How to Tip your Waiter

(Photo credit: zoetnet)

This morning I stumbled across this news item about a waitress who was fired from Applebee’s because she posted to Reddit a photo of a customer’s receipt. On the receipt the customer, who is a pastor, had snidely refused to tip her. (Let me just note that I find this particular pastor’s credentials suspect, but that’s what she calls herself, so we’ll just go with it.) This story caused me to reminisce on my own bygone days as a waiter. I’m especially sensitive regarding this business of tipping, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the first table I waited on stiffed me. (I should have known that it was coming because she never once looked me in the eye.)

Let’s begin with the basics. You have to tip. Period. It’s not optional. If you don’t want to tip, then don’t go to any restaurant with a wait staff. If an extra 15% is too much for you, then carry your own lousy food at McBurgers.

Now that you realize you must tip, you might ask how much? Well, how much you got? Here’s the deal: anything less than 15% is absolutely unacceptable. Don’t give me any of that tommyrot about only tipping 15% for good service. When you sit down at the table, you have entered into an understood contract with your server to pay them at least 15% for their labor. If you don’t like that contract, then see my above comment about going to McBurgers.

If the service is merely acceptable, then 15–18% is an appropriate tip. I suggest 20–25% when the service is good. If your bill is frightfully small, then you should consider leaving at least $2 per person. (If you’re using a credit card, consider leaving a bit more because your server has to cover the credit card fees on your tip.)

But what if the service is bad? You have many options.

1. You can remember that your own job performance is occasionally less than stellar. Does your boss dock your pay every time you make a mistake? Probably not. Have a little grace on your server. He or she has a tough job, and there’s no need for you to make it worse. Tip at least 15%.

2. When service is bad, tell your server. If the service isn’t what you expect, let your server know what your expectations are. Most of the time, he or she will start meeting those expectations immediately. Believe it or not, most servers aren’t mind readers. Tip at least 15%.

3. If service is particularly bad, mention it to the manager. The manager wants to know. The manager might even discount your bill a bit. (But make sure that you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. You don’t want to look like a whiner.) Tip at least 15%.

4. If you experience the worst service ever, steal your server’s pen. As a former waiter, I can assure you that there is no greater calamity that can befall a server than running out of pens. By stealing your server’s pen you will cause him great emotional pain and suffering, which will make you feel better about the pain and suffering that you endured at his hands. Tip at least 15%.

Please don’t try to justify, rationalize, or in any way defend leaving less than 15%. Let me put it plainly. When you leave less than 15%, you’re stealing your server’s labor. For all you “pastors” out there who are thinking about stiffing your waiter, there’s no commandment that says, “Thou shalt not be a lousy waiter,” but there is one that says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

What do you consider proper tipping etiquette? Let me know in the comments.

15 responses to “How to Tip your Waiter”

  1. Can you explain to me why restaurant owners don’t have to pay their servers a livable wage? And I have often wondered why a server who brings me a steak deserves more of a tip than the server who brings me that same plate with a hamburger on it? And why should your wage be determined by the prices the owner sets for meals? When he/she raise his/her prices you get a raise. If he/she lowers them you get a pay cut…that makes no sense at all.

    • I think these are excellent questions. My best answer is “tradition.” Is it a perfect system? No. As consumers, however, I think we’re obligated to do our best with this less than ideal system. If you can’t afford to be generous, then eat at home.

  2. I have to disagree about having 15% as the floor for the tip. I base my tip on the quality of service (with 15% being average)….If I experience bad service, it proportionally affects the amount Im going to tip (going down to about 10%). If I experience better than average/great service, it too will reflect in the amount I typically tip (between 18-22% generally). The only time I don’t really shift my tipping strategy is when Im a poor poor poor (did I mention poor) graduate student and tipped generally around 12-15% (but that was because I was doing 10% and rounding up to the nearest dollar!)

    • Marc, reread my paragraph about the understood contract. If you don’t like the contract don’t enter into it by sitting down. You might have certain expectations, but you should remember that your server does too. You always have the option of eating fastfood. 🙂

  3. I think most bad tippers don’t realize that servers make around $2.14 an hour. The busboys and dishwashers make more than that!

  4. CONTRACT!? CONTRACT!? OH PLEASE! I too was once a waiter. However, my waiting experience (in contrast to your own) has actually led to me be more stingy with my service dollars. Now that I have lived the “other side of the equation”… learned and practiced what it takes to truly provide good service… I often find myself being MORE CRITICAL of my servers than I ever did prior to being a waiter myself (especially when they do not do the things that I was trained to do). I tend to agree with Marc’s comments (above). However, these days, I now find myself basing my tip NOT as a percentage of the food/drink bill, but rather I tip a dollar amount which I feel the service rendered was worth. I never quite understood why a server who provides great service to me at a fine steakhouse should get paid any more than a server who provides me great service at Chili’s. Or worse yet, why should a lousy server at the steakhouse get paid more than a great server at Chili’s. P.S. Where’s my pen?

    • Tre, I am also critical of my servers, but I know that usually bad service is a result of poor training by management. Regarding the steakhouse/Chili’s question, that one’s not too hard. Because the experience is worth more at the fine steakhouse. Typically, the higher the price of the menu items, the more highly skilled and trained the wait staff. Of course there are fabulous waiters at Chili’s, but if they plan to make a career of it, they won’t stay there. Waiting tables is just like any other job. The more prestigious the business the more you pay because the brand is worth it.

      And when you don’t leave 15%, you’ve broken faith with your server. Period. Think of it like an on-your-honor bucket at a peach orchard. Leave $5 per basket the sign says. If you leave $4 per basket, then you’re stealing, even if you think they are only worth $3. If you’re not willing to pay, don’t go. Feel free to throw in $6 per basket if you think they’re worth it, but don’t leave less than $5. That’s stealing.

      It’s an odd institution, I admit that. And don’t worry about being stingy, Tre. There’s enough people like me who leave 25% to make up for people like you. 🙂

  5. I un-apologetically own up to being “stingy” to those waiters who do not live up to my expectations. And as you point out… expectations are higher for a dining experience at the steakhouse than at the Chili’s. But that doesn’t change my stance on what the value of their service is. When my expectations are higher, I do also expect to pay more in tips… just not set as a percentage of the total bill. My waiter has little influence on the quality of the food/ingredients, the price-points management chooses to set, or the skill of the chef in preparing the food. Why should their tip be influenced by anything which they are not in control of? As a matter of fact, I always try my best to never hold my server accountable for things like the “kitchen being backed up” or if the food was not prepared according to my expectations.

    As for your “Leave $5 per basket” notion…

    If indeed there was such a posted policy (either at the entrance door or clearly displayed on the menu, etc.), then yes there is a implied contract that I can choose to accept or not. If I dine there, I need to adhere to the policy. Otherwise… there is NO CONTRACT (implied or otherwise). I know it, you know it, and the wait staff knows it too.

    Peace buddy! 🙂

  6. Entirely true. Unless the server has been extremely rude to me, I have never left less than twenty percent, and more if I find them to be particularly wonderful.

      • Amen, Ionia and Collin! Back in my serving/coffee slinging days, I remember how I would often be so shocked that someone either thanked me or gave me a compliment that I often didn’t know how to respond for a second. It’s true, Ionia, a simple thank you really can turn around someone’s day and cancel out several of the negative comments/events that happened previously! 🙂

  7. Seeing as how I am a generally disgustingly happy people person I tend to even leave the grumpy servers with a smile and a thank you as well as a decent tip. My favorite times are when the server has only recently begun to work at the establishment, you can tell they are nervous and apologetic and really trying hard. I tend to leave them a hefty tip, hoping it will ease the nerves for the rest of the day:)

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