To Tip or Not to Tip

The practice of tipping isn’t going anywhere. A few restaurants have tried a tip-inclusive model, raising menu prices while also raising employees’ hourly wage and offering benefits. Most have backtracked. Even most servers don’t want to do away with tipping.

Before talking about whether we should tip or when we should tip, we need to understand where tipping came from.

Tipping began in North America in the 1800s but had started in Europe in the 17th century with well-heeled patrons who wanted to seem sophisticated or cultured. Employers collected tips to pay their staff rather than have to actually pay wages.

 For the most part, Canada and the United States are the only countries where tipping is expected because of how we have structured workers wages by creating something known as “tipped” wages.

  How Does Tipping Work?

The federal minimum wage at present is $7.25 per hour. However, states can increase minimum wage to anything over the federal minimum. They range from $13 in California to $8.75 in Montana. For the purposes of illustration, I’ll use the example of Illinois, which increased the minimum wage to $11 per hour.

In Illinois, the tipped minimum wage is $6 per hour, meaning that the employee will make up the $5 per hour shortfall in tips. If the employee averages $11 or more per hour with tips, the employer does not need to pay any additional dollars. However, if the employee is only making an average of $9 per hour, the employer will have to add $2 per hour to their paycheck.

  Tipping for Service or Obligation?

When I grew up, I understood that tipping was a way to show appreciation for excellent service. If the server was exceptional, they received a tip of 15 percent or more. However, if service was below expectations or just bad, then the server would receive a tip between five and ten percent. There was, of course, that rare occasion where no tip was left for the server.

Today it seems that we leave tips of 20 percent strictly out of a cultural obligation, no matter how good or bad the service is. I believe that this idea of tips out of obligation is one of the main contributors of poor service. Because we leave the expected tip no matter what, the server has little or no incentive to do a better job. I have been to restaurants where the service has been terrible, but the host leaves a large tip because the server has the iPad that everyone can see, and the host does not want to be perceived as cheap by his friends or family.

  To Tip or Not to Tip: We Finally Get to the Question

Here are my philosophies of tipping.

Full-service restaurants 

I believe that you must start with the premise that the tip is for service/the server. To me, the tip has nothing to do with food. Here is a great example:

I went to dinner with my wife and daughter and waited two hours for our entrees to get to the table! Did I tip? Oddly enough, I gave the server a great tip because she was doing everything possible to let us know what was happening. The kitchen only had one cook. Thankfully, the food was excellent. The simple answer: When I know that the server has done their job as well as possible, I leave a tip. 

I will tip very low when I can see that the reason for poor service is due totally the server’s behavior. I don’t like waiting for food and beverages when I can see that server is spending their time on their phone or “hanging out” with other staff rather than taking care of the guests. If possible, I’ll let the manager know about the poor service. However, when I get really poor service, I blame management for not watching the floor.

The last time I left no tip was when we were seated, placed our drink order, received the drinks and then no server came back to the table in 15 minutes. I found a manager, asked for our check, paid it and left. No service, no tip! 

Counter Service Restaurant, Pickup and Takeout

This is a bit trickier these days with COVID-19 being part of the mix. Before COVID, I did not typically tip counter service workers and neither did most customers. If I tip in today’s world of counter service or takeout, I’m mostly doing it to support the restaurant owner. I know how hard it is to find and keep employees and if tipping helps keep an employee in place, I’m happy to do it.

I won’t leave that tip, however, if the employee does not show me some appreciation, like saying hello when I come in or saying thank you on my way out.

So, What’s the Answer?

  1. I think that it is important for the customer to know that servers who receive tipped wages really do count on tips for their living wage. When the customer leaves a low tip or no tip, they are negatively affecting someone’s livelihood. 
  2. We should leave tips based on the server’s performance. If the server has done an excellent job but the food was mediocre, then leave the server a great tip and tell management that they have a food problem. 
  3. Typically, fast-food operations and coffee operations pay their staff minimum wage or better (mostly better since it is so competitive to find and keep staff). In these cases, it is a guest’s call to leave a tip. The question is: Did the staff do something that inspires a tip?

At one coffee shop where I order my usual coffee with cream and sugar, they always take the time to stir it for me. A small gesture but one that means a lot to me. I always tip because they went that one extra step that made me feel special.