By Anne Finch
Rituals make food taste better and dining more enjoyable. From the deeply inhaled bouquet of a wine in anticipation of the first sip to the thoughtful consideration of sides and spices as you round out the meal to come, it’s often a knowledgeable server who enhances the pleasant run-up to the main event. So let’s consider another ritual of dining out: tipping.
At most sit-down restaurants, servers rely heavily on tips to earn a living wage. It is increasingly common to find tip jars at coffee shops, walk-up counters, and other casual dining establishments. If you occasionally find you don’t know how much and when it is appropriate to tip, you are not alone.
“Tipping is one of the most confusing aspects of etiquette today,” says etiquette coach Susan Quiring, Ph.D. “It’s a significant way to show appreciation for a job well done. It is showing respect for another person or service.”
Although most will agree that in customer service, especially restaurant services, tipping is expected and necessary, the customary amount to tip varies from place to place depending on the formality of the restaurant. Tipping etiquette generally calls for a minimum of 15 percent, with adjustment depending on the quality of the service or the restaurant. Calculate the tip on the amount before tax, and don’t ignore the bartender.
“At higher-end restaurants, we usually see 20 percent or higher,” says Chef Tai Lee, owner of B/CS restaurants Paolo’s, Madden’s Casual Gourmet, Veritas, and the food truck Chef Tai’s Mobile Bistro. “With mid-level to casual dining, we do see anywhere between 15 and 20 percent. On the food truck, it’s a mixed bag. If it’s a student paying with dining dollars they usually won’t tip. If they do tip, they tip about 15 percent on average, if at all possible.”
Additionally, says Lee, even clients at nicer restaurants are split on whether or not to tip on the beverage portion of their ticket as well as the meal. “I tip regardless on the total bill, period,” he says. “If someone spends, say, $1,000 dollars on a bill and the food is $500 and the wine is $500, some people will tip on the food portion and not on the wine portion. Anyone [who works] in this industry will tip on the bill, period. But some people don’t.”
Tipping can provide feedback that lets a server know whether or not their service matches the expectations set by their restaurant. “The beauty of tipping is that this is one of the few jobs in the world where you get paid for your performance,” says Wade Barkman, owner and executive chef of The Republic Steakhouse. “It is subjective. The harder you work, the more you make, and this is one of the few jobs left that that applies to.”
Quiring explains how the tip you leave corresponds with what you thought of the service. “Generally, if we tip 20 percent, it says that we thought the service was very good,” she says. “Fifteen percent, we are communicating that we thought it was good service. Ten percent is communicating that we thought something was wrong with the service. [Ten percent] is not an acceptable amount in most circumstances unless it was not up to par. It is not appropriate to leave no tip at all. Because of the way the system is set up in our country, [servers] are very dependent on tips.”
Although tipping is an important aspect of many customer service jobs, in the food service industry this show of appreciation is crucial. Servers at restaurants make well under minimum wage relying on tips from appreciative customers as their main source of income.
“I think a lot of people are unaware of server minimum wage,” says Stuart Roebuck, general manager of Madden’s Casual Gourmet. “I don’t think people realize that servers only do make $2.13 an hour, typically. They are completely dependent upon those tips.”
Kristy Petty, owner of The Village Café in Downtown Bryan, has a slightly different perspective on tipping. The Village is a mostly counter service café, although Petty says the café will begin to offer table service in the evenings and for Sunday brunch soon. Because counter service means fewer tips for servers, Petty’s servers earn slightly more than the usual $2.13 tipping wage, plus tips. “My staff usually ends up with a good 10 percent tip, while with other restaurants or bars the staff usually ends up with 15 to 20 percent,” Petty says. “Tips will usually average about 20 percent as a normal waitress, and here if I look at my daily sales we end up averaging 10 percent over the years pretty consistently.”
Sydney Patterson, general manager of Veritas, has worked in the restaurant industry for eight years. When planning a night out, especially at a nicer restaurant, it’s important to make a budget for a meal that includes a server’s tip to avoid accidentally short-changing them, she says.
“Figure out how much you have to spend, and figure in your tips,” Patterson says. “I think that’s a lot of what the issue is, is thinking ‘I don’t have the money to tip this person so I’m not going to.’ I was in that headspace before I entered the service industry, and in that headspace, it’s detrimental to your server or whoever is waiting on you. They’re essentially renting out that space you’re sitting in, in the hopes that they’re going to get some return on it. The restaurant itself is going to get its money no matter what, but as far as the people who are running around, sweating, and going back and forth and getting you ketchup, and another drink, they’re relying on that space you’re sitting in so they can pay their rent.”
Quiring says that while not mandatory, it is customary to tip people who provide exemplary service in other fields. Examples include people who provide roadside services, people who check coats and hats, people who do hair and nails, and people who deliver your mail or newspaper.
“The fact that the newspaper person always hits my driveway — that’s a nice service, and I want to show appreciation for that,” Quiring says. “You could leave 15 to 20 percent of the subscription for that year, or a gift card, or some people just prefer to leave home-baked goodies.”
Charlotte Green, owner of Chrome Salons, says nine times out of 10 her staff will receive tips. However, people in the salon industry do not usually rely on gratuity as part of their salary, but as a gift indicating their client’s appreciation. Green says that when deciding how to tip at a salon, ask yourself what you feel the service was worth. “Tip if you liked the service you received, and not only just the haircut, but whether the service you received was worth it,” she says. “Did it make you feel good? Did it make you want to do extra? If so, then—when you go to a restaurant you normally tip 15 to 20 percent, so that’s what I recommend.”
Whether you are visiting a restaurant, a bar, or a salon, the person providing your service is part of the ritual that will hopefully make it a rewarding experience. Most are working hard to earn a wage, and also to earn your feedback. You can express it most effectively through tipping.
“We chose to be in this industry, and we do understand the risk, and we understand the reward,” Patterson says. “For most of us, it’s more rewarding than risky, and we’re happy to do it.”