The bottom line on tipping.

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Pete Wells, a renowned restaurant critic for the New York Times, recently called for the end of tipping, setting off a firestorm of debate and diverging opinions. Has the practice of leaving gratuity for good service grown out of control? Are you obligated to tip only for good service? Or has tipping become a mandatory social contract? Should we indeed abolish it all together? But what about the waiters, waitresses, delivery people, and 70% of our American working force in the service industry that counts on tipping to make a decent living? With a tip jar at almost every establishment in the country and now even popping up online, it’s time we got to the bottom of our national phenomenon of giving gratuity.

The history of tipping:
The practice of offering extra money at the discretion of the patron to reward good service started in England in the 17th century, where overnight guests who stayed at private homes would gift small sums of money to the house servants. The practice grew until soon coffee houses, restaurants, and other upper class establishments in London saw the practice of tipping become commonplace.

Formally called “gratuity”, we still don’t know the exact etymology of the word ‘tipping”, though there are theories that it derives from Low German slang word “tippen”, which meant to tap lightly.

In the early years of the United States, giving of gratuities was almost unheard of. But after the Civil War, wealthy Americans traveled to Europe and brought back the egalitarian custom of paying extra for service, though it was widely derided by the common people. When Samuel Gompers, a U.S. labor leader, came back from a trip to Europe in 1910, he complained that tipping in Europe “borders on blackmail,” and likened the constant request for tips to “mosquito bites.”

In fact, the United States actually had laws on the books in the early 1900s that outlawed tipping, all together! But enforcing these laws was impossible and they were all repealed eventually. The earliest anti-tipping law was passed in Washington in 1909, and Mississippi didn’t repeal its law until 1926.

In the 1950s, etiquette guru Emily Post said, “Tipping is undoubtedly an undesirable system, but it happens to be in force.”

But the practice caught on and spread like wildfire and these days, citizens of the United States are seen as the most generous (and obligated) tippers in the whole world.

Tipping facts:
Studies have also shown that when restaurants eliminate tipping (either by adding a standard service charge or just paying them a set wage and abolishing tips), the service by wait staff actually improves.If you try and give a tip to a police officer, politician, or any U.S. governmental worker, you’re officially breaking the law and could even be charged with doling out a bribe. Then again, you usually don’t hear your postman complain when you offer a tip around the holidays.

Many restaurants now add an automatic charge for gratuity to the bill, especially for parties of 6 or more. The informal term for that is “Auto-grat.”

Servers in many states are paid well below minimum wage – sometimes as low as $2.85 per hour – with the money they make in gratuities expected to bring their net wages above minimum wage. But there are Federal employment compensation laws on the books that require employers who pay less than minimum wage to compensate their employees the difference if their tips to bring them up to that minimum. Sadly, most employers don’t abide by this law and compensate their low earning servers, though it is illegal.

Anyone who receives a gratuity at work is required by law to declare that as income on their tax returns. However, most servers prefer tips in cash so they can avoid documenting it on their taxes and hide the income from the IRS. IRS audits have found that generally, tips are underreported by about 38-40% by restaurant servers.

According to Zagat’s America’s Top Restaurants Survey, people in New Orleans leave the best restaurant tips, with an average of 19.7 percent. The national average is 19.2 percent (up from 18 percent in 2000), which means New York (19.1) and Los Angeles (18.7) tip below average.

Fun tipping trivia:
It’s been proven that waitresses that wear red get more tips. The Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research did a study and found that waitresses (but not waiters) who wore red collected better tips from male customers, as did waitresses and waiters who touched any patrons on their shoulder, squatted down to eye level when talking to customers, and giving candy along with the bill.In 1918, more than 100 waiters were arrested in Chicago as they plotted to slip “Mickey Finns” into the food and drinks of patrons who didn’t tip well.

Restaurant workers have a slang term for someone who doesn’t tip well: “Canadian.”

A British tourist visited the Leg Room in Chicago in 2000 and left a memorable tip after imbibing in a few too many cocktails; $10,000 for the bartender on just a $9 bill. The bar manager was so shocked that he photocopied the tourist’s passport and made him sign a statement that the tip was valid. However, the tourist’s bank in Britain later rejected the charge and the tourist changed his story (no doubt once he sobered up), saying, “I don’t recall the details. I had had a few drinks.” But the bar owners actually made good on the tip for the employee.

Two times in the U.S., charges were filed when a patron refused to pay the automatic gratuity that was added to their bill. The charges were eventually dismissed after the courts ruled that, “automatic does not mean mandatory.”

So what should you tip?

  • Coat room attendants: $1 per item
  • Doormen who open a door: no tip necessary.
  • Doormen who call you a taxi or help with you bags: $2-$3
  • Restaurant service: 15% is standard, with 20% or more common for good meals and service. Remember to check if service is already automatically included, and calculate your tip on the cost of the meal before tax was added.
  • If you had really bad service, two pennies placed side by side on top of the bill indicate that you are purposely not tipping because you had a bad experience, not just forgetting (or cheap).
  • Buffet dinners: leave $1 per diner for the bus boys and clean up staff.
  • Carryout food: no tip is required.
  • Food delivery: a tip of $2 or $3 is standard, but you might want to tip $4 or 20% if it arrived early, on a busy night, or in bad weather.
  • Bartender: $1 minimum for each beer or drink, as 70% of bartenders’ wages come from tips.
  • Barista at coffee shop: tips range from nothing (about 40% of patrons) to loose change up to about $1.
  • Taxi driver: 10-15% of the fare.
  • Hotel cleaning staff: $2-$3 per night, or up to $5 per night in more costly hotels.
  • Hotel concierge: tipping is not expected, but accepted for help.
  • Bellman/porter at hotel: $1 to $2 per bag carried.
  • Food room service in hotel: 15-20% is acceptable, but make sure a service charge has already been added.
  • Valet parking: $2-$5 tip, partially determined by how nice your car is.
  • Hairdresser: A tip of 10% ranging up to 20% is commonplace, as hairdressers count on tips for 20-40% of their total income.

Remember that if you receive bad service, instead of just leaving a low (or no) tip, speak to the management and leave constructive criticism for them and your server. That way they may be able to fix whatever the problem is and you’ll find many times it’s just a case of miscommunication or wasn’t even the individual server’s fault.


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