The Tipping Point

When I was in my teens I read a book by E.L. Koingsburg entitled The view from Saturday.  It is a fantastic book, and I encourage each and every one of you to pick it up.  One part of this book has stuck with me from the moment I read it.  In the book they discuss the meaning of different acronyms.  For example, the word “Posh” evolved from the acronym for “Port out, Starboard Home” which referred to which cabins were best to book when traveling from England to India.  More importantly was the word “Tip” which started as an acronym for “To Insure Promptness”.  This plays a part later in the book, and while I could fill in more details, this isn’t a book review, it’s a lesson on tipping.  

“To insure promptness” is a phrase which really emphasizes why we leave tips when we visit restaurants.  Whether they are your local Mexican food grab-and-go fast food style restaurant, or a full sit down fancy restaurant, or even just the café down the street with a tip jar sitting next to the cash register, to give a few extra dollars as tip is your way of guaranteeing that you will continue to receive top service.

As a waitress I’ve worked harder than necessary to earn a meager tip from a table of customers who feel they should be able to nitpick every detail and subtract percentage points off the tip for every time their drink dips below half full, or their plate has to sit empty for ten seconds before being bussed away.  I’ve worked in a complimentary continental breakfast buffet where I stocked the food, seated the customers, brought drinks and bussed tables, to receive no tip because the food was free.  I’ve worked in a counter-top based fast food restaurant with a tip jar to have many customers look at it shortly before thanking me for my great service and walking away without dropping anything in.

Why don’t people tip? Sure, it’s a few extra dollars a week, it isn’t absolutely necessary, and don’t you deserve a basic level of service without having to pay more?  These people earn enough money as it is, right?  I’ve actually read so many arguments online as to why people shouldn’t tip that it makes me sick.  Why should 15% be considered standard? If it is standard, why don’t restaurants just charge that automatically and take the guesswork out for customers?

Tips aren’t standard. I argue that you should never just automatically assume you’re tipping 15% or 20% when you walk into a restaurant.  As a former waitress I walk into a restaurant and don’t even consider the tip until the end of the meal.  I enjoy my meal and when the bill comes I think to myself – “Did I have fun tonight?” if the answer is “yes” then the server gets a fantastic tip (Usually between 25-30% depending on what the nearest full dollar is).  If the answer is “no” and it is because of something the server  obviously flubbed (Didn’t bring me the right meal, took 2 hours to bring me my food without explanation, was so rude I actually noticed it), I’ll tip between 1-5%.

Why do I still tip?  Because receiving a $0.20 tip says more to a server than receiving a $0 tip.  It says “You did something wrong and I wanted you to know it.” Not tipping at all simply says to the server “Hey, so I know I’m supposed to tip, but I’m not going to because I’m an asshole, or maybe possibly because you did something wrong.  Most likely its just that I’m an asshole.”  Plus, just because the server did something wrong doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some sort of reimbursement for helping you.  They still brought you a meal (albeit possibly the wrong one or a few hours late), they still filled your drinks (at least once, right?).  So even if you don’t give them a lot, give them something.

The reason I tip so much when I get good service is that I worked as a waitress and I personally understand that the only source of income that servers have are their tips.  You don’t have to tip this much if you don’t want to, but if you tip the standard 15%, your server will at the very best think slightly less of you as a person, but will most likely (you guess it) hate you.  When I get absolutely fantastic, amazing, blows- me- away service?  I’ll tip 50% as a minimum.  Great servers deserve to be told they are great.

Working at a counter-based restaurant has its own difficulties.  This qualifies as any business where you pay at a cashier at a counter and then pick your food up at the same counter.  Or even more precisely, any place where there is a tip jar next to the cash register when you pay, rather than with a bill.  Tip jars are confusing territory for customers.  You can see that there are a few dollars in there, and a handful of coins, and you think, “Hey, this cashier has earned more than enough today! I don’t need to help out.”  Or you see that it is empty and you think, “Man, no one else is tipping so I don’t have to bother either!”  What most people don’t realize is that the tip jar they see sitting on the counter doesn’t just go to the cashier.  It will go to any person working behind the counter that day – and that includes the cooks in the kitchen.  So when you see $6 in the tip jar, and there are 3 people working behind the counter, including the cashier, at best the person you just thanked for their great service is getting $2 for 8 hours of work.  At worst there are 2 cooks in the kitchen and 1 other employee working on other projects – cleaning the back so you don’t get food poisoning, or working as a prep cook.  So that cashier you really like and think is awesome is actually only getting $1.  I don’t know how many shifts I’ve worked where I’ve had dozens of customers thank me and smile and look at the tip jar… and then walk away.  If every one of those customers had just dropped a quarter in the tip jar I’d have walked home with $2-3 extra in my pocket.  Not much, but it makes a difference.  If they’d all dropped in a dollar?  That would be the best way to make me really love my job and give just that little bit extra that would make your visit special.  I can like you for the whole time I’m ringing you up… but the moment I hand you your change and you don’t drop even your pennies into my tip jar? I hate you.  And don’t think that only ever paying with plastic helps – wherever I go as a customer, I’m always armed with a handful of singles, and I always drop one in a tip jar when I see it.  I’m also always actively searching for a tip jar, because “I didn’t see it” isn’t a great excuse either.

Working at the counter I know all my regulars.  And the ones that tip regularly often find I accidentally forgot to charge them for the drink with their meal, or that I charged them for the cheaper version of their entrée.  The regulars that regularly don’t tip regularly get charged for everything.  It pays to tip in the long run.  I also make sure to remember the “regular” for my regulars who tip – saving them time while they are waiting because they just have to confirm the regular rather than ordering every day.  “To Insure Promptness” has its greatest impact in the tip jar by the register at your favorite lunch joint or café, I promise.  You don’t have to always give a dollar, just toss in your change.  If you and every other customer just dropped your dimes, nickels, and pennies (not to mention quarters! We love quarters!) in that tip jar rather than walking away they would add up immensely over the course of the day.

Finally, a special note on free food.  Working at the continental buffet I did absolutely the same job I did working as a waitress in a popular family style sit down restaurant.  But because the breakfast was free (because we were in a hotel), people rarely, rarely tipped.  They would receive a free breakfast identical to one they would receive down the street at the local breakfast diner for $6-7.  If they had gone to the restaurant they would have tipped a waitress doing the same job I was $1-2.  But because the breakfast was free?  I got nothing.  In fact, because we didn’t have sections or tables, all the tips we did pick up off the tables were split between the entire staff that day, much like the tip-jar on the counter in the last paragraph.  So the handful of tips we did get were split 4-5 ways and became even more meager.

People don’t tip when the food is free, which is even more apparent to me because the company I worked for when I worked at the counter-top restaurant and my corporate office decided to make us have a free- food- day promotion.  We gave out thousands of dollars of free food.  Meals that any other day would be $6 were suddenly free.  And out of the over 800 people that stopped by my register so few dropped money in the tip jar that at the end of the night the 5 of us working the event each received $8.  I know I saw at least 3 people drop in $3 by themselves, so I know that the vast, vast majority of the people who were literally receiving a free meal were passing that tip jar by.  And for absolutely no reason – because they couldn’t excuse that dollar as breaking the budget because in the long run they were still saving $5.  And you know what? I hated each and every one of them.

When you are receiving food for free think about what you would normally pay for that meal and tip appropriately.  If your favorite lunch stop is running a one day promotion, make that your excuse to tip a little extra because of the little extra you’re saving. But don’t fall into the “0% of nothing is nothing” trap. Because you’re just punishing yourself in the long run.

Finally? Tip.  Because it insures promptness, it rewards someone who has worked hard for you, and because in the long run it makes you a better, nicer person.  And not doing it makes me hate you.

Listen. I hate you:

•    You only tip 15%
•    You ignore the tip jar
•    You think free means no tip

How to be likable:

•    Tip well for good service (20% is good, 30% is best)
•    Tip fantastically for fantastic service (50% or more!)
•    Drop that change on into the tip jar! (Dollar bills are better)
•    Tip based on the VALUE of the meal, not the COST of the meal

1 comment:

  1. What I don't get is when people try to discreetly drop a dollar in the jar when nobody's looking. Are they ashamed?