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?