Home / Eat & Drink / Are You Being Served?
Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Are You Being Served?

Tips on tipping

Google+ Pinterest Print

You’ve seen them before. The uberwaiters and waitresses who manage to provide stellar service to seven tables simultaneously, all the while balancing a 10-pound tray on their shoulders.Waiting tables is a job based on reciprocity. These hardworking food servers have to command a very specific set of skills to be successful at their jobs. Ultimately, they expect a tip in exchange for their work, which includes:

Table One: A common occurrence in the restaurant industry is when one half of an unhappy couple decides, so as to avoid a scene, to sever romantic ties in the safe haven of a public setting. Without blinking an eye, our waiter’s diplomacy gets him and the tearful recipient of the “It’s not you, it’s me” treatment through what could be the most awkward meal ever.

Table Two: “I want a cheeseburger, medium-well, with a slice of pepper jack on one half and one slice of cheddar on the other,” the customer demands. “I have an allergy, so my french fries have to be cooked using fresh oil. And get me a cold soda, but without the ice.” The other four customers sharing the table have equally complex orders. Our waitress must accurately communicate the needs of the fussy, finicky and downright pathological to the kitchen and then return to the table to serve those particular meals to those very particular people.

Table Three: It’s 10 minutes until close. Our waiter has served 30 tables since his shift started when a group of overserved and munchy-driven college kids take over his section. In the face of flagrant disrespect, he taps into what remains of his stamina and patience and serves all of them with a smile.

All for $2.33 an hour.

Those in the service industry have recently experienced an unsettling trend in the wake of the economy’s downturn. In an effort to save money where they can, drinkers and diners have found the practice of tipping to be expendable, causing a considerable decline in income for servers. “When you’re a server, you don’t think about your paycheck,” explains Laura the Waitress. “You think about your tips.”

In the United States, while a tip is not legally required, gratuity for restaurant table service is a social norm. The amount of a tip is typically calculated as a percentage of the total bill before tax, usually 15%-20%. This custom is reflected in Wisconsin’s minimum wage rate for tipped employees— $2.33 an hour. Laura calculated that if she doesn’t receive tips and relies only on her hourly wage, a 40-hour week, with taxes taken out, could result in a $30 paycheck. That’s less than $1 an hour.

Unfortunately this trend doesn’t stop at the table servers. It’s common for them to tip-out, pooling everyone’s tips and dividing them to include support staff like hosts, bartenders and bussers. At the establishment where Laura works, for every $100 the servers sell in alcohol, 5% goes to the bartenders. For every $100 the servers make in total sales, 1% goes to the bussers. So when a patron leaves a small tip or chooses not to tip at all, he’s affecting every service member down the line.

The practice of tipping varies from culture to culture . Tourist destinations like Florida have started including an automatic gratuity or service charge in the price of the meal because so many foreign visitors, like guests from Japan (a country where tipping is considered an insult), fail to leave a tip. Will the recent decline in voluntary gratuity here in the United States motivate restaurant owners to tack on an automatic service charge? Time will tell.

When asked for her solution to the tipping dilemma, Laura’s answer is simple: “The key to a positive outcome is knowledge. If people know what we’re making, I think they would see how crucial their tips are.”

For more information on the ins and outs of gratuity, visit: www.tip20.com, www.wisegeek.com or www.tipping.org.