A Philosophy Of Tips

As the economy has spiraled and sputtered, I’ve occasionally (and increasingly) found myself dismayed at the tips I’ve been getting. Friday at Michael’s truly was a record low point in recent memory – then the trend continued that night at Carney’s! At lunch I was treated to a 20% tip on $60, followed by three 10%-ers, concluding with a 12%-er. Sales of $500 and I walked with $47. At dinner my credit card tips were a mere 16%. On $1300 sales, I grossed a little under $200.

I’m in a slump. I’ve been through slumps before. Waiters are just like athletes. We can ‘lose it’ for periods of time. We can also have strings of bad luck (the wrong diners, bad shifts/stations, problems unrelated to service, broader problems of the economy, etc.).

Perhaps most of it can be chalked up to human perspective. For all of us, when we have a great streak of good luck (food serving, with the opposite sex, at the card table), we tend to stuff it in our back pocket and forget about it. We feel we got what we were due. But come a run of just three bad hands in a row, that’s all we can focus on. Never mind that previously we had won 10 out of 12.

The past six months I’ve developed a gnawing fear that the widely-publicized consumer trend of ‘cutting back’ has extended to tipping. What surprised me was that people seem to be cutting back on their percentage tip, which seemed really unfair. After all, the nature of The Percentage is that it’s scalable – it’s a ratio.

So of course we’ll get less in tips, because 20% of $150 is less that 20% of $200. People cut back on their spending, and the percentage follows suit. It does the work for them.

So why have we all (all of my compatriots) seen a marked increase in 10-12% tips? Could guests actually be taking ‘cutting back’ to mean slicing off 5% of their usual 20% tip? Again, it seemed unfair.

Then I spent some wakeful time in bed the other night to really consider the nature of The Tip.


TIPS – To Insure Prompt (or Proper) Service

 I always thought this was B.S. And it certainly is for waiters. How do you insure something will happen after it has already transpired? To Reward Prompt Service is more like it. But TRPS doesn’t work as well as an acronym. Sounds to me like some not-too-clever jackass tried to make something fit that actually didn’t.

Of course, there are other jobs, and tipping scenarios, besides that of the waiter. Can you believe it? Now, in tipping a maitre’d as you meet him at the front desk, that is hoping to insure proper service. After all, you haven’t gotten any yet. Your tip can have an influence.

 There are other examples, but let’s just say from now on, you may not use that idiotic phrase (To Insure Prompt Service) any time the recipient gets his/her money after delivering the service.

How about an new one for modern times: Percentage Impaired Stingy Sonofabitch – ‘Oh look at this! I just got PISS’ed on!’

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way . . .

 Why Do People Tip?

 I brainstormed about 5 reasons people tip:

1.      The Bribe.

2.      The Reward.

3.      Social Peer Pressure. Don’t tip, and you’re perceived as mean and cheap.

4.      Philanthropy. You feel like you’re giving a boost to someone less fortunate than yourself. See Uncle Ben and His $100 Bills.

5.      ‘Mandatory’ Fee. Automatic add on gratuities.

 How Do People Tip?

 Here are a few ways diners arrive at the tip:

1.      20% Of The Bottom Total. The way everyone should tip. Includes the tax, wine, everything.

2.      Percentage Of The Subtotal. Doesn’t include tax.

3.      Percentage, Excluding Bottled Wine. Don’t like this. No waiter does. ‘Look, dude, opening the wine properly and keeping your glasses filled wasn’t that much easier than bringing you four drinks from the bar. Is that actually your rationale?’

4.      Complex Financial Derivatives. Thought processes like: ‘20% on the food, $1 a drink, nothing for the bottle of wine, and round up or down to the dollar depending on if I like him.’

5.      Top Dollar Figure. As in, some people cannot stomach leaving more than x-dollars, regardless of how large the check is. This is when you get $100 on a $1400 tab. Or $20 on $400.

6.      Double The Tax. The worst of the worst. For fake simpletons who are actually real cheapskates. They’ve adopted the method because it’s easy, and easy to remember. Supposedly. Or is it because it camouflages the fact that (in my state/county/city) they’re tipping only 14%? Also, they expect us to believe they can master that complex algorithm but can’t fathom that merely doubling the whole bill and dropping off the last digit yields a clean 20%? At least Top Dollar Tippers are operating under an honest principle – they just can’t emotionally and physically handle tipping that much – and they know it. Double The Tax’ers are liars.

 The Percentage Is The Tip

 I’ve worked many years under the unchallenged assumption that most of my tips are a percentage of the total check, translated into a dollar figure. In other words, because the check is x-dollars, I’m entitled to y-dollars because it’s whatever percentage the guest has decided to apply.

 I know this sounds arcane and stupid, but I’m starting to believe the tip isn’t that.

The tip is the percentage.

 I know when I dine out that’s the way I’ve always thought of it, without even realizing it. I don’t go, ‘Let’s see, this guy deserves $21.’ Instead, I say to myself, ‘This guy was really good; the meal was great; and we had a great time. I’m giving him 25%.’ The dollar figure is incidental.

 I caution, this is the way most people approach it. I know there are others who, as noted above, do it differently.

 What I’m talking about is a very subtle difference, but it explains the psychology that allows people to start tipping 10% in these hard times. For these people, it’s nothing personal, but they’re just tipping less. A 20% tip before was a generous extravagance; since they’re now cutting back, it’s just going down to 15%.

 How Should Tips Be Reconciled?

 The thing that’s scary to career waiters is that the whole house of cards could collapse at any time. I mean, why the hell tip at all? Anywhere? Except, of course, in advance of getting something?

 Is it intrinsically more difficult to orchestrate a 2-hour dinner than it is to properly rebuild a transmission over the course of five days? Is it even more appreciated?


Now That Was Harder Than Filling A Cup Of Coffee!
Now That Was Harder Than Filling A Cup Of Coffee!



Are we tipping now simply because it’s embedded into the fabric of society? Because it’s expected, and if you don’t you are labeled cheap, inconsiderate, selfish, a loser?

Are we tipping because restaurant owners won’t pay skilled help themselves?

I guess it comes down the waiter’s value to society. It’s clear we are valued, or else we simply wouldn’t make the money we make. This tipping business has been going on for like a hundred years now, and I believe it has reached some equilibrium. People hate to have their special nights out ruined by poor service. Along the way, a natural balance was reached that rewarded competent people enough that they would elect to be waiters.

 That’s the thing a lot of young waiters – who disdain their ‘temporary’ job – don’t understand. Being a quality waiter is a much-appreciated skill. It’s probably about the same as being an accomplished craftsman – a carpenter, a tailor, a mechanic, a writer. These are all valued and respectable lifetime occupations.

Perhaps, ultimately, it’s that waiters occupy that same ‘craftsman’ economic strata, which is closer to the bottom than the top. And like everyone else in the lower half, when times get tough, we’re the first ones to get the bread snatched out of our mouths. People can’t fight against their bank or their landlord to save money. But to our profession, it’s easy to do. Just lower the percentage.


6 thoughts on “A Philosophy Of Tips

  1. waiterextraordinaire Mon, March 23, 2009 / 6:55 am

    It is tough nowadays. Around here they generally add up the two taxes , federal and provincial and that is your tip. So we are getting the 13%. Sometimes you get more and sometimes less. Unless you work the fine dining then you get the 15%-20% on a higher check amount but those places are real slow right now as companies are cutting back and everyone is a bit tight as their portfolio lose value.

  2. foodserviceninja Mon, March 23, 2009 / 8:03 pm

    Hate to break it to you but those of us not serving at the upper tier of dining are struggling to get much morethan 15% tips for a nightly avg PRE tip out. This sux major ass as my tip share is almost fine dining level-3.75% although they do have the bussers actively gather pre-bussed items from the servers. Most of the time you dont make it to the dishpit with an armload. Check out my recent blog post on a recent stiffing I got.

    I dont think alot of people tip by %age tho. They might if they work with numbers for a living and are good with math in their head. I do and can but I dont tip that way.

    I find it odd in Cali you have such low taxes. In DFW (Texas) almost all the cities are maxed on taxes which is one of the reason they are struggling to get rail mass transit as the smaller cities have no wiggle room in their budgets esp sales tax revs even before econ disaster.

    State gets 6% and city can get up to 2.25% so doubling the tax leaves a decent 8.25% X2 or 17.5%. And I feel a bunch round it down to 15% from the doubling a bit.

  3. waiternotes Mon, March 23, 2009 / 11:49 pm

    Ninja, this is a good issue you bring up. And don’t think I take for granted that I’m lucky. Recall my ‘house of cards’ statement in this post. Everything is relative, though. The whole country perceives CA as having a higher cost of living. For instance, in Beach Town, 2 bed 1 bath houses rent for $2500. A similarly equipped apartment goes for $1700. A studio apartment is $800 minimum. Amazingly, Beach Town is about the most affordable ‘Beach Town’ in SoCal. It costs more just about everywhere else.

    My $200 a night for weekends might sound gaudy, but I pay a $3800 mortgage – and that’s not covering the interest!

    Not crying poor here … wait a minute, maybe I am. We’re all poor, right?

    Also, local customs vary. As waiters we see how people tip. Here, in my establishments, it’s been obvious the previous custom was generally 20% of the ‘bottom’ total (i.e., including tax). Unfortunately, it seems that practice is on the wane.

  4. foodserviceninja Wed, March 25, 2009 / 6:10 pm

    I hear ya-I fully understand you have a different cost of living -dad was born in San Bernadino and his sister when her husband isnt overseas on a job have a place in Chico up north. Plus you have a wifey to help you spend the money tho I believe you mentioned she works as well.

    I also am thinking about getting back into fine dining so the $ and the ability to interact with customers that lot to you for wine knowledge makes me fell the tug of jealousy at time. I suspect given the economy and the local market that will have to wait til fall.

    And for me -like I explain to new hires I really dont care what you make unless I know your sales. It gives limited info. Kinda like you could care less what you made pre-tip out.

    And as punishment the karma gods have been giving me the lousy tables a bit heavy since my original comment. Tuesday was especially horrid. As an opener coworker manuvering got me closing with under $400 in sales walked with $40 but I bought myself $10 of dinner. Sadly over half my money came from a mini-pop after coworker backstabbed me. You know it will suck when the 1st table spends $75 for 3 (cheap tab for us) on their H & R Block tax refund card and tip a whopping $3.

    And that much for rent gives me the willies

  5. foodserviceninja Fri, March 27, 2009 / 9:54 pm

    oh i forgot to mention how the doubling the tax is bad in Texas-quirk of the state laws involving alcohol requires all taxes fed and state be included in the stated price.

    Thus a check with significant part of it being booze means you will undertipped highly.

  6. waiternotes Sat, March 28, 2009 / 2:43 am

    Another reason “Double The Tax” tippers suck. On the other hand, for those who tip on what I call the “Bottom Total,” you’re still getting your due.

    Like I said: double-the-taxers are the worst of the worst. They are people claiming to be lazy and stupid – which is bad enough – but they’re actually just using (supposed) laziness and stupidity as an excuse for being cheap.

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