Last week I was enjoying a light snack out with a friend when she mentioned that she didn’t feel bad about tipping low since servers likely made more money than her. I understood her frustration but disagreed whole heartedly. After prying a little bit more, I discovered that she had never waited tables in her lifetime. I felt that in the wake of the controversy at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, it might be a good time to do a small write up on why you should always tip your server.
First, I want to be clear that most of this information is backed up by my own experience as a server. About four years of my early twenties, waiting tables was my primary source of income. I’ve worked in a variety of places from a small town Cracker Barrel to fine dining in the city, and have even helped manage a small sushi bar.
A few things to think about when you pay your bill after enjoying a lovely meal out. I’m sure others in the industry will have things to add as restaurant rules vary from place to place.
- If you have the dough to do it, tip higher in cheaper restaurants.The tips at a place like Cracker Barrel are drastically different from a fine dining establishment. Out of all my serving jobs, I had to juggle the most tables at Cracker Barrel. Also, the turnover is faster and more demanding. There are many parties that are families and have a diverse amount of immediate needs. For example, if you get traveling, young, hungry children at your table, better bring some nibblers (like bread) out fast or you get grumpy parents and grumpy children. Cracker Barrel had a lot of tables like that. It’s also fast paced with a low prices so the tip margin is low for a lot of work. When you get acceptable to good services at chain restaurants with low ticket prices, tip high. Many of the employees work just as hard as servers in fine dining and take home a quarter of the money. Your extra one or two dollars won’t equal the scales but if you have it in your budget, try to share the love. Of course, always tip fifteen or above for any service, anywhere. I normally tip twenty percent or higher.
- Don’t assume that servers get to take all their tips home. Every serving job I’ve ever had has required a tip out to supportive staff like bussers, runners, dishwashers, and even the sushi chefs. The amount you tip out is dependent on the restaurant. When I served, I tipped out as high as 25% of my sales. I don’t think that’s common, but someone can correct me if I’m behind the times. This also is another reason to tip fifteen percent or higher for satisfactory service. If you tip low on a high ticket price, because the tip out is calculated from the percentage of sales, low tips take a bigger chunk out of the server’s income.
- Don’t forget that servers pay taxes too. You may think that servers don’t claim all their tips but in a society that is moving more and more towards using plastic, it’s harder to get away with that. Obviously, in places that work more with cash, there’s some flexibility, though many servers I know try to be honest about what they report. For the most part though, folks use plastic. Most servers have put money away because when tax time comes they will owe. Of course, when I worked at Cracker Barrel, I never did owe but that’s likely because my income put me below the poverty line. If you are willing to go the extra mile, tip with cash even when you pay with a credit card.
- Don’t assume that every night is a good one. Servers often have to keep a savings for slow dining months like January or November around Thanksgiving. I remember nights where many of the single mothers I worked with bemoaned the fact that their childcare costs were going to put them in the negative that day. To be clear, that means it cost them money to come to work because they didn’t make enough to cover the childcare to be at work.
- Finally, if possible, you can’t afford at least to tip fifteen percent, find a cheaper restaurant or eat at home. I wanted to be delicate about this one because I feel that there’s a lot of judgment about people going out to eat if they can’t afford to. So many places don’t offer a living wage these days, many families and parents can’t treat their loved ones to a night out on a special occasion. However, I find that when I’ve eaten out, my friends with less money tend to be consistently generous. They may eat out less, but they always tip well. I think it’s probably because they can relate to wanting a fair wage for the work that they do, especially if your job doesn’t afford the luxury of showing up in bad health or bad spirits.
To be fair, I also knew a bartender who worked at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse four days a week and raked in a pretty good income. However, I don’t really think it’s up to us to decide whether or not a person deserves to make any money that night. For those of us that report to a salaried nine to five, remember that regardless of how productive you are day to day, your paycheck doesn’t change. We can express our displeasure with service with a standard ten percent tip but I found when I was a server, this only communicated to me that the customer was cheap. I found that my services changed more consistently if the customer communicated directly to me what I was doing wrong. Finally, if you don’t like the system of tipping, you can express that, but skimping on the tip hurts the server, not the people who instituted that system. In many countries, servers make an hourly rate. In other states, servers make minimum wage in addition to their tips. Feel free to advocate to change the system, but don’t hurt the workers on the ground.