Tipping in America - Where Your Tip Goes

I posted this on my Livejournal ages ago (Aug 2007), and in coming across it today, I decided to pop it on over here on my Adventures blog. It was obviously when I was mid-planning a Disney trip, and refers to discussions on a forum I am a part of. But it applies to serving staff in any restaurant in the US:

So there is a small faction of people on one of the Disney discussion boards I belong to who say they don't tip much. Basically, the biggest argument is "my family saved a long time for this special dinner, and we don't think we should have to pay more than that", and other people who argue that "I don't believe I should have to pay the server's wages. The restaurant should pay them a fair wage...so I don't tip 15%. I throw a few bucks."

It gets my blood boiling.

In the Disney Dining Plan changes thread, there was a slight derail in which there was a discussion brewing about tipping customs in the US. I even got a private message where someone was asking me how I could possibly justify someone paying 15% tip on their meal. I am shocked that any adult in the US has any confusion about tipping in restaurants, and the fact that servers are expected to make their wages off of tips. So I thought a little information on how tipping works, where that money goes, and the realities of what servers make.

First of all, in high end restaurants, a server can make a good chunk of change. But the work is hard, the hours are long, and the respect level is so horribly low. As is evidenced by the "I'll throw the server a couple bucks, but their work isn't worth more than that to me" attitude evidenced in the other thread. The amount of misunderstanding and disrespect for professional servers is dismaying. So here is a little lessong to learn about what you are really getting for your tip.

Where your tips go:
Servers have to not only give service with a smile, it is a juggling act! And not only that, your server is the face of an entire staff of people who you don't even realize are scrambling all night to make sure your evening goes smoothly, and ensure that all you remember is the great time you had.

What you see is a server greeting you kindly, offering suggestions based on their knowledge of the menu (and wine), taking your order, keeping track of your pace of eating and calling on a developed sense of timing and knowledge of the menu items you ordered and how long they take to prepare so they can bring out each course in its proper time (not bringing the meal when you're only halfway through your appetizer), cleaning away your plates, making sure your waters are filled, and on your chosen beverage bringing you refills or offering you another as the case may be, collecting your bill, and seeing you off with a thank you and a smile. And you aren't the only one (though their job is to help you feel like you are the center of their attention)--all these details they are keeping track of for 4-6 tables on average. The delicate balance of timing alone is an incredible feat, but they are doing it while seamlessly showing each table a good time, all while performing physically like someone at the gym getting a workout.

And when they are not taking care of you and 20+ other patron's orders and needs, depending on the support staff of course, they are doing things like stocking glassware and silverware (running it from one part of the restaurant to another--heavy stuff!), brewing coffee and tea, doing minor prep on dishes, and helping other servers. In smaller restaurants you have to arrive before your shift and stay after your shift to take care of other details, which can range from daily cleaning projects; and every server has to stay after, balance all their receipts, calculate their tips and tip out support staff before they go home. A typical shift is about 10 hours total. Evening servers are rarely home before midnight. They are also expected to come in on off hours to do food tastings, wine tastings and classes, and work on holidays you would cringe to imagine having to work on (in one restaurant everyone had to work two out of three of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Years. Then there is Easter Brunch and Mother's Day Brunch--I had my family just come to the restaurant on those days to "celebrate", because I wouldn't see them otherwise).

Note the following phrase above: "tip out support staff". Yes, your server is not the only person who is affected by those who stiff on the tip. Servers are expected to tip a percentage of their tip to any support staff. At one upscale restaurant I worked at, servers had to tip their assistant waiter, busser, expediter (someone on the food line who helped run food during busy times), bartenders, hostesses, and if generous they would also throw some money to the dish washing staff. This is not an exaggeration. Even in smaller restaurants without a lot of support staff, you were expected to tip the bartender and hostess at the very least. So when you don't tip your server, you are stiffing up to 6 other people as well who worked hard to tend to the details of your evening. (This is why I usually tip closer to 20% for regular meals, and 15% for less stellar, and rarely any lower than that--my server may not have been awesome, but there are other people involved who should not be penalized for a server who doesn't smile enough or didn't refill my water often enough--there are so many details in a meal and I consider them ALL when tipping)

This is why servers are only expected to report a certain lower percentage of tips, not 15%. Because they DO NOT MAKE 15% WHEN YOU LEAVE IT. They make closer to 8-9% of the tip maximum, the rest being paid out to support staff. So imagine if Johnny Cheapskate decides he and his family don't have to pay more than a few bucks to their server--not only are they insultingly ignorant of the amount of work the server really does, but they are also not taking into account all the support staff who also went into making their meal special, and stiff them, too.

Also, to clarify further on my personal experience with paid wages versus tipping, I worked at a few restaurants where the following was the case: We did NOT make minimum wage PLUS tips. We made minimum wage as a literal minimum, but were expect to make our money in tips. To simplify it, imagine I work at a place that promises I will make at least $5/hour. I work a shift and make $4/hour in tips. The restaurant will only pay me the $1 difference between my tips and the promised minimum wage. So I did NOT make $9 as you think I would. I make what I was tipped plus a make-up $1. Period. So my wages really were paid through tips. And believe you me, I gave service with that in mind. I worked very hard to give a wonderful experience to all of my guests. I wasn't perfect--humans being IMperfect. But I knew that my entire paycheck rode on my ability to show my guests and good time...and ultimately, relied on the fact that here in the US *EVERYONE* should know that 15% minimum tip is EXPECTED for good service. More for exceptional. And yes, less if I failed at my job. How many jobs have you had where your paycheck changed from week to week based on not only your daily performance ("Sorry, Ted, but that presentation wasn't up to the standard I was expecting. Sorry your Grandmother died...but we're only paying you 90% of your wages this week"), but where on a whim, the people you are striving so hard to show a good time to, can up and decide the tipping customs in our country do not apply to them, and you will take your couple of bucks they deigned to throw your way and LIKE it. Besides, they really had to save to come to dinner here, and them saving a few bucks and going out for a fun time with their family is far more important than you paying rent this week. You understand... *condescending pat on head*

Working in restaurants was the hardest job I ever had. I did not make as much money as I did answering phones in an office years later (Cushy! Stock options! 401k!). Many servers do not have health benefits, so that is either another huge chunk to secure it personally, or none at all if you can't afford it. There is no sick leave. You just don't make money that night. There is no paid leaves of absence for children or family needs. They will simply replace you. There is no pension. You work your way up from the crummy shifts to the great shifts--the great shifts being weekend dinners, at times when you wish you could spend with your friends or family, but that is where the money is, so you take it when you can. You have to serve people who think you are lesser than them, and only do this work because you aren't qualified to do anything else.

But I also loved my job then. I loved serving people--making their evening special. I loved being called on to make suggestions for them, and hitting the nail on the head and seeing their eyes light up when they take their first bite or their first sip. I loved the hustle and bustle of the restaurant, and the fun and and friendly people I got to work with--hard to be a successful server if you're not fun and friendly (though there were notable exceptions! LOL). And one of the only ways to gauge my success at the end of the day was to open that billfold and see a large tip in there. Customers rarely thank you and say "great job". But when they leave a generous tip, it is acknowledgment that I worked hard, and they truly appreciate and understand how hard I did work to make their night memorable.

So for those of you who didn't understand how it worked before, hopefully you do now. And hopefully you will think twice before you leave a paltry tip for one minor concern, or godforbid you decide you don't need to top 15% minimum because your family needs that money more. As was said in the other thread: if you can't afford to pay for the meal AND the tip, you can't afford to eat there. If you want to eat someplace nice, save up enough for both the meal and the tip, and have some respect for the people who make a living on the assumption that you and all other patrons are tip-savvy, and who work so hard to show you a fun night out.

And after varying responses you can extrapolate from my next response:

If you want the system changed, start a letter-writing campaign. Good luck with that, but that would be the appropriate way to do it. Waiters and waitresses have no control over the system, they simply work within it. Stiffing them on a tip is punishing THEM for a system that MOST people in the US agree to work fine for them.

You don't have to know all the wage vs/ tipping conventions to know that it is expected that patrons will pay a 15% on their bill. This is the system in place in the US. Not all social norms are ones we enjoy, but we abide by them because they are commonly accepted practices. This is one of them. Go march on the steps of the capitol building if you disagree. But don't punish your servers who are working hard for the money they earn. If I don't think I should have to slow down in a construction zone, I don't speed through and take out a few of the flag-men while I am at it, to try and get my "message" across...

And I will also chime in that the inflated numbers of $45 per hour is ridiculously high. When I worked at Spaghetti Factory, for instance, the average check was under $20. The place was always a bustle of many tables, and you were chasing your tail all night long just to keep up. The turnover on tables was faster, but you had to make up for the low bills (and tip percentage) in volume. We often had to serve large parties, which were the worst at tipping and sometimes shorted the entire bill, despite them being far more work than, say, a couple. And in family restaurants, you always have the "my baby is going to throw spaghetti all over the place, and we're just going to leave it for you to clean up". That wasn't how I was raised...

At lower menu-price restaurants, I got stiffed far more for working harder at a faster pace. People leaving little or no tip was common. It was chalked up to a more ignorant clientele, or, as evidenced here, people with families who justified not tipping the waitress because this was their "splurge night out", and they didn't budget in a tip. Now I can add "trying to make a political statement about the tipping system in the US" to the list of people who stiff waitresses. At least leave your pamphlet at the table explaining why you believe servers shouldn't get a tip from you, so they can donate to the worthy "We Shouldn't Have to Pay Servers' Wages in Tips!" campaign. Right up there with save the ozone, stop apartheid, and nuclear disarmament!

When I worked in fine dining, the table turnover was incredibly slow. Like 90 minutes and longer per table. You also had far fewer tables, because the service standard was higher and your expectations of service were far more varied and specialized and required more time and attention than spaghetti slinging. The individual tickets were higher, though, which sometimes balanced (when people tipped well), and sometimes didn't (getting stiffed on a few tips there really would decide if you could pay for groceries that month, so a lot was riding on giving good service and getting people who tipped appropriately and fairly). People almost always left 15-20%. It was a savvier dining crowd in general, who knew that a 15-20% tip was part of any table service meal.

I am guessing at Disney, between the "we don't go out to eat much so we're not tipping you" crowd and the "we're from another country and don't know the tipping customs" crowd, the servers probably don't get very good tips from about 50% of their tables. Thank goodness the dining-savvy, "I'm just happy to be on vacation and I am going to tip you generously" crowd helps make up for it. But in the end, they likely work harder than the average server and make less in tips (and possibly wages, from what I have read of Florida state minimum wage laws for restaurant employees).

As for "get another job", for many people, you cannot get the flexibility you need at any other job, and still make a living wage. As someone pointed out, mothers and students are the most common "day jobs" of most waitstaff. And frankly, some people really enjoy the work. I would do it again, myself. As I said, it was hard, but it was rewarding emotionally, physically, and monetarily. The occasional ignorant non-tipper (or political non-tripper) wouldn't be enough to turn most servers off of it. But you're welcome to keep trying punishing them in hopes of changing the system...

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