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Change Chump: What you don't know about tipping may hurt your server.

Tipping Points

Calculating it is confusing, and cynics call it a subsidy. An inside look at the art of tipping.

By Aaron Robinson

AT ONE point or another, we will all frown at the small black check holder as it rests on the tablecloth silently screaming, "Gratuity!" Hesitantly signing the small slip of paper inside, we are bound to a contemplation of guilt or generosity.

Most everyone has a rationale for their bad tipping habits. My favorites include, "This restaurant is expensive enough as is"; "The more money I spend the less I should tip"; or "I have a degree in engineering, and this waiter is making more money than me."

Like most things in life, after I took a waiting job myself I developed a new respect for the craft--and I mean craft--of serving. Professional service is a lesson in anthropology and psychology. Servers must be able to multitask and time things impeccably. In most of Europe, career service is looked upon as a noble profession, but here in the United States, servers don't get much respect. My friend Peter once described waiting tables as "the last legal form of slavery."

Many servers take pride in honing their craft, but there are also those who just want to make easy money. It is the latter who have given the art a cynical facade. Whatever your tipping opinion, perhaps I can help you better understand the science.

First off, we must try to understand the perspective of the food server, a profession often composed of students, immigrants, single parents needing flexible hours and struggling artists, all working for minimum wage. To them, tips are everything. What many people who are not in the business don't know is that servers do not walk out of the door with 100 percent of their gross tips--it's more like 50-60 percent. The nicer the restaurant, the more people there are to share tips with, and the less percentage a server makes.

An average restaurant tip breakdown runs as follows: 15-20 percent of the server's gross tips go to the busboy, 10 percent to the bartender, 5 percent to the hostess, 5 percent to the food runner and 5 percent to the barista. At some places, the house even takes a bit of the action. This means that if a server gets a $20 tip, they are likely to walk out the door with about $12; if they gross $100, they walk out with $55.

Tip-out policies differ among restaurants. One policy that has become an industry standard is for servers to calculate tips off the day's net food sales, rather than off of actual gratuities received. If the server sells $600 worth of food, she must give 3 percent of that to the busboy, whether she was tipped the standard 15 percent or not.

A girl I once knew had to actually pay to go to work, having been stiffed by a large party. She begged and pleaded with the management, but their response was, "What about the days when you make lots of money? You don't tip out on the excess, so you shouldn't get a break on the deficiency." She replied, "I do tip out on the excess." "Well, tough luck." This is frustrating because not only are the customers subsidizing the restaurant's low employee pay, but so are the servers.

Americans spend more money on dining than any other form of day-to-day commerce, yet you will not find a sales person in any other line of work who makes minimum wage. If they are on commission, it is still the business that pays the commission. Imagine if you had to pay 15 percent to a guy who sells you a mattress?

True, it costs more money to run a restaurant than a mattress store. Chefs, managers, kitchen staff, insurance and food costs--they add up. Restaurants also lose money every month on foods that are not used. Most other businesses don't have to worry about the product rotting--or at least not so quickly.

A restaurant owner once told me that customers should look at the system thusly: "Servers work for the customer. They are a middleman between the guest and the restaurant. Therefore, the guest should pay them." I think a lot of people would reply, "If we tipped all of the middlemen in everyday life, we'd be broke. Dining is expensive enough without tips, and everyone has a right to that luxury."

Including the middleman.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the January 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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