Ask Tim: Tipping the Scales at 20 Percent
This week's question comes from Kate Antoniades of Gaithersburg, who asks:
"I always like to tip servers at least 20 percent, but lately I've been hearing that '20 percent is the new 15 percent.' Is this true, or maybe just a high-end restaurant thing?"
This is a tricky question because of the way the American restaurant industry has positioned wait service: These employees, often expected to understand every nuance of the kitchen and every bottle of wine on the menu, must meet every diner's goddamn unspoken expectations at every table. That's a heavy burden, and if they don't succeed to your satisfaction, you stiff 'em. That's the way the merit system works for servers in this country. They must perform for their cash, organ-grinder monkeys right at your table.
But the issue is more complex than that. The fact is that the cost of living keeps rising for all of us—I believe my gas bill this winter came with a ransom note—and by the fact that tips often have to be split with busboys, bartenders, and runners. While you have the right to stiff your waiter or waitress for poor service, you should also consider the ethical side of this monetary exchange (or lack thereof). Each dollar you withhold is one less for these people to live off. Does your employer stiff you every time you spend the afternoon reading The Onion online or surfing for porn?
My position is this: I always give 20 percent. I give more when the service is great.
I also put this question to two veteran restaurateurs—Ashok Bajaj, owner of a number of restaurants in the District including Rasika, The Oval Room, and Ardeo; and Manuel Iguina, owner of Mio and former GM at Café Atlántico and Restaurant Nora.
Bajaj: "The answer is 'yes'...20 percent is the new 15 percent. I think it started about five or six years ago—I'm just speaking from my memory—after the Internet boom when everything was going well. Everyone was looking for better service...So then it sort of became the norm. People were tipping between 15 and 20 percent, and gradually, the word gets around and 20 percent is the new tip. And that's exactly what it is."
But with the average check price going up, I ask Bajaj, isn't the 20 percent tip a double whammy on the diner's pocketbook? "Everything has changed, Tim," Bajaj says. "I tell you if you really want to look at the economics of this...You could get a decent apartment for $800; now it's $1,400 for a one-bedroom...Salmon [used to] be $3.95; now it's $8.50. So everything's relative. With inflation, everything's gone up."
Iguina has a slightly different take on the 20-percent threshold: "That is a tough question. I'm a 20 percent tipper, if not more, if I'm blown away by somebody. But let me give you something that happened to me the other day. I went to this place, and I didn't get any kind of service that I wanted, and they put an 18-percent tip on the check and it was a party of four...I was a little bit upset about it, because I think the gratuity should be optional for service."
"If I do an average in my restaurant here for tips," he continues, "it is 20 percent minimum. So unofficially or not set in stone, people are tipping that amount. It makes me very happy because the waiters, they make good money. They earn their money, and [if] they get their 20 percentage, they're going to be happy working here...But it should always be optional. There should not be a minimum or a maximum."
At the same time, Iguina admits that he always leaves at least 15 percent, no matter how bad the service is, because he knows that servers "live on tips."
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