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Tipping: Not a City in China

tipjar-lebowskiThe topic of tipping was in the news a few weeks ago, due to an incident in which a customer declined to tip a server and then compounded the offense by writing a rude note on the receipt. Another server posted a photo of the receipt online and was fired for it, producing a firestorm of protest online and an epic display of bungled PR on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Which brings us to today’s subject, which is tipping.

In the film Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) offers a lengthy and profane monologue (seriously, inappropriate language here) about why he doesn’t tip, citing the fact that “society has deemed that some jobs are “tip-worthy” and some are not.” He argues that the waitress at the diner and the counter-person at McDonalds are both doing the same job, providing food, yet one gets a tip and one doesn’t. Let’s look at tipping and see whether Mr. Pink is right or wrong.

Many people, especially those of us who didn’t grow up visiting upscale restaurants, traveling, staying in fancy hotels, using valet parking, or enjoying other aspects of “the good life,” are often not quite sure who to tip, how much, when, where and under what circumstances.

After years of such awkwardness, I finally figured out my personal approach to the matter: tipping is appropriate when somebody is taking on a servant role, doing something for me that I could do for myself but choose not to. I could learn to cut my own hair (or not cut it at all), I could park my own car, I could stay at a “no frills” motel and carry my own luggage, and I certainly could cook and serve my own meal at home. In each case, if somebody is doing it for me so I don’t have to, a tip is warranted. If I can’t afford the tip, I should do those things for myself. The first rule, then:

Tip people who make your life easier by acting as your servant.

Mr. Pink misses the point that the waitress at the diner and the counter-person at McDonalds aren’t really doing the same job; the kid at McDonalds doesn’t come around to your table every few minutes to see if you need anything, refill your drink, carry off your dishes and so on. He is not acting as your servant. He’s more like the guy behind the counter at the auto parts store; he’s dispensing a product. Which brings us to rule #2:

If you expect to have someone wait on you, expect to pay them for it.

Nick Parabicoli is an experienced server at a steakhouse in Massachusetts; he recently spent a few weeks in Kuwait training the staff at the chain’s new restaurant there. He’s also my cousin, so I asked him a few questions about his view of tipping. Nick says “over in Europe waiters are under contracts and make a great living off of it, and it is seen as a career, and over in Kuwait those servers are under two-year contracts, so that is their profession, yet over in America people seem to look down upon waiters at times.”

“It’s tough to determine that line of who to tip and what to tip if you are outside that industry,” Nick explains. “I’m sure some people that never have been in the food industry still don’t know to tip or how much for servers. I tip my tattoo artists, I tip the guys at the airport that grab the luggage, but still at times I question who to tip; taxi drivers, barbers and so on.”

He tells me that the expected tip is 20% at restaurants, though he qualifies that, stating, “now servers that expect that should be doing their job to their fullest capability, not just going through the motions and giving poor service. When I go out I will tip over 20% for exceptional service, but minimum of a 20%. When I receive exceptional service I have no problem acknowledging it with a 50% tip.”

One point Nick raised was the topic of discounts. “People often forget to tip on the original cost many times; some will have a $50 meal, but get $30 taken off for a ‘dinner for 2’ coupon and tip off of the now $20 bill,” he says.

It’s important to recognize the significance of your tip, as that can vary from one place to another, and even more from state to state or country to country. In the restaurant business, some states allow employers to subtract estimated tips from a server’s wages, while others don’t. A server in California gets at least $8 an hour before tips, while another server working for the same chain in Texas will earn $2.13. Where a tip in California is a little something extra to reward good service, a tip in Texas (and Nebraska, Utah, Virginia and a bunch of other states) is part of the employee’s salary; the restaurant is just passing the cost to you directly so that they can pretend to charge a lower price for their meals. If you live in one of those states, you have to tip; it’s the only decent thing to do. You’re directly providing most of the server’s salary, and don’t forget that s/he will be splitting it with the hostess, cooks, and other employees whose jobs are not generally tipped positions.

This, by the way, is why the customary tip has steadily crept upward from 10% to 20% over the last decade or two; restaurants passing their labor costs on to the customers in order to maximize their profits. Do the math: 20 years ago, minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. If an average meal cost $10 then, the tip at 10% would have been $1. The employer might expect the server to keep $3 an hour in tips after splitting with the other employees, so he pays an adjusted salary of $1.25 an hour. Skip forward 10 years, minimum wage has gone up to $5.15, but the restaurant owner doesn’t want to pay higher salaries or raise his prices, so the word goes out that a standard tip is now 15%, problem solved; the server is making a little more, but the owner is still only paying about a buck an hour. Skip forward another 10 years, the owner has had to come up a little bit due to federal law, but he’s still only paying a fraction of what the server needs to earn, so the tip goes up to 20%. He could pay minimum wage and bury that cost by raising prices 50 cents here and a dollar there, but it’s easier to just pass it on to you directly. If the restaurant owner paid the servers a decent wage, your meal would cost more; specifically, it would cost about what you’re paying plus the tip that you should leave.

Also remember that the employees are taxed on their estimated tips, based on the volume of sales they handled. If you don’t tip, you’re hitting them twice; first, because they aren’t making any money for working for you, and then they pay taxes on what you didn’t pay them. Depending on the restaurant, the portion of the tip that should go to the busser, cook and so on may be automatically calculated based on your bill; stiff the waitress and she still has to pay them that amount, so you’re hitting her three ways. She’s actually losing money by attending to you.

In other words, for most states, the tip IS part of the server’s salary, and it’s your responsibility to pay it. Not tipping is skipping out on part of the bill. So the third rule of tipping is:

Don’t harbor resentment over having to pay people for doing their jobs.

Figure the cost of the tip into your budget before you go out, and choose a restaurant you can afford. If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford a nice restaurant. If that’s the case, go to a fast food joint.

What about tipping in other situations, such as hotels, taxis, hairstylists, valet parking, etc.?

There are a great many websites and pages devoted to the topic, along with handy guides in practically every travel book ever written, so this post is not the final word on the matter. Our real point here is to address the logic and psychology of tipping, to help you have a better sense of who to tip and why.

Taxi
10-15% is normal, but go up to 20% if the driver helps you with your bags.

Parking
You don’t generally have to tip the person who opens your car door when you arrive, for example, unless he also helps with your luggage, but it can’t hurt. Getting known early on as a good tipper will increase the level of attentiveness and service you receive, so make sure you have plenty of ones in your pocket before you arrive at your destination.

One valet suggested that the appropriate tip for parking is equal to $1 for each $10,000 of your car’s value. That’s probably not a bad way to go if you have a nice car, but assume a minimum of $2 even if your car is (like mine) a relic worth $1500. If there’s no extra service charge for valet parking, then go ahead and add another $2-3. Some people suggest tipping a couple of bucks when you arrive, so that they valet will remember you and keep an eye on your car.

Hotels
A while back, USA Today did a survey of three etiquette experts and three hotel companies; taking the average of what they had to say, here are some basic guidelines for tipping at an upscale hotel.

Anybody who touches your luggage, whether carrying it from the car to the lobby, taking it up to your room or storing it for later check-in, gets at least $1 per bag. If you only have one bag, throw in a couple more dollars for the person who takes you up to your room.

Room service will usually have the tip automatically included on the bill, but go ahead and give the person who brings it a dollar or two. If it’s not included on the bill, the usual 15-20% applies.

You don’t have to tip the concierge for answering simple questions (like “which way is the Metro stop?”), but if you ask for restaurant reservations or transportation arrangements, you should tip a couple of bucks. If you ask them to arrange tickets to a show or event, give $5 unless it’s something that’s sold out or hard to get, in which case $10-20 is good. If it’s THE hot ticket in town, be extra generous. If you can afford the red carpet premiere, you can afford a $50 tip for the tickets, right?

Housekeeping should get $2-3 daily, unless you’re only staying one night; in that case, give $5. Don’t just add it to your bill upon checkout; leave it in the room every day so you know it’s actually going to the person who cleans up after you. It’s classy to write a little thank you note, and the hotel helpfully provides paper and pen in the desk.

If the restaurant has a wine steward, tip them 15% of the wine bill, separately from the meal bill.

In the bar, tip $1 for one drink, $5 if you’re buying a round for your friends, unless you’re running a tab, in which case the standard 15-20% is appropriate. If it’s happy hour and there’s free snacks or buffet, you don’t really have to tip for the food unless there’s a tip jar out, but go ahead and be classy anyway. Take a guess at what the food would cost if you ordered it off the menu and tip accordingly.

At the spa or pool, you only need to tip the attendant if they provide you with some service. $1-2 is sufficient for things like handing you a towel. If you’re getting something more like a massage or manicure or whatever, give 10-15% of the bill.

You don’t have to tip the person at the front desk unless they do something special like serving as bellman or concierge. If, say, you arrive early or you have a few hours to kill after checkout time and want to store your luggage, if the front desk person takes care of that, go ahead and tip $1 per bag or so.

If there’s something wrong with your room and they send a repairman up, you don’t have to tip him. You can tip if you’re really grateful, but maintaining the hotel is something they are supposed to do before you get there.

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About the author

Jim

Permanent link to this article: http://bluecollar-blacktie.com/tipping-not-a-city-in-china/

3 comments

  1. Sue

    I’ve always tried to be a good tipper if I go to a nice sit-down restaurant. If you have trouble with the math, the easiest way is to at LEAST double the tax on your bill (in Los Angeles county anyway) for good service.

  2. Ashley

    This is great! Definitely wasn’t sure about some of these. One thing, I would very much like to know where these bars that have free food at happy hour are. I have *never* encountered one. Food specials is about as good as it gets.

    1. Jim

      The only free food I’ve ever seen is in Vegas, but that was decades ago.

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