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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

To tip a little, a lot, or not at all

This story ran in the Miami Herald today. Don't worry. It's not another one of mine. But in case you don't feel like clicking the link, here are the top few paragraphs:

Brigitte Rivera, who works at two Sawgrass Mills restaurants, is a forgiving soul. Half of her customers are stingy tippers, giving less than the 15 percent benchmark. And some don't tip at all. But the upbeat, swift-moving waitress knows it's not because the customer is unhappy -- it's because some of her patrons don't know any better.
''Sometimes, I'll get a table that doesn't tip me at all, and they're extremely happy with the service,'' she said. ``They think it's already included in my paycheck or something.''
Servers across the nation are speaking up about pay. But in South Florida in particular, with its influx of international tourists, servers wait on many visitors who are unfamiliar with the 15 percent tipping custom in the United States. Some restaurants, such as those in South Beach, automatically include tips on the bill because of international tourists. Yet other tourist-heavy areas, including Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise, don't automatically include gratuity.
And after years of dealing with paltry tips from international diners, Rivera supports the efforts of an online organization to boost tips. is petitioning for all U.S. restaurants to automatically include a 20 percent tip on the bill. The website was launched in May and has gained 3,000 online supporters.

So the story is about wait staff in restaurants supporting a national movement to automatically add that 20% tip to food tabs. One of the arguments in support of the mandatory tip is that here in South Florida, tourists, particularly those visiting from other countries, aren't familiar with our "American" tipping custom. I say that's BS. I don't care if you're from Mars. You know if someone runs around serving you while you eat you need to leave them extra money when you're done.

In general though, I have mixed feelings about this. I like to tip big - not showin' off big, but showing that I appreciate manual labor big.

It's not like I have much experience waiting tables myself. I lasted one week during my junior year in high school at one of those buffet joints that were so popular in the late '80s. I just happened to get stuck with the tables full of people who were too sedity to eat from the buffet and wanted regular meals served to them. Alas, a couple of dropped trays full of food, and I found myself unemployed...and promptly moved across the street to McDonald's.

Anywho, back to the matter at hand. Waiters and waitresses have it tough, especially in popular places, and I'm amazed at how often I see cheap-arsed people get up after an hour or more of service and leave a buck or two on their tables. That is horrible. It's bad karma. And it will one day bite all of those cheapskates where the sun don't shine.

On the other hand, I've seen quite a few waiters and waitresses give really bad service. I mean bad, as in attitude, bad as in only checking on our table once in a blue moon, bad as in taking orders for this and that and either forgetting or neglecting to bring it, bad as in getting orders wrong and then getting huffy about correcting their mistakes. And while I still believe in giving a minimum of 15% just because, those are the waiters and waitresses who don't deserve a penny more.

So a mandatory 20% sticks in my craw.

For my wife's birthday in January we went out to eat with four friends. The six of us had a blast. But our waitress behaved as though she was in high school and we'd just banished her to her bedroom: major attitude, pouting, ridiculously slow service. In the end our tab was well over $200. As we're all doing the math and figuring out our shares of the bill, one member of our party took a close look at the bill and saw that the tab was that high, because a 20% tip had already been added. That was one of those times I wanted to go find a manager and tell him/her that this waitress didn't even deserve a coke and a smile.

Don't be cheap, but if you're a waiter or waitress don't be lazy. Problem solved.


  • I think for every lazy waitress there are tirty cheap diners.

    Show me someone who doesn't tip, and I'll show you someone who never had to work hard for a living.

    By Anonymous og, at 6:38 PM  

  • In my neck of the woods, plenty of debate has been aired over the mandatory 20% tip thing. The talk always ends up with diners versus servers swapping stories of poor service versus poor customer behavior. If my wife and I dine out twice a week, that's two hundred meals a year between us. But a server who serves only three tables of two patrons per hour over an eight hour shift has served twelve thousand people in a year. Seems to me a given that servers can easily top any horror story a patron can give with one of their own about poor patronage.

    Personally, I am in favor of the mandatory 20% tip. Since all meals will now be 20% higher, food quality will become the competitive edge. And when service goes down the tube as a result of the loss of merit pay, restaurants will have to lower their prices to keep the customers coming in. Eventually everyone will be paying less, and restaurants will need to ensure they hire only the finest staff because of the competitively tight profit margins. The service we used to get will return, and the attitude-laden service will diminish. Problem solved.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 8:49 PM  

  • You can neither legislagte behavior nor make it mandatory. if tipping were mandatory, I'd go where it wasn't. And i'm a pretty big tipper.

    Making the tip a guaranteed item would drive the good waitresses out of the business. Why should they bust their asses when the lazy ones make the same money?

    By Anonymous og, at 9:38 PM  

  • I live in New Zealand and there is no tipping here. Wait staff are paid a wage not dependent on it.
    Places that cater to people from other countries place signs that say no tipping.
    Just letting you know that there are countries where it is not the custom to tip.

    By Anonymous kiwitime, at 1:14 AM  

  • I don't like mandatory anything. If your waitstaff is not being paid enough, then raise the price of the food so you can pay them a living wage that is not dependent on tips. I hate it when a voluntary custom becomes mandatory.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 8:37 AM  

  • I lived in Europe for two years and tipping is just not done in most places. I actually had a waitress run after me to return what I had left for a tip because she assumed I had forgotten the money. I think servers should make an hourly salary, especially at restaurants that attract a lot of foreign tourists.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:37 AM  

  • I'm against this. I respect the hard work servers and service people do, and I am happy to reward good service with my usual 20-25%. But I want that option. There is PLENTY of indifferent, lazy and just plain bad service in this town, and I would really be pissed if I had to reward them anyway.

    Restaurants need to get with it and pay their staff higer wages to compensate for tourists who don't know about tipping and jackass customers. Or they can place a polite note on the menu about tips. Either way, I get enough bad service on a regular basis (and still tip at least 15%), that as it is, I hate the notion that tips are required and not to be EARNED. To make it mandatory? UGH. I'll just eat out less and spend my money on other things.

    By Blogger Tere, at 11:54 AM  

  • 20% mandatory tip? Whatever happened to 17.5%?

    I thought that was the average tip... between minimal and excellent. 20% should be reserved for decent service w/o attitude.

    I hate it when I get waitstaff brushing me and bumping me when I'm at the worst table in the joint trying to eat. There's got to be a bit of leverage. Maybe 15% should be mandatory but the customer has the option on the bill of upping the tip. There's got to be a "Third Way."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:56 AM  

  • JB,
    I wrote this entry as a comment in response to the same article in Monday's Sun- Sentinel (Herald, you're slippin'- information doesn't qualify as "news" if its old) It was more of a response to the venom spewed on both sides of the tip debate by commenters, but I think it relates here so read it with that in mind.

    "On the discussion regarding tips, I'll just relay a statement uttered to me some years ago by the valet captain at the Riviera in Las Veags. It had been a hard weekend and our pockets were reduced to rabbit ears. We were flying out on the last Sunday flight and vowed to never spend that much again. After I notified the captain that we needed a ride to the airport, he whistled us over a cab (as was his job), opened the door and made sure our party and luggage were in, and sort of waited. We were all broke, either hungover or drunk or both, and no one really had any spare cash to recognize this "service" that had undoubtedly been done for us.

    As a result, valet captain was left there hanging with the empty hand. As our eyes met, he understood we didn't have any cash to pay him for the "service" and that he was going to get stiffed. Instead of pout about it, give us dirty looks, call us nasty names, or make us leave the cab (which would have necessitated an approx. 50 yard hump with luggage to the street to fend for ourselves), he simply said "Y'know fellas, I've been in this town a long time and there's one thing I know--tips bring you luck!" as he slammed the cab door onto our doggy pile of drunkennes.

    That was 1992. I have never forgotten that kindly piece of sage advice because it's true--tips do bring you luck.

    An extra buck or two that you might not miss could mean the difference between a good day and bad day when in someone else's hand. It could mean the difference between your server discreetly letting you know you have a cocaine snot ball stuck in your mustache or letting you divulge to your prospective client how much of complete a f*ck-up you are. It could mean a hidden bill from the hotel where your husband has you and your lover staked out. It's the last line of protection in a cruel world. Money works best when its in circulation. Good fortune can never circle back to you if you never put it into the stream in the first place.

    Besides, it's a known fact that cheap bastards don't make it into Heaven. Their hearts aren't big or warm enough to justify it."

    So while I'm not in favor of the automatic tip, stiffing someone who made something easy for you

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 2:17 PM  

  • I worked my way through college waiting tables and cocktailing and I still have a hard time with a mandatory tipping policy.

    Yeah, I dealt with stingy tippers, rude drunks, and spoiled frat boys with wandering hands... but that just goes with the territory. If you don't like it, don't work in the restaurant industry.

    I've also had a regular customer leave a "tip" that equalled a rent payment as a Christmas tip, had plenty of customers who gave a glowing review to my managers, and was occasionally left with extremely generous tips that no level of service could have warranted. The saw cuts both ways.

    Do you want a guaranteed level of pay for the work you do? Don't work as a food or cocktail server. Problem solved.

    (P.S. - We get the international tourists here in CA too, and it's true; most of them don't tip)

    By Blogger QofD, at 3:09 PM  

  • BD, you love to torture me. Hate to disappoint you, but The Herald isn't slipping. The story I posted was a second day follow up, bringing a deeper, local angle to the piece. We too had a story on this issue in Monday's paper.

    Regardless, it does sound like the valet captain was wise.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 3:45 PM  

  • Doesn't a mandatory 'tip' defeat the purpose of it being called a tip? I've had some great servers, and I've been happy to give more than 20% when they deserve it, but I've also had some of the absolute worst servers in the galaxy, and it rubs me the wrong way to think that they got an automatic gratuity just because they work there. In a sense, it creates a disincentive to provide better service if they know it's already in the bag. If the restaurants want their servers to get paid more, they can always raise the prices and pay the servers the difference.

    By Blogger The Dummy, at 4:42 PM  

  • A tip is a tip. I am a tipper, sometimes a good tip, sometimes not. It depends on the service.
    I don't withold a tip because the food is bad, that is the fault of the kitchen. If the server spends time chit-chatting with a cutie at the table behind me and allows my food to become stone cold, that is bad service. That being said, I really think that the tip should be just that - a tip, a gratuity for your service. It should not be a necessity for living. Servers should not have to rely on the tips to make ends meet, nor should they be taxed on tips they may not get. Restaurant staff should be paid a living wage and the tip should be what it is. You give your tables good service and you get the tip. No one should feel obligated to tip out a server who did not do their job. I worked for a while in food service, at a major hotel. I worked in the lounge, which served food. My station was all of the tables in the lounge. The bartender had the bar area. During the "free" happy hour the bartender made the drinks, I did the food - running back and forth to the kitchen to replenish food and liquor. I bussed the tables - the bartender got all the tips. In the lounge, I served all the tables, as well as getting food from the kitchen for the bartenders clients. I was the bus person there too. I got the tips from the tables the bartender got tips from the bar, and I got to give him 10% of mine, because he made the drinks. Kudos to the couple of bartenders who would not take the 10%, but why didn't they tip me out for the cleaning, the running to the kitchen for the bar patrons who ate at the bar.

    Anyway, enough of that rant, because the problem isn't who tips how much or when. The problem is a system that allows a business to pay less than minimum wage to begin with. The group involved in trying to get a standard tip added to all tickets is working on the wrong issue. They should put their time to use by working to get this antiquated law which allows all servers to be paid such a pitiful base pay changed. No one should have to depend upon the whims of the customer to pay their rent, and it isn't right that when you go to a restaurant and pay good money for a meal that you are then expected to supplement the pay of the servers.

    And there you are!

    By Anonymous llh, at 9:24 AM  

  • I was a waiter at the original Chili's on Greenville Ave. in Dallas, TX. Talk about some crappy tippers!

    Still, mandatory tipping percentages should only apply to parties of 6 or more. I agree with the commenter who said that it will deplete the "good waitrons."

    My favorite line when I was a waiter was, "...And remember, Tipping isn't a city in China!"

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