Split Parties

Away from the table, several sides to the tipping story

Split Parties
Illustration By Roy Tompkins

At the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the lovable gang of robbers is seated in a diner making heist plans over coffee. When it comes time to settle up, Joe counts the money thrown in for the tab and finds it's a buck short. "Hey, who didn't throw in?" he asks. He finds out that Mr. Pink (played by Steve Buscemi) doesn't believe in tipping, and a classic rant about the American institution of tipping in restaurants commences, continues for almost seven minutes, and ends with Joe demanding, "Cough up a buck, you cheap bastard." Mr. Pink rubs his thumb and forefinger together as he sneers, "Do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin playing just for the waitresses."

"Civilians," a restaurant term used by restaurant folks for those not employed in the food business, have a lot of complaints about restaurant tipping in America, and it's a topic guaranteed to cause most to take sides instantly. The American standard, referred to as "the rule," is to leave 15 to 20% of the post-tax total for a meal as a tip, and 10% for drinks. Generally, it's expected regardless of the quality of service provided.

A transplanted New Yorker friend of mine, renowned for his disdain of waiters, is adamant about this: "I shouldn't feel obligated to leave a tip at all if the service sucks. A tip is meant as a gratuity [defined by Webster's as: 'something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service']. It's an award for service above the call of duty. The way the system works now is that tipping has become a commission paid by the customer to the waiter; it's based on nothing more than the total of the sale. It's really just a way for the cheapskate restaurant owner to pass part of their labor costs off on the customer." The complaints don't stop there.

A couple of longtime friends and I had a rousing discussion recently about the parameters of tipping at buffets. They love a well-known South Austin Asian buffet, and feel strongly that they shouldn't feel shamed into leaving a 15% tip: "When I'm serving myself, it really sticks in my craw that I'm looked down at for just leaving 10%," one says. "Hell, I think that's too much. All they do is take my drink order and bring me a bill. I leave a buck per cocktail when I'm in a bar ... how is this any different?"

I have my own gripes. A prominently displayed tip jar at joints with counter service sends me into Larry Davidian fits of angst. Should they get more than just the left-over change? They have counter service because they didn't want to have waiters, and they're saving money on labor costs, I reason. I prefer the system, but don't feel obligated to always tip at a counter.

Nothing jumps my blood pressure more than a waiter asking me, "Do you need any change back?" What that says to me is that they don't want to waste the extra steps to bring my change back if there's a chance I might leave it all, while at the same time they are trying to subtly shame me into leaving it all, while also suggesting I might just possibly be a tightwad. Bring me my change, and then I'll decide the tip.

I hate chummy waiters. I don't want to know a waiter's name, and I don't want them to know mine. Our relationship is based solely on their ability to bring me what I want and anticipate my wants as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible. If we can both be pleasant during the process, that's a bonus. Accomplish this, and you'll be richly rewarded. If I become a regular at your restaurant, then names are definitely in order.

But the biggest complaint from the anti-tippers has to do with the enforced service charge for groups of five or six (or more) diners. Those are fighting words to restaurant staff.

"We hate most big tops," says L.T., a veteran professional waitress in Austin. "It gobbles up several tables of your section and reduces your earning capacity considerably, and they tend to camp out and never leave." A large group is often chatty, unresponsive, and disorganized, making it difficult and time-consuming to take their order.

It puts extra strain on the kitchen to coordinate that many plates for a single delivery and requires assistance to lug the trays out all at once. People at the table shift positions, so it gets the plate delivery order out of whack. "Groups always want to split the tab multiple ways and pay the bill on several different credit cards, which eats up big chunks of my time. The only reason they do this is because their supposed 'friends' have screwed them around so many times before when it comes time to pay. You bust your hump dealing with a herd like that, they stampede out, and you're lucky if you've made 10%. Big tops blow."

Out of Control

This is hardly the last word from waiters in the tipping debate. L.T. offered up a litany. "Amateur nights like Valentine's, Mother's Day, prom nights, and St. Patty's Day are when the non-pro diners and drinkers crawl out of the woodwork. I'll do anything to not work those nights." On reading a customer's wants, she offered this: "A good waiter can read their customers at a glance and tell instantly what kind of service they'll want: chatty, professional, subdued. We'll have side bets on what the tip percentage will be based on a first glance, and we're almost always right.

"Nothing's worse than a gaggle of secretaries out for lunch," she groans. "They'll run you ragged with their demands, order the cheapest menu items and want split checks, and leave you with squat. A close second place is the pair of oblivious parents that bring in their demon spawn kiddos and turn them loose to terrorize the dining room. It can affect the tips you get from anyone unlucky enough to be near them, not to mention the safety issue. I blame the clueless parents, and they hardly ever tip accordingly.

"Lawyers and politicians can be snooty and won't look you in the eye because you're serving them," she chuckles. "We catered a law-firm party, and the funny thing was that of the seven servers waiting on them, three of those looked-down-upon waitstaff had passed the State Bar. Folks forget that this is a college town, full of underemployed brainiacs, and that waiting tables can actually be a profession. We pay our bills with those tips.

"When you wait tables for a living, there's no avoiding the undertippers ... you're gonna get them," she says. "But what I really wish is that people would think of that table as a piece of real estate that you're renting for a while ... camp out, and the rent goes up."

The list goes on, but the biggest problem for waiters is that they actually have very little control over anything that happens in the restaurant, and the customers assume they control it all. Waiters get squeezed by three forces that often conflict: the customer, the kitchen, and their manager. They are the front line for management's PR, the preliminary bookkeeper, and usually hated and scorned by all in the kitchen. A waiter's true goal, as crass as it sounds, is to turn the table as fast as possible without the customer realizing they've been hustled. Regardless of what the anti-tippers think, waiting tables isn't a cakewalk, and a smile, even a fake one, can often be a challenge to produce.

To any restaurant employee, a regular customer that tips well is solid gold, and the smile is genuine and heartfelt. If that customer comes back repeatedly and often, they are platinum. If they do all this and spend lots of money with each visit, they are cut from a diamond. They are deserving of anything asked, and their wants are anticipated: free drinks, complimentary tastes of special items, invites to after-hours parties, immediate seating regardless of the wait, that special table they like: You name it. They are the promised land.

The System

Restaurants pay waiters as little as $2.13 per hour in Texas. Minimum wage in the state is $5.15 per hour, and the restaurant only has to make sure that between their hourly wage and their tips, they make at least the minimum wage. Of course, most do much, much better than minimum wage, or they wouldn't still be waiting tables. Forget benefits like paid medical and vacations. Fifteen-minute breaks for every four hours worked? Not a chance. And contrary to what most anti-tippers believe, waiters do report their tips as income to the IRS, on Form 4070. To avoid an audit or an automatic allocation of tips, they report as tip income at least 10% or more of their total sales, which might or might not be what they actually make.

If the IRS had the manpower, money, and time (which they don't), it would be a simple matter for them to look at the average tip percentage based on charge-card receipts to get a good idea of what the real tip average is for any given restaurant. The smart waiter keeps a daily tip log (IRS Publication 1244) to record their individual sales totals, cash tips, charge tips, and tip-outs in case the IRS ever wants to audit. L.T. adds, "It's the sure-fire way to cover your ass. I've heard of some waiters keeping an extra log, with fake coffee stains and all dog-eared, with fake numbers for the IRS. I just keep a record of what I do, so I don't really worry about it."

Waiters almost always have to tip out a portion of their total tips each shift to support staff: bus people, bartenders, dishwashers, etc. By law, that portion is supposed to be determined solely and independently by the staff, with no influence from management. Unscrupulous management often tries to find a way to dip into that total to supplement pay for other employees. There are dozens of ways for devious restaurant owners and managers to screw around waiters, and the smart waiter learns them quickly.

A number of restaurants pool their wait tips and split them up at the end of the shift based on the number of hours worked that shift. It's a system that ensures even pay, but it also allows substandard waiters to survive financially, defeating economic Darwinism. It's good for the bad waiter; not so good for the customer.

A good waiter always wants to keep his own tips and not pool. "No way in hell I'll ever work with pooled tips again," says L.T. "I don't want to have to carry some nimrod on my shoulders and lose money because of it. My table? My money!"

When in ...

In most of the rest of the world, a service charge is added directly to the bill by the restaurant, and the waiter is paid a living wage, often with benefits included. America is the odd man out. Menu prices are raised accordingly overseas, but the diner knows from the start what the final bill will be, and no percentile computation is required at the end of the meal. Tips are provided only if the waiter provides exceptional service and are more often limited to the coins left over from broken bills.

Critics of this system insist that the method discourages incentive and produces the cold, disinterested service that European restaurants are so notorious for. One advantage for the diner is that the waiter couldn't care less if his tables turn – he gets paid regardless – so you're free to camp out with that single glass of wine all afternoon if you like. In Southeast Asia, the system is even more bizarre, with any tips left on the table often going straight to management as extra profit for the restaurant. "Oh, you have to hide the tip, or slip it into their hand when the manager isn't looking," as my Thai friends told me on my first visit there. "If you leave it on the table, it'll go right into the cash register with the receipts, and the waiter won't see a penny of it."

This explains some of the complaints often heard from American waitstaff and restaurant management about the tipping practices of foreign customers and tourists. One UT-area restaurant owner bemoaned the tipping practices of certain ethnicities found in the student body. "Some ethnicities in particular are really tight with their money, and it's rare that they leave a tip," he says. "They don't tip at home so figure they don't need to tip here. It's a problem, because the waiters really don't want to wait on them when they come in now."

When you consult the Lonely Planet Web site's travel hints for the USA, it is clear that tips are expected in restaurants, and the book delineates the common accepted percentages. The Wikipedia site is actually pretty hilarious in its description of tipping practices here: "Because some tourists from other countries assume servers are paid a reasonable wage and do not tip, some servers retaliate by giving poor service to all foreigners. If it seems this is the case, it might be advisable to plainly state that you understand American tipping practices, and will be leaving a good tip for good service."

Cause and Effect

In America, is either side of the tipping battle right? We know the European system pays a living wage and benefits for the waitstaff, but it may lead to lackluster, nonchalant service and diminishes the overall dining experience for the customer. Our current system subtly forces the diner to contribute to the take-home pay of the waitstaff through a 15-20% additional expense, but the waiter is expected to perform for that tip and earn the incentive.

Given equal menu item costs between the two systems, the diner would actually pay roughly the same net amount, except that with the American system, that tip amount is technically optional, and with the European system it is added onto the bill as a fixed expense. Removal of the European service fee for nonperformance is not an option. Bottom line: We get better service with the system that we have, as imperfect as it is, and the final cost is a wash. Ultimately, the diner exercises power with a pocketbook, and in a free-market economy, the tail-draggers eventually disappear. end story

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