Tipping point: why I won’t tip restaurant staff in future

restaurant_tips

To tip, or not to tip? It’s another restaurant conundrum (iStockphoto).

I thought i had a flawless, and frankly quite generous, tipping policy. I tip 10 per cent of the bill — often more — if the food and service has been good, I tip less if the dining experience was just okay, and I don’t tip at all if somebody needs a kick up the clacker and a spot back in hospitality school. I mostly pay by credit card, so i add a tip to the card. Job done. Go home. Feel good about myself. However, after posing the question to readers: would you still tip if you knew restaurateurs, rather than staff, pocketed your generosity? i’m rethinking my tipping strategy. In fact, call me a tight arse, but i think my tipping days are done. 

The predominate answer to the question I posed a week ago was an emphatic ‘no’, with most respondents clearly put-out at the prospect of a restaurateur diverting their tip away from staff pockets and into the cash register. This was in line with my own philosophy — i want to tip the workers, not the whip-cracker. But that was just the start of the discussion, and as it evolved it made me realise how ambiguous this whole tipping debacle really is.

I’m personally talking about tipping in Australia. I leave a tip based on my entire experience: from the greeting at the door, to the service, and the food. I’d like to think that my tip is spread equally between all who had a hand in the meal — or a finger in the pie, so to speak. But there’s the rub. How do i know that my tip will be divvied up in that manner? And, more to the point, should it be?

Who should be in the tipping pool?

The general consensus seems to be that tips are for the front of house staff — the waiters and waitresses who ferry the meal to the table, who serve and converse with, and often charm the tip out of, the diner. However, I like to think that the kitchen staff — those who slaved over the hot stove — have a hand in the tip jar, too.

Robyn Lewis, a follower of The Food Sage on Facebook, agrees: “I assume [the tip is] divided up between everyone responsible for the lovely meal, from the prep guys and gals to the chef to the wait staff. I think most diners would be surprised at how low the average (i.e non-celebrity, non restaurant-owning) chef’s wages actually are, especially given their expertise and the hours they work…”

Thanh from Eat Little Bird also believes it’s fair for tips to be split between all restaurant staff:

“After all, it’s not fair if just the waiter gets a tip because the chef did a good job. But in those restaurants where the tips are all collected by the restaurant owner and not distributed to the staff, that is unacceptable.”

However, a follower of The Food Sage on Twitter,  @jibuyabu threw a spanner in the works saying:

“I tip specifically for the service I receive. The itemised bill is for the food and drink.”

Good point @jibuyabu. We’ve already paid for the food on the plate, so why tip more on top of that?

@fleurcole also made me reconsider my tipping philosophy, but in an entirely — and unexpected — way. Asked if she’d still tip if she knew the restaurateur was pocketing her gratuity, she said:

“Hell yes, probably more … restaurants work on 3 percent margins. When times are bad, and they have been for a while, the restauranteur doesn’t get paid at all … I do believe the majority are good people trying to make a living in a very tough industry.”

Laura, a former waitress and current business, stirred the pot further saying:

“Sometimes the business owner works in the restaurant themselves – as managers/waiters/chefs/cleaners, etc. Should they be entitled to a portion of the tips as well? If not, why not?”

She raised another pertinent point: when tips are left on a card and not paid in cash, then business owners must pay tax and bank fees on them. Aren’t restaurateurs entitled to recoup some of those costs from the tip itself?

However, Esther from @DairyGoodness believes that staff — and staff only — deserve the tip. “Restaurateurs get payment for decent food,” she says.

They’re all valid points, and I was swayed by each argument. There I was, a one-time stickler for wanting my tip to be shared between floor and kitchen staff, reconsidering the chef’s stake in the matter altogether, and seeing the validity in restaurateurs getting a share of the spoils. But isn’t profit the financial impetus for restaurant owners, and if their margins are low shouldn’t they be working harder, smarter and more efficiently instead of bolstering their bottom line from the tip jar?

The lazy tipper

The discussion also underscored the fact that diners make assumptions about where their tip goes, which may be incorrect. I’ve always assumed that tips go to both the front of house and kitchen crew, which is probably incorrect. But like most diners, i make no attempt to check. I’m happy to throw in a tip, pat myself on my back, and wash my hands of it. It’s lazy. If i’d ever stopped to ask who benefited from my tip, i may have tipped more, or i may have tipped less. If many of us had asked and found out that it was the restaurateur who cashed in on the tips, we probably wouldn’t have left a tip at all.

Marisa from Eve’s Apple says she’s always tipped:

“thinking the $ is going to the server, but unless I ask, how do I know if that’s true? Now I know I’ve been making assumptions that might be false.”

Anna from The Littlest Anchovy agrees:

“I always tip for good service. Having said that, I have never considered the kitchen staff before! Now, having read through these comments, I will make sure to check that my tip is divided amongst all the people who made my experience a great one.”

The answer seems to be to question the restaurant’s tip policy before leaving some extra coin. But in reality, are diners going to do this?

The tipping point

All of this got me wondering why, in Australia, we tip in restaurants at all. In the United States — where a tip of between 15-20 percent of the meal is often considered just reasonable — tips make up a shortfall in salary because staff are often just paid a base wage. In Australia, restaurants — like any other business — should pay award rates that are legally binding and set pay rates and work conditions. Admittedly, many business side-step this by illegally paying “cash in hand”, which means they don’t pay tax on wages, and often pay rates that are lower than the legal threshold.

But many industries do likewise. And in Australia we don’t routinely tip other low-paid workers — office cleaners, road sweepers, delivery drivers, caretakers, car park attendants, general dogsbodies — so why should restaurant workers be singled out? Are they any more deserving of a tip than the lovely postman who stops, chats and pats my cat if our paths cross on a weekday morning, or my fellow English hairdresser who brings me a coffee and a chocolate and a supercharged chat with my revitalised hairdo once a month? What about the bloke in the corner shop who always has milk and emergency cooking ingredients on hand, and does dry cleaning to boot, or the Vietnamese baker who still has a sparkly smile on his face midday despite starting work hours before the crack of dawn, or the old codger who services the car?

Why do Australians routinely tip low-paid workers in one industry, but not others? I can tell you right now, i’m not going to start tipping all those other non-restaurant workers — as amazing as their services, and individual personalities might be. And given the blurred boundaries surrounding tipping in restaurants, i’m unlikely — in future — to leave any additional coin. It will be a hard habit to break, and i’m sure i’ll slip up and not want to look like a stinge-bag. But my tip to restaurant staff is don’t expect one … you’ve earned a wage, like the rest of us. Be content with that.

What’s your tipping policy? And are you tempted to change it?

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16 Comments

Filed under Food Issues, Question of the week, Reflections

16 responses to “Tipping point: why I won’t tip restaurant staff in future

  1. A courageous post Rachel, but a conclusion I can’t disagree with. I’ve been noticing more and more tip jars in cafes and more of an expectation in restaurants and I find it irksome. As you say, Australian workers get paid good award wages and even those who are paid uner-the-table cash still get more than their counterparts in the US.
    We don’t tip the person at the supermarket check-out or the mechanic who services our cars (and in whose hands we place our trust) – they have to manage on their award wage, so why shouldn’t hospitality staff.
    Having said that – if I have a truly special experience when dining out I’m more than happy to acknowledge that with a tip, but I resent the growing assumption that this should be the staff’s due.

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    • Thanks Amanda. The more i think about it the more i wonder how we came to have this culture of tipping restaurant staff in the first place. I’m sure it’s just a practice adopted from overseas, without being in the same boat. I suspect i will still tip from time to time – but i like to think i won’t. I’ll see how i go, and perhaps report back down the track.

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  2. My tipping policy hasn’t changed – basically, I tip if I feel like it, and this is more based on the service than anything else e.g. if the food is average but service was amazing, then I’d still tip. 🙂

    I wouldn’t compare a waiter to a postman, either – I imagine Australia Post would easily be in big trouble if they paid below the award wage, whereas many restaurants get away with that. But I’m sure there are also restaurants that do it right and in those cases, with a proper wage, tips are really not necessary.

    In any case, I remember how happy it used to make me when I got a tip as a waitress, so while I will never regard tipping as compulsory, I am also unlikely to ever do away with it altogether. My tips are usually small, anyway, so it’s not a big deal.

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    • Your tips may be small but they contribute to a much bigger pool that i’m sure most restaurant staff are very grateful for. Good for you for sticking to your guns and continuing to tip. As you say, there are restaurants out there that do do the right thing, so your tip will likely make it to the person you intended it for. I’m just not sure i approve of the culture we’ve created, any longer.

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  3. Rachel, I pointed out earlier that I simply don’t dine out often enough to weigh into the argument. Having read your conclusions, now, I can say I agree with you. In another city the year before last, Peter and I dined with a friend at a lovely restaurant. It was a lavish meal and we enjoyed every morsel. The service was first class. But when the bill came, I almost fell off my chair when our dining companion pointed out that the tip we must leave was over $50! Now, you can call me tight arse too for balking at tipping, although I (somewhat begrudgingly) paid a tip to that amount, I did wonder why Australians tip at all.

    A great conversation here. I look forward to more responses.

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    • Thanks for dropping by Lizzy and it’s good to hear your thoughts on this topic. I must confess when i posed the question to readers i hadn’t expected to come out the other end intending to stop tipping. I’ve been a die-hard tipper for a long time, in fact i’m usually the one encouraging others to pitch in for a tip if we’re dining as a group. Following the discussion on The Food Sage i’ve come to realised that tipping is a very grey area – you don’t really know who your tip goes to, and often i don’t think we really know why we’re tipping at all. I suspect i leave a tip partially because i don’t want to seem tight. Not a very good reason, frankly. I’ll see how i go with my new strategy.

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  4. Hello Rachel, as a mum of young children I dine out very rarely but I still find this very interesting. I wonder why we are expected to tip when we eat out but not when we visit the hairdresser or the corner shop? I look forward to reading more responses also.

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  5. I think you’ve raised a good point – why tip waiters and not other similarly low-paid workers? And what is the threshold for being “low paid”?

    At least in Australia, I think, there is no general rule that one should tip in restaurants (unlike in the US). So if you were to decide to not tip, I hope it will not create such a big fuss … unless it’s a restaurant you visit frequently! But it’s a fair point that we all earn a wage or salary and shouldn’t expect generosity from random strangers.

    Having said that, when I was a struggling student and worked as a waitress, I really appreciated the tips which customers left or gave to me personally, and I was lucky that the restaurant owner let me keep all of the tips which were left at the front of house. Some nights, I collected more in tips than my wage!

    But because it’s unclear why customers leave tips and where these tips ultimately end up, perhaps the restaurant industry should try to bring some clarity to this area. They did so in the UK (where tips are now automatically calculated and added to the bill but can be removed at the customer’s request) so it’s certainly achievable in Australia.

    When I lived in Australia, my habit was just to round up the bill. I hope the expectations haven’t increased in my absence?

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    • I hadn’t heard of the action taken in the UK – interesting stuff. I’m not sure how automatically adding tips to bills would go down in Australia – i know i wouldn’t have liked it, even when i was in my tipping prime(!) – but at least you could ask for it to be taken off. Thanks for dropping by.

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  6. Tipping is a really interesting topic. I asked about it on twitter a few weeks ago as I had a strange experience in a restaurant where a waiter commented on the tip that we left (about 9% rounded up) and people were very opinionated about it-it was a great discussion online! So I asked the question about tipping on a blog post and everyone had a POV. They were very much of the opinion that it wasn’t necessary in Australia. And now knowing that it doesn’t go to the staff member you were thinking it was going to, well…that makes it even more loaded!

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  7. Hope I didn’t stir the pot that much??!! You’ve rounded the argument out well Rachel and while I don’t necessarily support your no tipping policy as it doesn’t both me to round up my bills to the next $5 or $10 (in cash!) I’d like to think that if someone has a great night out at a restaurant – be it a great meal, great service, or overall experience that even if you don’t tip that you at least give the watier/chef/owner the feedback. Sometimes being told “you made my night fantastic” is worth so much more than a $10 tip!
    Also, just to be clear about restaurant owners working harder/smarter/more efficient – unfortunately they do and the industry is just not what it was before. Expenses and competition are at their highest, income and profit margins at their lowest and the economy is just not as robust as it once was to support all these restaurants. Having said that, I would hope that there are more honest restauranteurs doing the right thing than those underpaying staff with cash and bolstering their business through the tip jar. That makes it really difficult an unfair for us honest ones to stay in the game.
    And last but not least, – I’d like to give a shout out to my coffee shop team who have chosen to donate their tips to charity each month. They are worthy of these tips!

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    • Sounds like you’ve got a great bunch working for your, Laura. And thanks for joining in the discussion … you revved it up a bit and gave us all more things to think about! Stay in touch.

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  8. Tips are not added automatically in all restaurants in the UK, so one has to check with the waiting staff. i believe that in the US, waiting staff are taxed on tops, i.e. it is assumed they will get tips, so if they don’t they pay the tax anyway, but I could be wrong. I waitressed as a student and if tips were left in cash we got them, but not if added to a card payment. When I was growing up our peculiar class structure meant that eveyone got tipped who provided a personal service, so waiters, hairdressers, beauticians, gardners, park keepersetc. The refuse collectors, post deliverers etc got tips at Christmas, though I think that died out. Nurses still get brought boxes of chocolates, teachers swamped with end of term gifts, how are these practices any different? There is a blurred line between gifts, tips, bribes and backhanders but I am spinning off on a tangent. I tip still, unless the food and the service was apalling and I usually ask if they will get it, but it is an archaic practice.

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    • Yes, i remember growing up in the UK my mam used to tip the window cleaner, milkman, postman, rubbish collector, etc on big occasions – Christmas, Easter, public holidays, etc. She also used to tip the hairdresser at every visit, and we always took gifts to our teachers at the end of every term. I’m not sure if all of these practices have survived (I’m pretty sure teachers still get presents) but what about those other service industries, or if they were ever part of the Australian ethos. I only know, as an adult moving to Australia over a decade ago, i haven’t continued my mother’s tipping philosophy as it didn’t appear to be common practice. I suspect times have just changed.

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