Wine Dine and Play: Tipping in Restaurants

Tipping in Restaurants

Article Date: July 30, 2014
Updated on: October 25, 2018
By Sean Overpeck (CFE)
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In the United States, parts of Canada, and a few areas in the United Kingdom tipping or leaving a gratuity is considered common practice. Let’s think about it, everywhere we go in the world no matter what country we visit, we tip the cab driver for taking us somewhere, the valet for parking your car, the bellman who collects your luggage, the guide at the end of the tour, concierge at the hotel, and so forth, yet why is it that most people when they go to a sit down restaurant will not tip, or leave a low percentage tip to the server that waits on them? Back in 2006 a buddy of mine went to Las Vegas for a week, and as he drove out of the airport he noticed a billboard that had said, “Tipping is not a bonus, it is our livelihood,” and the billboard was purchased by a collection of servers and bartenders from the different restaurants and hotels throughout the city. A powerful message, which most people do not even realize.

Now I’m not looking down on people that visit the United States because bad tippers live in America just like the ones that visit from Europe and Asia. Why do Americans in the restaurant industry call them “bad?” Because they tip very low. They’re not bad people, but one thing in my world travels that I have noticed, is that especially in Europe, some locals dislike Americans, in similar ways that some restaurant industry folks dislike Europeans’. You see, when we visit, we learn little to nothing about the cultures and practices. Some Americans that visit France say the people are rude and they hate us. So I talk with the Americans that visit France and ask them simple questions such as what French phrases they know – they don’t speak French. What Michelin Star restaurants do you intend to reserve at? – McDonald’s – and so forth and so on. You wonder why some European locals despise American tourists. Yet the same applies when the French and others from Europe visit us. Some do have a firm grasp of the language, they want to eat at our better restaurants, but like us visiting them, some are not informed of proper etiquette practices.

So the dislike is not because of their bad people, they just want to be shown respect for their culture and their ways as we do here in America. When I visited France in 2010 my French speaking skills were limited. When I needed information, I didn’t walk up to a French person and say, “Excuse me, where is this town?” Since my French was limited, I learned the basics to help me get by, and walked up to a person and said “Bonjour Monsieur or Mademoiselle, Parle-Vous anglaise?” simply translated as “hello, sir or ma’am, do you speak English?” From there, if they did, I would ask them for directions in English and not before. You would be amazed at how helpful people in France were, once you gave them just a little courtesy.

When the French or others visit America, they learn English, but not all of them study our customs, and like us assume that we have the same etiquette practices that they or the rest of Europe does, referring to gratuity. This is why servers across America dislike Europeans’ when they dine out.  I have worked in the Restaurant industry in America for over twenty years as a cook, Chef, dishwasher, bar-back, Busboy, server, and Captain Lead, so I know how servers feel because I have been there. The root of the question to this entire article is about tipping. Not just at restaurants, but anywhere that gratuity is commonplace. Why is it such a strong focus when you dine out, no matter who you are or where you’re from? Whether it is a chain restaurant like Ruby Tuesday’s, Carrabba's, and Outback Steakhouse, or a fine dining restaurant like Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, California,  McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, The Cape Cod Room in Chicago, Illinois, or Rioja in Denver, Colorado it comes down to the livelihood of the person waiting on you.

Salary Scales and how they differ:
Throughout Europe and Asia when you visit and dine out at a restaurant your server is paid on a different salary scale than the same server at a restaurant in America. When I was in Italy in 2002, a server gave me money back that I was leaving as a tip because the restaurant he worked at paid him a high salary, and he got a percentage of the profit in sales, along with every other employee. I came to find out that a lot of Italian restaurants operated on the same practice from Naples to Rome, or if not this practice, then something similar where servers were paid a livable salary and did not need a gratuity. The same applied in France when I visited in 2010, and Germany in 2012. I have visited England several times to see the same result in most places. Throughout the Middle East, a tip at a restaurant is considered a bonus but is not expected. In South Africa, the policy is the same. Tipping in Europe or Asia will differ from country to country but the average is 5 to 10% of your total bill, and places like Japan, any gratuity will be returned to you, as it is not accepted. In China, it is customary to leave gratuity at fine dining restaurants only.

So here you are visiting the United States, or you’re an American and you go out to dinner whether it is with family, friends, or business associates. You enjoy your meal, eating appetizers, salads, entrĂ©e’s, and maybe dessert if you can fit it in, plus the wine, beer, or other cocktails you ordered from the bar. Time to go home and settle up that check; $60.00, let’s leave a $5.00 tip, then watch as the server and bartender evil eye you, and put a voodoo curse on you, hoping you cross the street the same time a semi-truck is driving by at sixty miles an hour. Think that’s not the truth, hang around servers after hours at a bar and listen to them rant.

Let’s break it down now:
Earlier I talked about how servers in Europe and Asia get a set salary so tipping is not necessary, but in the United States, it works differently. Most states except for California and few others, the hourly salary for a server is 2.13. At forty hours per week that's 85.20 or $341.00 per month (BEFORE TAXES) which is impossible in a first world country to live off of. Speaking of taxes, a wonderful thing that the Government feels necessary to rape us to support almost everything that we do not want or need. After taxes that $341.00 per month is about $300.00. So tell me how a server can pay rent, buy food, support their family, pay bills and so on with that salary? Tipping thus becomes a necessity for their lives, and the Government will tax the server based on their tips, a set rate, whether they make that set rate or not. Starting January 1, 2014, the IRS will classify automatic gratuities which are added to parties of six or more, or restaurants that do it automatically to every bill are now taxable as regular wages and subject to payroll tax withholding. That might sound like a bunch of arcane tax law mumbo jumbo, but what it means is that restaurants have to treat those tips like regular wages. Now I mentioned California, where servers get paid around $7.00 per hour now, plus they take in tips, but when you look at the cost of living in California it’s the same as making $2.13 per hour. Also to reflect the new law, restaurants raised the prices of their food so that they could pay the servers the state mandate. There are a few other places that have done the same, pay the servers more to reflect the low tips, but in the end, they have also raised their menu prices as well. Now tipping isn’t mandatory unless you’re in a party of six or more, but ethically, the server relies on your gratuity to live.

Yet with this reliance, over half of the people that dine out in America leave less than a 15% tip to their server, regardless of the service is good or bad. Most people say, “Why do I have to pay a tip, raise the wage like they did in California,” well that is an option, but until it’s done, remember what the server makes. Now if you receive bad service then, by all means, tip less than 10% or nothing at all. Being in the restaurant industry, I do not tolerate bad service. A few restaurants are now starting to move away from gratuity because they don’t like the competition factor with their servers, or attitudes that come with it. But being in the restaurant industry, I like the competition, and think servers do better with it. When you eat at fine dining in the United States, you see it more, than eating at a chain restaurant. Servers know how much money they can make, so the service is top of the line. They know that they have to be at their best for you to leave a good tip, whereas a chain restaurant server really doesn’t care and has become accustomed to plain service.

Other restaurants have moved to a tip-pool method, where no matter how busy the restaurant is, or how many servers are working, all tips at the end of the night are collected and split evenly amongst everyone. I once worked in a place like this in Atlanta for the BLT Restaurants group in 2009, and let me tell, servers hated it. Let's say that two serves have two tables each. One server has one rotation of guests on a slow night and makes $40.00. Part of the game for a slow night. Another server has a party at his tables and makes $200.00 in tips, a very good night. In tip-pool restaurants, the servers have to split everything equally, and all servers walk out with $50.00. The server with two tables that made less is happy on this night, but the server with the party worked his hind tail off, and he is now being punished to heed the needs of the collective. A true example of Classic Socialism. Servers that work hard get equal pay to those servers that do not, and they have no choice but to share equal benefits.

In the end:

A servers tips are his or her own, and if they earned them, they should keep them. But it is important for you as the customer no matter where you’re from to understand proper restaurant etiquette, especially if you are dining in the United States. Someday like in Europe it may change, but for now, this is the way it is. I do not support automatic gratuity unless the party is larger than six people, because if every check has this is pre-recession 2007 numbers). 

So what should you leave a tip when you go to a restaurant? First thing if you can’t afford the tip, then don’t go out to eat. The percentage number changes depending on what article you read, or movie you watch.

You need this more than I do:

My philosophy:
This is what I do when I go out to eat, and it works really well. Start at a specific percentage of your total bill after taxes (because servers are taxed on the tip based on the total bill, so don’t tip on the before-tax amount). The percentage I start with is 25%, and I start at this because I’m in the food industry and worked with these folks every day. I also believe in Karma and don’t want to get screwed by it. Most people will start with 18-20%. Then based on the service, that percentage goes up, down, or stays the same; for example, if my drink goes empty and stays empty the tip goes down. If I’m drinking wine, and the server recommends another wine to match the food I’m eating, the tip goes up. The lowest tip I ever gave was 5%, and for me, it was the most god-awful service I ever got, and it was at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant in Canton, Ohio. The best service I ever received was in Chicago, and the server got 50% from me, that’s how impressed I was.

One other thing to take into account is the amount you tip is not what the server takes home, and I’m not talking about taxes because two things that are certain in life is death and the IRS. So let’s say you leave a 20% tip for the service you were given. At the end of the night, that server leaves with 16-17%, why? Because a Busboy cleaned your table, an expo and food runner delivered the plates to your table, and the hostess sat you. Sometimes the Sommelier comes to your table to give a recommendation. All of these people receive a percentage or a tip-out of the total bill. So if your party spent $200.00, the Busboy gets 2-3% of that, runner and expo 2-4%, Sommelier gets 10% of the wine sales, and the Bartender gets 5% of the total alcohol sales since he poured the wine, made the cocktails for you,  and in some places the hostess also gets a percentage. So if you tipped your server 20% which would be $40.00, then at least $7-10.00 goes to these people, maybe more. So imagine what happens if you leave a 10-15% tip. The server still pays out $7-10.00 because the tip-out is based on the sales, not what he or she got the tip. On January 1, 2014, the IRS will classify automatic gratuities as service charges that are taxable as regular wages and subject to payroll tax withholding. Automatic gratuities are added to parties of six or more or restaurants that add it to every bill. So the Government will tax you on the full gratuity, even though you still tip-out, so to a server, it is a double whammy.

How to figure out a tip

These days you can do it on your smartphone, but in the old days, you had to use your brain and hope that the public education system actual taught you mathematics. Make it simple on yourself with easy percentages of multiplication. If you’re a complete dumb ass then use your smartphone. 10% of ten dollars is $1.00. Want to leave 20% then it is $2.00. A one-hundred dollar check at 20% is $20.00, and so forth. Also, remember that servers know who you are. If you frequent the same restaurant on a regular basis and you tip well, then servers will fight over you to get you and give you really damn good service. If you’re a crappy tipper than no one wants to wait on you, and they will pawn you off on the new guy. For example, my Father has never left a tip above 15% in his life. When I go out with him, I leave an extra tip or agree to pay the tip in full if he is buying. I hope that this helps you to understand when you go out to eat, and remember, it’s not a plea to give up all your money, but to pay for services rendered, and if the service was good, reflect it by giving a good tip. Below is a little documentary on servers that I found amusing and could relate to. Most of the servers in this video did not work fine dining, and you could tell based on their attitudes, but all servers at one time or another have felt like this.

Waiting table’s documentary:

Statistically the Best and Worst Tippers:
Now don’t take offense to this list if you happen to be on it because a statistic is just that. You can argue it all you want, but in the end, the servers have to deal with you, so they know who does and does not tip. This list goes from the worst to the best.

1. Foreigners
2. Kids under 21 or college students
3. People with strong religious beliefs, especially on Sunday's
4. Families with 3 or more kids, especially those who lack the practice of discipline and etiquette to those children
5. Political affiliation: Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Environmentalist, or Green Party mainly, but also some Republican's especially if they fall into the religious category.
6. Black Americans who make a salary of less than $40,000 per year (most, but not all. I’m not being bigoted, just stating a statistical truth from 20 years in the industry)
7. People classified as “Red Neck’s” or “White Trash” no matter the income level
8. Women (not all women, but statistically, a higher percentage than men)
9. Actors, sports stars, and musicians
10. School Teachers
11. Senior Citizens (or above age 50 in general)
12. Government and city workers

(Bill Maher Christians tipping)

Best Tippers:
1. Restaurant industry workers, i.e. waiters, Chef’s, Sommeliers, and bartenders
2. Service industry or commission based sales representatives
3. Asian Americans
4. White Americans with a salary above $35,000 per year
5. Black Americans with a salary above $40,000 per year
6. College Educated individuals who have spent more than a year away from school and are in the workforce
7. Business sector
8. Political affiliation: Some Republicans, Libertarians, and certain Independent groups
9. Medical, dental, and pharmaceutical
10. Mid Western Americans
11. Military and some retired military individuals
12. People wanting to impress someone else even though they may be cheap bastards!

Gratuities chart for a regular Restaurant:

Wait staff
18% - 20% of the total bill before taxes (Note: some restaurants now suggest tipping after taxes because servers themselves tip out on the after-tax amount).
Wine served with dinner
The safe recommendation is to tip 15-20% of the total bill, including alcohol, even for expensive bottles of wine. However, we've seen some restaurants say it's OK to tip around 10% for expensive wines.
15% - 20% of the tab; or, $1 for beer or wine, $2 for mixed drinks.  Ideally, pay your bar tab before leaving for your table.
Order at front
If you order at the front and food is delivered to your table, it depends.  If, once you've ordered, the seating and decor compare with a standard, sit-down restaurant, tip 5%-10%.  If the food is delivered to your table only as a convenience, tipping is not necessary.
Parking Attendant
Usually $1-$3
$5.00 - $10.00
(The question to ask yourself is, do you want to risk a low tip to a person that is taking care of something that cost you $40,000 or more? Duh!!!)
Coatroom Attendant
Usually $1 per coat
Wait staff
18%-20% of the post-tax bill
Wine steward or Sommelier
For personal service from the wine steward, you may tip 10% of the wine bill.
Restroom Attendant
Usually $1

Now for a little humor since I have depressed the hell out of you with this article:

Reservoir Dogs Tipping/Gratuity Scene:

"Culinary perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well."

Who is John Galt?


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