I've wanted to write this post for some time, but I didn't want to write it directly after a shift waiting tables because I wanted to make sure this post was clear, informative, and non-emotional. In other words, I absolutely do not intend to rant about poor tipping practices. I would like to believe that poor tipping (when the service is good) is simply a result of a lack of education regarding the service industry and tips in general.
I am very lucky that my experience has enabled me to provide consistent, excellent service and I have had many customers comment and even leave me notes (which I keep in my order wallet) about their pleasant experiences. Fifteen years ago I waited tables while in college as well as now, and I have found that there is a significant difference between the usual tipping practices then and now. The entire two years I waited tables before I could count on one hand the "lousy" tips I received. Now it happens every shift, and while the restaurant is different, I cannot simply chalk it up to brand name. I sincerely think that in tough times, people still like to go out and enjoy themselves and some genuinely believe that tipping is optional. For those that do, let me provide you some figures.
Every state is different, but in the great state of Kansas, the minimum wage requirement for tipped employees is much lower than "normal" minimum wage. In other words, when I work, the only wage I am guaranteed is $2.13 per hour. If you'd like to take a look at the minimum wage requirement for your own state, please see this table from the US Dept of Labor.
So, if every table I waited on that shift believed that tipping was optional, I would make $2.13 per hour. However, this is not all. At the place I work (and this is standard practice for most restaurants, especially corporately-owned ones), we are forced to "tip-out," meaning that no matter how many drinks are ordered or even if we clear our own tables, we have to pay 1% of our sales to the bartender and 1% of our sales to the busser. Please take note--this is 2% of SALES, not 2% of tips, so if you are at a table that orders $100 worth of food and doesn't leave a tip, I have to tip-out $2 of that $2.13 I made that hour.
It is not unusual to have $100 worth of sales in an hour, so if everyone believed that tipping was optional, that would leave me $.13 per hour. The most I am allowed to work is 39 hours in a week because the company does not want to pay for full-time benefits and overtime (even at $2.13 per hour) is absolutely not allowed. A week of non-tippers would gross $5.07 for the week.
And that is not all. The computer requires, when I leave, to enter at least 10% of sales as tips, no matter how much I actually receive in tips. For simplicity sake, let's say that the total reductions are 20% and average weekly sales are a very conservative $1000 per week. That means that I would owe $20 in taxes on my $5.07 gross wages, meaning my net (take-home) pay would be a NEGATIVE $14.93. That means, if no one tipped, I would actually owe the government almost $15 after working nearly 40 hours that week. I honestly do not know of anyone who waits tables who is independently wealthy and does it just for fun. The people I work with are hard-working college students, single parents, or part of families who get several jobs because they are struggling to make ends meet.
Now that we've discussed the impacts of not tipping, you might be asking, "What should I tip?" I've talked to people who say they do not and will not go by percentages. That is fine if you happen to tip enough, but please keep in mind that the restaurant and the city, state, and federal government all go by percentages of sales when calculating what a server owes for tip-out and taxes.
For example, let's say that Mr Smith thinks $5 is a good tip no matter what the bill says. That is what he tips for good service. Well, if he eats with one other person and his bill is $25, then the restaurant takes $.50 for tip-out, so my $4.50 well exceeds the minimum 10% tips I'm required to declare (keeping in mind that I must and do declare ALL my tips). In this case, the $5 is a good tip.
However, let's say that Mr Smith takes out his entire family of ten. His tab is then $100. He tips his customary $5 for good service, believing that is a good tip (and this restaurant, like many, does not have mandatory gratuity for large parties). My mandatory tip-out for this bill to the bartender and busser is $2.00, so I am left with $3.00. My mandatory tax declaration is a minimum of $10 for this table, so I end up paying taxes on $7.00 worth of wages that I didn't even make. Not such a good tip now, is it?
Although some people loath the math calculations involved, it is truly best to tip based on a percentage of the bill. Many apps are available for your smart phones that will calculate tip percentages for you. If you don't have a smart phone, here is an easy way to calculate percentages: Let's say you have a bill that is $12.75. Just round up to the nearest dollar, making it $13.00. 10% of $13.00 is $1.30. Then calculate 20% by multiplying 13 x 2 = 26, making 20% of $13.00 equal to $2.60. 15% would be right in the middle, or approximately $2.00.
The minimum anyone should tip, if the service is poor (but not blatantly horrific), is 10%. Average service is 15% and good service is 20%. Of course, if your server is completely ignoring you and talking with his girlfriend at the next table while your glasses are empty and order is completely wrong then by all means do not leave a tip. This is not the type of person you want to encourage working in the service industry. However, if you see that your server cares in making things right, even if they do go wrong, a minimum of 10% should be given at all times. Personally, I know if I get over 20% then I know I did a good job of serving that table.
I know times are tough for all of us right now, but before you decide to treat yourself to a meal out, please be sure to budget not only for your dinner but for the tip as well, because your server could one day be your dentist, your hairdresser, your accountant, or, hopefully, one day, your nurse practitioner!