Tipping: Down and Out

penny-pinchingThings are tough all over. This isn't exactly news. I can't think of a single person I know who hasn't been hit on some level by the mess our economy is in. Everyone, it seems, is scaling back on spending.

And who can blame them?

In a city that prides itself on its food scene, San Francisco's restaurants have taken a very hard hit. With fewer people lunching and dining out these days, many places in the city have either laid off staff or cut their hours. Some once-favored haunts have decided to close their doors for lunch, some have chosen to to hang out the "Now Open for Sunday Brunch" sign (which is usually an indicator of fiscal desperation), some have been forced to shut down permanently.

As a professional waiter, I consider myself very lucky to be working in a popular and (blessedly) busy restaurant. Hell, I consider myself lucky to have a job. Period.

Tipping Down

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The current trend in dining these days seems to be downsizing-- from the price tag of the wine purchase to the amount of food ordered. Perfectly understandable. Not a single server I have talked to about the situation was unsympathetic to the current, collective economic plight. People are ordering fewer bottles of wine, and more are going for what some refer to as "non'trées"-- the ordering of appetizers in lieu of main courses. It's a hit to our wallets, of course (I have personally seen an average 30% decrease in my own sales), but we know were not the only ones. It's been openly discussed at our staff meetings that the guests who were dining with us in the fat times are still here with us in the lean ones, and we should be ever mindful of that. Which, for the most part, we are. The goal is to keep them coming back. We are making less money, of course, but we are working harder for it.

And that's fine.

What isn't fine is the much more alarming trend that seems to be running apace with the downsizing of dine-out meals-- the downsizing of tips. Along with decreased sales, servers are seeing a general lowering of their gratuity's percentage. And this is not okay. Not at all.

Tipping Out

I've always wondered if people who have never worked in the service industry know how restaurant tipping actually operates. It's a subject that most people probably don't give much thought to. You tip your server, she pockets the money, and goes home with it at the end of the shift.

But that's not how it works.

In a recent phone interview with a reporter from a major national newspaper, I was asked about the current economic situation and how it was affecting San Francisco restaurants. In relating my own experience, I told her roughly what I sell on an average night and what my tips are like. When I told her where exactly that money went, how I am taxed on my sales, and what I actually walk out the door with, she was surprised. She explained to me that, in all the years she had been covering restaurants, she had never even thought to ask about the process of tipping out. I respected her for that admission. And it dawned on me that, if she didn't know, how many diners do?

If I am given a $50 tip, on a $250 bill, that's wonderful, but it's not exactly all mine to keep. In most restaurants, especially high-end places, a server is not simply working for his own tips. In my place of business, the gratuity I receive from any given table goes towards supporting nine other employees. Ten, including myself.

Here's an illustration of what is occurring with ever-increasing frequency in our restaurants. Possibly just a bad turn of luck, but it illustrates what really happens when a good server receives a bad tip:

I'll use the example of a fellow waiter who took care of some regular guests and four of their friends. The waiter in question is extremely professional-- fun and chatty at the right moments, formal and efficient at other times, or any combination of the above-mentioned, as each case necessitates. And, above all, he actually cares about what he's doing. He puts his heart into his work.

The regulars and their guests were treated to a few complimentary appetizers and were well taken care of, as usual. When the bill arrived, it was not the regular guests who paid, but one of their tablemates. On a $500 check, the guest left the waiter a $20 tip. Needless to say, the waiter was upset, but could say nothing, except to his co-workers and manager. Vent it, shrug it, face it, let it go. Hopefully do not repeat-- that is often our sanity-saving mantra.

His tip may have been $20, which is insult enough, given his high level of care and service. The financial damage, however, is far worse in such cases.

The Break Down

Granted, the "tip out" (what a server tips out to his support staff) varies from restaurant to restaurant. Some houses pool tips, others ensure that the kitchen staff receives a percentage. The permutations are endless, but all enacted with the goal of supporting the other, no-less-important members of the service team. This is how it works at our place of business:

Tip outs are often based on sales, not the total amount of gratuity.

On a $500 sale, the waiter must give, at the very minimum:

Busser: $15 (3% but usually closer to 4% since a busser is a server's chiefest ally)

Food Runner: $5 (1%)

Hostess: $5 (1%)

Bartender: $6.25 (1.25%)

Our stocker receives $5 per waiter as a flat fee every shift, our barista receives $10.

We do not ever decrease the amounts given to our support staff.

Having been given $20 for his services, the waiter actually lost about $12 taking care of these guests. And that's just on the surface. The IRS calculates roughly 8% of a server's sales as taxable income, owing to the variability of tipping. 8%, in this instance is $40-- more than twice what the waiter was paid.

Clearly, I am biased. I have a vested interest in people tipping properly. And by properly, I mean 15% at the very minimum for basic service. Good service deserves 20%. That is our custom.

The goal of this post isn't to shame people into tipping more. My readers are, by and large, pretty savvy in these matters. I just have the feeling that, if more people understood where that tip money goes and what the consequences are to those who bear the double brunt of lowered sales and lowered tips, they might think twice about saving that extra few dollars by leaving less money to the people who take care of them.

If you are well taken care of, take care of your caretakers.

Amen.

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And pass it on.

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