. This works well in a busy, high-turnover restaurant where roles and sections blur. It eliminates competitiveness between servers and, assuming everyone works well together, encourages teamwork and cooperation. In this situation, stiffing a server is less of an issue since your cheapness is spread out over the hundreds of covers served that evening, and not the dozens that the one server has handled.

A third variation is one used by many fine-dining restaurants. A set service charge (usually about 18%) is added onto the bill or included in the prix-fixe price of the meal. Often in this case the server is paid a significantly higher base wage that partially is offset by that included service charge and then the server retains any additional tips given on top of that base service charge. This model is ideal for restaurants that can afford to pay their servers higher wages and maintain direct accountability for the quality of their servers' service to their customers. This is the standard operating procedure for restaurants in the upper price echelon, where a server will often only take a handful tables in an entire evening and stiffing a server is not an issue, since any server who does stuff worthy of being stiffed for will be promptly fired (and chances are doesn't work their in the first place).

So why should you tip? Let's debunk some common tipping complaints:

1. "My meal was already so expensive, why should I expect to shell out even more?" If you thought your meal was expensive before, you should see how much it would be if a restaurant had to pay a wage to their servers that was actually commensurate with their skills and experience. By turning over a small but significant portion of the payroll to the customers, a restaurant relieves some stress on their razor-thin profit margins.

2. "Here's a tip, get a real job!" It is a real job folks. A restaurant doesn't run without that layer between the customer and the kitchen. Good restaurant service is good customer service. It's a mix of acting, psychology, and good old-fashioned knowledge that can help make an unhappy customer happy and an unsure customer confident. Good servers also know the best way to streamline any problems so that by the time the problem reaches the kitchen they can deal with it with minimal difficulty. Imagine being a client-relations manager for four dozen different people every night. Oh yeah, and you walk (run) the equivalent of five miles in the course of doing your job. Are there bad, talentless servers? Absolutely. That's a product of too many restaurants and too many job openings. It's also a product of an increasingly "corporate" restaurant culture that emphasizes rules over intuition, protocol over talent.

3. "In Europe we never had to tip." So what, you want a fucking trophy? Go back to Europe, dipshit. No matter what, you're tipping. All that is eliminated in places where tipping isn't discretionary is the "sticker shock" at the end. The employees' wage is factored into the pricing of the menu (and many sit-down restaurants in Europe do add on a 10% service charge anyway). And what do you gain from this? Distracted, dispassionate servers and incongruous prices. On a recent trip to London, for example, a coworker of mine spent about $70 a person for mid-level Indian food and beer.

4. "The cooks do all the work and they don't get tipped." In most cases the kitchen does get a small share of the tips. Kitchen staff also makes significantly more hourly than servers do. Kitchen staff also work more hours than servers and are typically offered health insurance, some degree of vacation, and opportunities for advancement. Does a typical line cook still makes less than a typical server working at the same restaurant? Sure, but that's a product of the way the business works. The income that one can make as a server if one is good at it is often the only thing that keeps people with actual talent around. Think how bad your service would be if your server was making $12 an hour. Oh right, go to Europe and see. A Cote is a restaurant I know of that tips out a larger percentage to their kitchen and the servers make less overall. Service there is about as neglectful and unhelpful as you can find for that price.

Is amuses me when people talk about bad service as a reason not to tip in general. No, that's a reason not to tip your server that night. It's all the more reason to tip well the servers who are truly good at their jobs. I don't tip the stripper who performs a disinterested lap dance and tries to upsell me on the full-nude option as much as I do the stripper who holds a conversation, compliments me, and doesn't try to scam me.

Let's get down to business then. How much should you tip?

If she's good, $5-$10 extra per song.

If your service is competent and reasonably attentive you should tip NO LESS THAN 15%. Anything else, anything at all, will make you seem like a cheapskate. What do I mean by reasonably attentive service? You got everything you needed and if any problems arose they were promptly addressed. Service was professional, questions were answered reasonably effectively, and direction was given when requested.

If you had the service mentioned above with maybe a little bit extra "oomph" or helpfulness thrown in there, e.g. a server was able to get the kitchen to make a special substitution or something along those lines, you should tip NO LESS THAN 18%.

If your server made recommendations that you truly enjoyed, offered helpful direction on the wine list that enhanced your dining experience, navigated a particularly sticky situation at your table, was able to handle many special requests, or just in general left you feeling well taken care of you should tip NO LESS THAN 20%.

Same holds truth if the server was way hot and flirty.

So what's the least you should tip? That's a tough question. It really depends where the failings were. If the server was inattentive, distracted, forgot things, fucked up an order, and made no effort to correct those matters I would say that you should tip no less than 10% if you plan to tip at all. Anything less will be taken as a severe personal affront. If you do choose to take such an action (and some servers do deserve it), you should leave no tip at all and plan never to return to that restaurant.

I do encourage you to closely examine the situation. For instance, if a server is hard to find but is otherwise very helpful when he's at your table, take a look around and see how busy the restaurant is and how busy the server is. Chances are your server is doing the best he can and is simply very busy. Should you tip less than you would if you had prompt service? I wouldn't but usually a server won't take it as a slight, provided you're still tipping at or above the 15% point. A server knows that sometimes service quality suffers at the expense of volume, and that's not something he can adequately control. Also, take a look at what the problems were--did food take too long? Not necessarily the server's fault, though he should be in communication with you on the topic. Was an order messed up? Once again, not necessarily the server's fault--but did he try to correct the error promptly?

Remember that at a popular restaurant on a busy night, your server is going to be busy. Restaurants don't overstaff. Ever.

On the other hand, is your server neglectful, slow, and inattentive but you can see him chatting with the cute hostess, sitting in the back reading, or standing around drinking wine? Well then by all means get pissed the fuck off. That's the difference between a neglectful server and a busy server.

Here are a few other guidelines when it comes to tipping:

DON'T tip some arcane decimal amount to make your total bill round out to a whole number. I give you a slide if you only make whole dollar purchases on your credit cards across the board: at gas stations, grocery stores, wherever. I wouldn't care so much about this topic if people rounded up on their decimal amounts to give a marginally more generous tip, but inevitably the customer has given a 13.9% tip for the sake of having a whole number on their bill. If your total lunch is $12.36 sense, why tip $2.64? That makes you look like a cheap asshole whereas a $3 tip makes you look generous. Isn't it worth 36 cents not to be an asshole?

DON'T tip exactly 15%. This makes you look not only cheap, but amateurish. You view tipping as a rote obligation and not something discretionary. This type of customer will generally also tip 15% across the board regardless of the quality of service. Round up folks. Round up.

DON'T show your math your check. If you really need to carry a one or do a percentage calculation in longform on your check, I really question your ability to get dressed in the morning and wipe your ass without assistance. Folks, it's simple: take the total, move the decimal point over, and double it. That's 20%. Feel free to adjust it up or down accordingly.

DON'T expressly compliment your server on the quality of his service or write a nice "Thank you great service [smiley face]" and then tip anything less than 18%. Nothing is more frustrating to a server.

DON'T get huffy about the "additional gratuity" line when you're paying a bill to which an automatic gratuity has been added. Remember two things: that gratuity has been added pre-tax so it's not a full 15% or 18% or 20% and that believe it or not a lot of people DO leave extra gratuity. That automatic gratuity is included to factor in the additional labor and service complications that larger parties entail. Relatedly, don't get all huffy about a gratuity line appearing on your check for a to go order. The computer doesn't know that it's a to go order, it just knows it's a credit card receipt.

DO tip in whole number quantities. This is what professional diners do. Even if you want to leave a 15% tip for whatever reason, do that quick math in your head and round up to the nearest dollar. Always round up folks, rounding down makes you look cheap. It looks like you'd rather keep that 36 cents than give the server an extra 64. The same rule of rounding up applies with cash payment too. When in doubt, throw in that extra dollar. What's it to you? Also don't do the "double tax" thing. While tax can be a useful guide for math purposes, actually doubling the tax us amateurish and odd--it can also get you in inadvertent trouble in states with lower tax rates.

DO tip fully on wine and drinks. Tipping $1 for drinks is something you do at a bar, not a restaurant. Make no deductions for wine or drinks in your consideration of a tip percentage. There's a grey area here: if you get multiple pricey bottles of wine, or an ultra-premium spirit at the end of your meal and you want to tip a few bucks less, fine. But if it looks like you deliberately factored out the wine you purchased in your tip, you'll look amateurish. This looks particularly bad if you asked for a server's direction on a bottle of wine and he gave you a recommendation that you greatly enjoyed. How much is tip on a $50 bottle of wine anyway? $10 out of your total meal, tops? Big fucking deal. If the server recommended it, opened it and poured it well, and you enjoyed it, then by all means tip the same as if it was your food. He had as much to do with that production of that as he did the wine.

DO calculate your tip after tax. The tip pre or post-tax debate is one of the all-time great pointless debates. If that difference of LESS THAN TWO CENTS ON THE DOLLAR (in California) is so important to you, then please stay at home. Servers only look at their tips in terms of percentage of the final bill. Sorry.

DO consider tipping on top of an automatically added service charge. As I said, the service charge is factored in pre-tax and, just because the policy has provided for a gratuity to be included, that doesn't mean the server might not've earned a higher tip. If you got 20% service, tip that extra cash. It looks good, I promise.

I tip a lot and I tip well. I tip 20% pretty much across the board, unless the service was particularly bad. I do this no matter where I am, unless local custom dictates otherwise. It's not a matter of taking care of people I know or making sure I maintain a reputation within the community where I work. I believe in the gratuity system and I believe in the rigors of customer service. Tips allow servers to earn what their labor is actually worth.

Beyond that, if you frequent a world in which gratuity is expected (you eat out a lot, take cabs a lot, stay at hotels a lot), over time you'll start to see things coming back around. If you tip that bellhop $10 when he takes your bags up or you tip the hotel valet $5 the first time you meet him and say "hello" and "thank you" and engage him like a human being, see how quick a response you get the next time you need something. If you tip a stripper an extra $40, see how well you're treated next time you're in.

Here's the truth. I get good tips. Most nights I average 18% on my gross (after tax) sales. I'm also really on top of my game. I know when I'm not being as attentive as I should. It's stressful. Sometimes I get too busy to give the service I demand of myself. But you know what? Customer see that I'm busy. I communicate with my tables and usually still get good tips. What all of that adds up to is, if you tip me poorly, I'm 99% certain that the problem is with you, not me. Is that arrogant? Maybe. But it seems to work.

Most people give bad tips because they are bad tippers. Most people give good tips because they're good tippers. The key is managing the good tippers to make them great tippers and making sure that the "undecided" tippers are pushed toward the good tipper side. What does that mean for bad tippers? You get ignored. I know it's a chicken and egg thing, but I'm pretty sure that bad tippers came first.

Be generous and friendly to service staff, it's a beautiful thing.


Zack said...

This and that:

Given that nobody but restaurant critics are operaring in a professional capacity when eating, you'd think amateur would be the standard. When the restaurant pays me they can expect "professional" behavior from me.

I am not sure why tipping standards are starting to creep up from 10-15% to 15-20%. Perhaps restaurants are banking on most customers not having the education to understand that percentages don't need to increase to keep pace with inflation.

Cafe de la Presse gave us a 20% forced "gratuity" on a six person party, which is lame already given the thoroughly normal service level provided, but it was 20% of the after-tax amount. Ha ha, very funny guys, a tax on the unobservant. So we pointed it out, and all the server could say was "that's how we do it." Jesus. See you on Yelp, bitches.

If a server is busy at many tables and my service is worse because of it, why shouldn't my tip reflect the service I am receiving? If he's working more tables, he's getting more tips anyhow.

I worked at the Starbucks next to Cal. Tips were shitty, worst of any Starbucks in the area. It sucked, and we of course would have liked more. In some abstract sense, forgetting that the money in question actually belongs to a person who has every right to keep it, maybe we deserved bigger tips. But we weren't entitled to them, and we were fucking ADULTS about it, which meant doing our best no matter what kind of tips we were getting. If you're not mature enough to scrape by as a Starbucks barista, well, you're in trouble even if I do feel socially pressured into giving you fat wads of my money as a reward for nothing in particular.

I double tax as a guide when lazy, and so long as I live in CA I don't see the problem with it. When I am not lazy I compute 15% by decimating, halving, and tripling. And you should be grateful to have customers dumb enough to have to do math on the bill; those are the ones too dumb to know percentages shouldn't be increasing as the years pass.

Of course, I am appreciative of adequate, good, and great service, and tip accordingly (like I goddamn feel like tipping, since it's my money, although it's 12-20% depending.

David J.D. said...

Tipping has been 15%-20% for as long as I have been dining. I remember "doubling tax" at Chili's when I was in high school.There's no "starting to creep up" about it. Things have crept already.

I wouldn't expect everyone to agree with me, and obviously tipping is entirely discretionary, but if one wants to function within this tipped service construct that we exist in, then know that this is what's expected overall by those who are serving you.

I always expect lower tips when I'm overworked. I just don't tip that way personally. I just want to encourage people to take note of their surroundings. Is your service WORSE or is it LESS ATTENTIVE. Less attentive (on a busy night), in my mind, deserves less of a gratuity ding than bad service.

I don't think there's some great conspiracy out there "forcing" gratuities to be higher. I think that a range of 10%-20% has always been the normal spread for gratuity for as long as I've known, and more and more people are tipping in the 15%-20% range to establish that as the expected standard.

What caused that? The long term bull market we've had since the early 1980's? Dot com big spending generosity? A general improvement in dining quality (particularly in the Bay Area) in the last decade and a half? I don't know. Just know that enough people tip 18%-20% on a regular basis to establish a degree of expectation of a tip in that range for attentive service.

I always tip my baristas. And since I feel cheap leaving coins, usually I tip a full dollar on a $2-$3 purchase.

20% forced gratuity for a party of six is pretty rare. That's usually reserved for exceptionally large parties and/or parties with unusual pre-arranged service demands. I've never heard of a restaurant adding a percent gratuity after tax. Perhaps CDLP is taking advantage of its location to exploit power lunches and corporate expense accounts.

What the main thrust of my argument was meant to be was that it's important to treat gratuity for what it is, something discretionary. So carefully calculated rote exact percentage tipping (whether it's exactly 10% or exactly 20%)removes the level of human engagement between the customer and the service staff. So round up, roughly decimate, all that good stuff.

For what it's worth, Michael Bauer tipped 20%.