Restaurant Tipping – How Much and When?

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This is just my opinion, but I think restaurant tipping is kind of a crappy set up. A restaurant relies on tips to pay the staff a decent wage, so the waiter/waitress is caught in the middle, working for a business that won’t pay them fully for what they do, but never certain the customer will either.

That’s why I don’t have a problem tipping, even though there should be a better way. But the reality is that there isn’t, so we work with what we have. It’s worth remembering too that if restaurants paid their staff living wages the menu prices would be substantially higher, so the upshot is that we have some flexibility on the price if we don’t like the service.

Everyone has their own ideas when it comes to tipping, and here are mine.

Automatic Tipping vs. the Sliding Scale

Restaurant Tipping – How Much and When?
Restaurant Tipping – How Much and When?

Some people are automatic tippers. They’ll put down the standard 15% at any sitting almost as if they’re paying a tax. The quality of the service and food are nearly irrelevant.

Others tip on a sliding scale. The customary 15% is only a starting point; poor service will be deducted—all the way down to zero if necessary—while top quality service can be substantially higher.

Personally, I’m a sliding scale tipper. I believe good service should be rewarded, and poor service should be punished. When I was in the mortgage business, I knew that if I was to get anyone’s business, I’d have to earn it. I actually think it should be that way with all businesses we transact with.

When it comes to restaurants, we have two ways to express our level of satisfaction with the establishment: to “vote with our feet” by coming back again (or not) and in the generosity of the tip we leave. Few other businesses present us with such rich opportunities to so directly evaluate their product or service.

Non-tippers

I’ve mentioned automatic and sliding scale tippers, but turning the tables, there’s also a third category—non-tippers.

Do you know anyone like this? I do. They go to restaurants, and not infrequently, trying every tactic known to humanity to do so on the absolute cheap. The tip is a no-brainer for these types, they don’t pay it.

Non-tippers use the following tactics to avoid paying tips:

  1. They underpay, i.e., $2 on a $30 meal.
  2. When the bill comes they suddenly find fault with a perfectly good dining experience as a pretext for cutting or eliminating the tip.
  3. They often dine out in groups, forcing others to cover their portion of the tip.
  4. They rationalize that it’s the establishment’s responsibility to compensate its staff, and they flat out don’t pay.

If going to a restaurant isn’t in your budget, don’t go. If you’re in a group and your budget is limited, ask for separate checks. Don’t try to get others to pay your way.

Tipping at buffets

Tipping at buffet-type restaurants is always an open question. Many people don’t tip based on the thinking that the server doesn’t actually bring your food, in fact you even have to get it yourself! This is a point well taken, but I don’t agree completely.

When ever we go to buffets, we leave a tip. It’s usually less than 15% (after all, we DID have to get our own food!), but we try to balance it between the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the server. They do typically refill drinks, supply sundries and clear the table when we’re done and collectively that adds up to more work than taking our order and serving the food as in full service places.

This is just me, but I’ll typically leave something on the order of 10% at buffets, and again, higher or lower based on the service.

Restaurant tipping for poor service

The 15% tip has become something of a cultural standard, and I know many people who believe that it should be given regardless of service. As a rule, I give the benefit of the doubt to the server; if the food is less than satisfactory, but the service was good, he or she will get at least 15%. But there are times when the entire dining experience fails to justify a tip at all.

A few years ago my wife and I were at a chain buffet, where both the food and the service were awful, and we didn’t leave a tip. We didn’t bother complaining to the manager because the whole operation was so terrible that lousy looked like the way they did business.

But as we left, the server followed us out the door and angrily insisted on wanting to know why we didn’t leave a tip. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I told her we weren’t impressed with the facility. She began raising her voice, and I had to go farther and tell her that both her service and attitude were terrible as well, that she hardly came to our table and that we can’t reward that kind of service.

She kept coming at us, but for the most part I kept my cool, because I assumed that if she was ready to go to battle over a few dollars (that she didn’t earn!) she must have other problems. You never know, maybe her car died and she didn’t have money to fix it, or maybe her husband lost his job. Like I said, I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but there wasn’t much room on this one, and her tirade only sealed our decision.

”Mandatory” tipping

One thing that infuriates me is mandatory tipping. We see this with valet parking and with the inflated tips added to party tabs, often for groups as small as six patrons, and usually at a flat rate of at least 18%.

A mandatory tip isn’t a tip at all, but an additional charge on your bill. I fully understand the need for the house to make money, that large groups may require a higher level of service than smaller ones, and of the need to cover for the non-tippers who tend to hide in groups. But I don’t appreciate being denied my opportunity to register my “vote” on the establishment and it’s service with a required add on to the bill. In some restaurants, the language advising patrons of the add-on is so small that the group even might add a tip on top of the already gratuity inflated bill.

I avoid places like that like the plague, and as well those that require valet parking. If I have to pay someone to do something as ordinary as parking my car, I’m patronizing a place I don’t need to be in. The valet parking “tip” is usually just the beginning of a cavalcade of extraneous charges.

At the extreme we have a Couple Busted for Refusing to Pay a Tip in Pennsylvania a few years ago. The restaurant added an automatic 18% tip to the bill that the couple refused to pay due to poor service, and the restaurant called the police and pressed charges against them for theft!

Fortunately, the case drew unwelcome national attention for both the restaurant and the local police department, and the charges were dropped. But if there’s even a threat of being arrested for refusing to pay for poor service, that alone is a compelling reason why I shouldn’t be there in the first place.

How do you tip? Are you an automatic tipper, or like me, do you prefer the sliding scale? Do you tip at buffets or for poor service? What are your thoughts on mandatory tipping?

( Photo by Debs )

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29 Responses to Restaurant Tipping – How Much and When?

  1. I NEVER tip, under any circumstances. Why should I be expected to tip? Do I get a tip for doing my JOB? Heck no! The ONLY tip I’ll give someone is to go back to school, get a real education and learn the marketable SKILLS necessary so that you don’t have to accept doing low-paying, low-life, menial labor as your CAREER. Of course, having an education does not always guarantee financial success in life, but not having one almost always guarantees failure.

    Why in the world would I want to give ANY of my HARD EARNED money away?! It makes no sense to me why anyone would work as hard as they do, only to donate their hard-earned income to someone who thinks they “deserve” a “tip”, for DOING THEIR JOB, for which they are already getting paid!

    Everyone is born equal. We all have an equal chance to get an education, to get ahead in life, to be successful and to live a financially-rewarding life. It’s not my fault that the person doing their JOB to serve me my food made the CHOICE to not excel in life, is it? Why should ANYONE expect me to share ANY of my hard-earned income?

    Remember…we are all created equal, but we are not ALL EQUAL. Life is about choices. Make the right ones.

  2. WOW! That’s a strong opinion. Dave, what I think you’re missing, is what I wrote about in the first part of the post, that as patrons we pay the bulk of a servers pay, and because of that, we pay less for restaurant meals than we would if all staff were making a living wage.

    Most servers are making only (I believe) $2.13 per hour from the restaurant, so the only way to make any real income is through tips.

    I guess that puts you firmly in the third category, the non-tippers. Sorry, but that’s a bit too harsh for me.

  3. I have a mental tipping exercise. I start at 15% if you don’t refill my water (I don’t drink soda or alcohol) you will loose some of that tip, usually dropping you down to 10%, if the waiter does a good job I tip between 18% and 20%. I had an exceptional waiter a few weeks ago, the service was lousy other than the waiter (cold food, slow food, dirty tables). I didn’t think that the other staff deserved to share the tip so I mailed it in to the waiter with a note, next time I came in I received a free appetizer. A chain restaurants by my office was low on staff so the manager served the table. I asked him where my tip would end up. He said it would end up in the general fund and not be calculated in tips. I let him know I wouldn’t be tipping him but would be leaving my tip at the next table over for the one waiters who was working. He thanked us for the suggestion and gave us a dollar off.

  4. MEoip – That’s similar to how I handle tipping, and I might let management know if there’s a problem from time to time. There’s a way of doing that in a constructive way that can be beneficial to the business. I suspect that’s how you handled it and the reason why you got the freebie.

    But in the poor service story described in the post, the whole set up–management, food, facility and servers were in disarray so there was no point even complaining. We never did go back to that restaurant either. In fact that chain has since closed a number of outlets.

  5. I also consider myself a sliding scale tipper, but what are you going to do, Kevin M, when you travel to a country like France? Restaurants in France add a mandatory 15% tip to each meal.

    Dave, how do the servers treat you after you return? Do you receive the same level of service? I doubt it.

  6. EF – Don’t go to France! (just kidding of course) I’d heard of that situation in France, but what I’d also heard, for Europe in general, is that being a server is a career type postion. They go to school to be servers and earn a living wage. It seems like an entirely different set up than what we have in the US.

  7. I used to be a non-tipper and I used to echo Dave’s philosophy to the letter: these jobs are what they are, and at least here in Washington, are paid appropriately ($8.50/hour gross) for the type of work done, so why should I supplement that?

    But then…I think I grew up. At some point several years ago when I was in my mid 20’s I began to realize the true cost of food–not only at restaurants but also at the market. I learned about crop subsidies, and why that $1.99/pound ground beef is $1.99 a pound and not $5.99. I reconsidered tipping, came to the conclusions that you’ve come to, Kevin, and began to tip.

    My style of tipping is to tip a flat $2 for good to-be-exepected service. For exceptional service, I’ll go above and beyond and will gladly leave a $4 tip for a $15 meal if I felt like a queen while receiving my thai noodles. For anything less than good service, there’s no tip. I’m in general very frustrated with incompetent service, be it at a restaurant or at the phone company or at my mortgage lender, and I just wont reward it.

    Interesting: I was in Key West the other week and we ran into the indentured servant community. Primarily Eastern Europeans enter into contracts with a “restaurant contractor.” Restaurants then hire the contractor to provide the labor; this is how the restaurant avoids having to comply with labor laws–they’ve hired the contractor, not the actual service staff. The contractor pays the indentured servans something like $1-$2 an hour plus stuffs them into a overcrowded shared living situation on the island. It takes years for these foreigners to be able to save enough money to leave the situation. In Key West the real estate is so highly valued that American servers can’t afford to work as servers, tips or no tips, and be able to afford to live on Key West or anywhere in the lower keys. A sad situation. We received terrible service from these servers, but identified with the situation, so still left a tip.

  8. Well, I understand the article’s argument, but I look at it this way… servers work for tips… therefore they work for me, not the restaurant. My expectations are reasonable for quality of service… I’m not too terribly picky. But lets carry this further…

    I am a capitalist… I believe in the concept of “pay for performance”. Sales on commission, performance based compensation, and firing poor performers. If you don’t perform, you shouldn’t be paid. If you do an awesome job, you should be rewarded appropriately. If the server sucks so bad that I don’t leave a tip, they should probably be fired and find another line of work.

    There is one exception to this. I believe it is the restaurant’s responsibility to make sure their employees know how to do their job… just like any business. I was recently on vacation and the restaurant had a server from eastern Europe who didn’t understand service expectations in american restaurants. She wasn’t lazy, she just didn’t know how to do the job… I give these people the benefit of the doubt and looking back on it now, I should have said something to the manager so the server could receive some training

  9. Donna – Put another way, when we tip we’re reinforcing the service. If it’s good, and we plan on coming back to the same restuarant, tipping is a way of keeping the service up. If you think about it, we really don’t go to restaurants for the food–we could prepare that at home and for a lot less money. We go there for the service. The primary source of that service is the server. Rewarding them keeps them performing at high levels.

    Ryan – I pretty much agree with you, we should tip according to performance and poor performance should never be rewarded. Eliminating the poor performers improves any business.

    One thing to note, as a driver in poor service, is understaffing. Sometimes it isn’t the servers fault, or even the restaurant–people just don’t show up for work. Also, some days are busier than others for reasons that aren’t always predictable. This is a big reason why I like to give servers the benefit of the doubt even when things aren’t 100% to my liking.

  10. In response to Dave: (the first comment)

    Your hard earned money as you put it, will come out somewhere. The alternative to tipping, is to have the service included in the meal price. For instance, instead of a restaurant being able to offer a meal at $10, they will charge you $15 to cover staffing costs. Servers, in most chains, make well below the minimum wage and depend on tips to make it by. Either way you are paying for them to do their job, whether you’re giving the money to the establishment or the employee. By tipping, you have control over the amount of money they earn. You can reward them based on good service, or do the very opposite. I don’t know about you, but I rather have a say in the situation.

    If everyone took your view point, all restaurants would increase the price of their meals substantially to keep their staff. All you are doing is cheating the system, and screwing over a poor college kid who just busted their butt to make sure you got your food right and on time.

    From my experience, most of the time the server is a college student. It is the only job that will accommodate their schedule where they can make decent money. They depend on tips to get an education and ahead in life just as you suggest they should.

    In other words, if you don’t like tipping, don’t go out to eat.

  11. DJ – I completely agree with what you’re saying. Non-tippers take advantage of the system, and raise costs for everyone. Meals will be more expensive if no one tips.

    The very part about tipping that I like is that it does give some control over costs, so it’s a system that’s worth preserving even with all of its flaws.

  12. I can’t stand the idea of mandatory tipping for larger groups. Every time I’ve been in that situation the service has been terrible, and then I’m forced to pay a top rate tip for it.

    Interesting link to the news story about the couple getting arrested, would love to see how that turns out!

  13. That automatic 18% tip on groups is required? We have the waiter split our checks (so I am on my own), and I cross out their bogus 18% gratuity and lower it to the acceptable amount (like 12% as a little punishment) — I’ve never heard anyone complain about me doing this. Of course, if it is good service, I may tip a little extra on-top of the 18%.

  14. I always tip in a tipping environment. Back in England where tipping isn’t normal I still often tip but maybe only a token pound or two… I don’t work out percentages.

    In Egypt (where I am right now) tip is about 10% but I up that considerably for good service. Sadly for my wallet good service is a common occurrence!!

    Thanks,
    Forest.
    http://frugalzeitgeist.com

  15. Forest – I’m with you, I’ll tip just about anywhere the service is good, and not just in restaurants. We often complain about bad service, but one of the best ways to improve it is to reward good service. 10 to one, the recipient of the tip is telling his or her coworkers about the big tip he or she received, and maybe that has the ability to improve the work of some of the poor performers.

  16. I tip 20% pretty much standard if the meal is over $15. If it is less, I tip $2-3. If i have a bad experience I drop the tip down to 15%. The meal would have to be really bad for me to drop below that; like “Let me talk to your manager” bad. As the other comments point out, you are going to pay for the waiters income one way or another. At least with tipping we get to have more control. If the owners have to pay real wages you will see two things happen: 1. The cost of the menu items will increase by at least 15-20%. Owners will have to pay taxes for those employees and that will result in more than the tip amounts being tacked on. 2. The quality of service you receive in most restaurants will decline. The prospect of the tips attracts better quality waiters. Being a good waiter is most certainly a valuable service skill. If there is no tipping more people with that skill set will apply it to other jobs that pay more.

  17. Precision Team – That’s why as much we gripe about tipping, the alterntives are far worse!

  18. I tip 15% if service was good. 20% if it was great. I don’t stiff anyone even if they deserve it. Rich people tend to stiff people and leave little or no tip.

    Here is my view. If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to leave a good tip. If you can’t afford to tip, don’t eat out and stay home!

  19. Tipping is one of the reasons I avoid restaurants with waiters. Waiters means waiting for one of them to come around to take the order and waiting for them to be able to pay the bill. (I suppose that’s why they’re called waiters?) And on top of that I have to pay 15% simply to carry the food and plates back and forth once. Crazy.
    If I accidentally step into a waiter situation I tip 15% and count it as “stupid-tax”, kinda like speeding tickets.

  20. ERE – You’re so right about the “waiting” thing. So many times we’ll be in a hurry, and we’ll think, let’s grab something out. It NEVER saves time, especially if waitstaff is involved.

    Arthur – that’s a pretty good looking blog you have!

  21. I’m a sliding scale tipper myself. I start at 15% and go up or down based on service, but I don’t typically go over 20%. Tipping is one of those things I really hate doing — it seems like everyone has a tip jar at the register these days. I think people should be paid fairly for what they do, and would rather pay more for restaurant outings than subsidize a person’s wages.

  22. Hi Kendal – I’m a sliding scale tipper myself, but I do sometimes go over 20%. With a family of four that isn’t always possible, but it’s more likely if it’s just me and my wife.

    On the tip jar, there are now blogs that have a tip jar button! I can see it though because some blogs turn out excellent content, but they don’t get the ad revenue to support the effort.

    I also think that if tipping were eliminated and meal prices raised, people wouldn’t be going out to eat so much. I think I’d rather have the tipping system!

  23. Hi Crystal – I can see cutting the tip if you’re not pleased with the service. That sends a definate message to the server. But if you don’t tip at all, the only thing you’re saying is that you don’t tip, which is to say that the non-tipping is all about you and not the server or the establishment.

    I’ve heard the best way to display complete dissatisfaction is to leave one penny as the tip. It says I’m a tipper, but you don’t deserve one.

  24. I echo Dave 100%. Also, I’m not sure wherein tips went from “TO-INSURE-PROMPT-SERVICE” to “MANDATORY, OR DON’T GO OUT”.

    Furthermore, it’s sickening now how often you see that infamous ‘tip’ line on establishments that aren’t even offering you service – Smashburger? Subway? I’m sorry, are you waiting on me all of the sudden and I don’t realize it?

    Also, businesses are making it harder and harder for patrons to tip the ‘full’ amount that’s apparently 15%… pizza delivery places now suddenly charge delivery fees or fuel charges – then you’re expected to tip on top of that?

    Yes, I tip – people that DESERVE it – and have given me PROMPT SERVICE. If you’re serving a group of hot girls that arrived after me, you’re not getting one. If you’ve come by once just to drop off the check and I actually had to request a refill from you, you’re not getting one. If you have, you’ll get a couple bucks for lunch, and a couple bucks for dinner – it’s not like you dropping off a turkey sandwich and ice water was really that difficult and worth any more than a couple bucks.

  25. We start at 20% for decent attentive service. If we have to wait for beverages or our meal is cold indicating it was ready but the server neglected to get it to the table timely, we decrease the amount based on how annoyed we get. As a side story….I read that servers say they can judge what the amount of their tip will be based on how often the diner says thank you during the course of the meal. The more often the diner says thank-you,the larger the tip.

  26. Hi Kathy – I’ve never been a server, but my wife and my daughter have. There’s a lot to what you’re saying about customers saying thank you. A strong indicator of tips is how demanding the customer is. People who are polite, understanding and appreciative tend to leave decent tips – they’re the “thank you” crowd you’re referring to.

    People who are demanding, disagreeable and combative tend to leave small tips or nothing at all. The second group tends to encompass the kind of people who must always “win” at any exchange. As retuarant meals go, it means extracting the most food and the most service for the least amount of money paid. The lack of satisfaction is part of the set up to make the case that the server didn’t deserve a decent tip, or any tip at all. People can become so calculating to this end that they instinctively launch into the unhappy customer act early in the process.

    And for what it’s worth, that hardly means they won’t come back – no matter how “dissatisfied” they pretend to be. I’ve seen such types pull similar routines in non-restaurant settings. I tend to think it’s something of a miserable existence even though they always seem to succeed at what they’re doing. They get comfortable knowing that the rest of the world will politely tolerate them and their all-about-me routines.

    They may seem happy – superficially – but being lousey to others, especially those who they think are beneath them – has a way of coming back at them agian and again.

  27. Also related to this is the before-tax/after-tax issue. I always tip on the BEFORE-tax amount, but I’ve found that many people inadvertently tip on the after-tax amount. Why is this? Well, in most cases it’s simply because when folks dine out, the majority pay with a credit card; and when you sign that charge slip the only payment information on there is:

    Line 1 – the bill (including tax)
    Line 2 – a blank line for the tip amount
    Line 3 – a blank line for totaling the prior two lines.

  28. Hi Chaz – I think it’s also a matter of giving the server the benefit of the doubt. For my own part, I don’t have time to calculate the tip based on net, so I leave it based on the total with tax.

    But I think you’re point is well taken, and will get more attention when states begin raising their sales taxes to double digits. Don’t laugh – it’s coming! A few have already done that with state income taxes, so the precedent is set.

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