UnderCover Waitress: When Regulars Do Not Know How to Tip

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When Regulars Do Not Know How to Tip

Ask the Waitress!

Received one of the most difficult questions to answer: How do you tell regular customers how to tip?

The question-asker said they have regulars who only tip ten percent; but then, she went on to mention $4 on an $80 tab, which is only five percent. For a five percent tip, the waitress ends up paying to work. She still has to tip out on her sales and pay taxes on assumed income that she did not earn.

Is the system unfair? Of course it is. Billionaires stash fortunes in offshore bank accounts to avoid paying taxes, while struggling waitresses pay taxes on tips they didn't earn. We bleed the poor and middles class dry in this country while refusing to tax the rich. It's ridiculous.

But let's talk about tipping culture.

Restaurants are big, dysfunctional families. All around the dining room, there is a great, big purple elephant wearing a pink tutu and dancing and swinging her trunk around. She is waitress tips. Only the waitresses can see her, so they must deftly avoid being knocked over and work around the elephant. Meanwhile, the customers do not have to see the elephant.

In, "Shoosh! Don't Say Tip" I discussed customer outrage at the mere mention of tip during payment. The attitude being that if I had misunderstood her directions and, therefore, did not get a tip, too bad. Based upon her reaction, I could have said, "You have horrible body odor." Instead, I said, "Did I follow your instructions correctly?"

Tip of the Iceberg touches on power dynamics regarding tips. Customers like to think that they are paying for their restaurant visit when they pay the bill. A tip is a "thank you," or worse, a bribe to ensure decent service. If a customer recognizes that the restaurant industry depends upon tips to pay waitresses, it takes the power out of their hands. When we acknowledge that tipping is obligatory, we remove the illusion of customers as gracious benefactors and all-powerful kings and queens away from them.

Waitresses can make thirty bucks or more per hour waiting tables, depending upon the restaurant and other factors. They can also end up with less than minimum wage by the end of the shift. Working as a waitress has similarities with gambling.

Some states, such as California, have handled the situation by getting rid of the tip credit. They simply pay tipped employees the same minimum wage as any other employee. Customers who know this may cease to feel obligated to pay a tip; however, the federal government still assumes tips are earned and expects taxes to be paid on them.

It is hard to believe that in the year 2012 people still don't know how to tip because the internet has made it so easy to give and receive information. Still, bad tipping continues and the dysfunctional family that the restaurant industry is continues to deal with the issue indirectly, or not at all.

So, what is a restaurant manager to do? This place has regulars who seem like perfectly nice people, but nobody wants to wait on them because they don't pay for service. I don't like working for free, either.

Many restaurants have an automatic gratuity of fifteen to eighteen percent in place for larger parties; a large party may be as small a five people. Another good policy is to include an automatic gratuity on separate checks. In my own experience, people who want separate checks are cheap; they are trying to avoid paying for their companion's soda when they only drank water.

I am brainstorming here, but I wonder if one option is to change the automatic gratuity policy. For example, add a ten percent tip to every bill. Put up a sign informing customers of this policy, and print it on the menus. For such a small tip (ten percent,) include in the notification that a good tip is fifteen to twenty percent, and please feel free to add to the gratuity accordingly.

My guess is most restaurants won't want to do that, so we are left with leaving articles about tipping practices lying around in easy to find places, which is passive-aggressive. People who are not allowed to communicate directly often develop passive-aggressive tendencies to get their needs met. We are not allowed to draw direct attention to the dancing elephant because that will offend customers.

Personally, I hate passive-aggressive behavior. On a side note, I had a very passive-aggressive manager for a few years. We had a late night customer order a cup of coffee after we had run out. It seems silly to make a huge pot of coffee to sell one cup; this manager said, "Tell him we'll have to make another pot. Then, he'll say not to bother." WTF? I told him we'd have to make another pot and he said, "That's fine. I don't mind waiting." The moral of the story is either say, "no" or make the darn pot of coffee. This passive-aggressive attempt at manipulation was extremely annoying.

Back to tipping. I wish I could offer more concrete suggestions for fixing the situation, but there are none. I have done a 180 degree turn around regarding my opinions about tips. When I first started waitressing, I loved the adrenaline rush, the crap shoot, and playing the game of separating people from their money. I'm good at it.

These days, I recognize that many waitresses work hard and struggle to make ends meet. Dealing with self-important, cheap customers is a slap in the face. For some, which customers she gets can make or break her ability to get rent paid this month.

Waitresses who do well in fine restaurants will likely disagree with me, but I think the time of relying on customers to compensate waitresses should end. Restaurant owners may make a bigger investment in training and taking care of front of house employees. Pay them decent packages and expect them to perform good work. Of course, the cost of a meal will go up, but if you are already adding twenty percent to your bill, that shouldn't bother you. When the prices go up to pay wait staff, you won't have to add anything.


  1. I remember someone saying once that wait staff tend to find that people who have been waiters and waitresses tend to be good tippers... because they've been there.

  2. Bad tipping is just getting worse and NOT better. All though Management is of the opinion that tipping is optional, I doubt they would be willing to donate their bonus, paid sick days, stock options, and paid vacation as our option to their benefits, since without us none of this would be possible. And forget about adding gratuity, because as soon as the NON tipper walks in they will refuse to pay it, and ask to have it removed from the bill, plus let them use a coupon and ask for a discount because they are disgusted for having to pay for what they get, or soon to be gotten. Well I would like not to pay taxes, or steaks at the store, but that's not legal. That would be stealing, just like all these non tipping people, I was going to tip you but.... but what, but nothing you got great service, ate everything on your plate and what you didn't eat is in a box, but now you have an excuse.... some bull shit line, and now you want something for free, in addition to NOT tipping, where do you work? We all want to know, so we can make up some bull shit to your boss and get something for free! Making it an hourly fee is the best bet, and then everyone pays for what they get, if you can afford steak, order it, if you can't stay home for free instead of making us pay to wait on your CHEAP NO ACCOUNT LACK LUSTER LOSER asses.

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