One thing I've learned in over a year of posting weekly here on Food Lush is that posts don't always get the response you might expect. A post I think will generate discussion will get not a peep, while one that I expect to go by largely unnoticed seems to take on a life of its own. I certainly had no idea, for instance, that I was entering into a geocultural warzone with my post about chicken fried steak and my parents' anniversary.
In short, I'm not sure if I'm opening a can of worms with this post or whether everyone will politely skip right over it.
It started with a Facebook comment thread, as it always does. The poster was shocked at the notion that when eating out some people 'tip a minimum 15% even when they get crappy service'. And so it began. Comments rolled in (108 at last count: It's a public page) and were all over the place. Some of the responses were outrageous (FYI, Lush readers, It's not ever okay to leave just a penny. If you're going to leave nothing, you're already making your point, thankyouverymuch.), but they were generally about what you'd expect. Some people think 10-15% is normal and perfectly fine, while others were on board with about a standard 20%. Some people understand what goes on behind the scenes and that the server is not responsible for every aspect of your restaurant experience, while some people believe that tipping is a direct, cause-and-effect situation between them and the server.
Babysitting aside, my first job was in a coffee shop. I was 15. I worked there for a few years. Then I worked at the concession stand at the beach for a few years, into college. The summer after my first year of college I waitressed. I was a terrible waitress. But I'm really glad I did it. During these years my Mom kept telling me I should write a book about all the crazy experiences I had dealing with the public and food. I wish I had. I worked other various jobs and interships in college, and for the first five years out of college I worked in customer service roles.
I think the world would be a better, kinder place if everyone were required to work at customer service at some point in their life. Food service, too. It's hard. It's really hard.
The food service industry is its own animal. And here's where I'm going to tell you how I feel about tipping.
Whether you think our system of tipping is good or bad (and frankly I'm not sure how I feel about it), it's what we have. Restaurants don't have to pay servers regular minimum wage; instead they get paid about $2 an hour. Chefs, cooks, managers all make salary or regular hourly wage, but servers don't and they live off tips.
But before they can take home what you leave on your check for them, they have to tip out the bus boys and other staff (bartenders maybe? Any bartenders out there that can chime in?), and later they have to claim it on their taxes as well.
Thus, when you go out to eat in the US at a sit-down restaurant and you're served by Hi My Name Is John And I'll Be Taking Care Of You Tonight, it's not just about you and John. You're both part of a bigger system. The burden is on you to pay John's salary, as well as help pay the people who bus your dishes and who wiped down and set the table before you arrived. The burden will always be on you, by the way, as it is with any other business that you're a patron of: It's just that most times you don't get a say in what an employee's salary is. If restaurants were forced to pay their employees a living wage, their overhead would skyrocket and you'd be paying a lot more for your meal.
I generally tip at least 20%. If it's really terrible service I might dip down to 15%, but that starts to feel uncomfortable to me. And if I'm tipping 15% then service will have been bad enough to talk to the manager. I'm always glad to talk to a manager and let them know how the experience was: A restaurant that I'd want to return to is one that is glad to have a chance to make it right.
The thing is, it's not just about the level of service. To me it's also about recognizing the system. Plus, 20% at the kinds of places I usually eat is not that much money. And the difference of 25-30%, if I feel the service was great, is also not that big a deal. It's usually literally the difference of a few dollars. So from where I'm sitting, why not throw a few more dollars in. Maybe it'll make up for the jerk who thinks leaving two bucks is acceptable.
Food Lush editor/creator Jennie and I were talking about this, and the importance of also making sure that staff know when you've had excellent service. I think this is really important. A kind word of enouragement and thanks can go a long way, especially when someone's been dealing with assholes all day.
Which leads me to the one comment on that Facebook thread that I keep coming back to:
"Being that we own a restaurant, and know what servers get paid hourly, we always tip 20% no matter what. Sometimes, if the server is in a bad mood, we will leave them a GREAT tip (up to 50%) because obviously, that server is having a crappy day. It usually brings an apology or at least a smile back to us before we leave the restaurant. You never know what someone else is dealing with....."
So, tipping. What are your thoughts? Go!