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Jun 8, 2007 01:56 PM

Origins of the "15-20% tip" rule?

How was it originally determined that it was customary to tip 15% as a matter of course?

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  1. It wasn't. It was originally determined that particularly good service deserved a reward. Then it became habitual to reward all service that wasn't actually bad. A long time ago, when the world was young and so was I, 10% was considered appropriate. I've heard it said that because the cost of living has increased, the tip percentage has also increased; this is said by those who don't understand the idea of percentages, which by nature reflect all increases in the prices on the menu (and these reflect increases in the cost of living and doing business).

    1. nice topic!!!
      if you look at the wikipedia page on "tip" it's actually different percentages for different countries.
      i first read that 18-20% was an appropriate tip for restaurant servers in an emily post book. she had more suggestions though- ie certain amounts to the maitre'd, wine steward, etc.
      ...then i started waitressing and quickly learned that many canadians prefer a 10% "rule".

      1 Reply
      1. re: excuse me miss

        We travel to St. Barth on vacation a couple of times each year and I spend a lot of time on an online forum devoted to that wonderful island. There is a continuing debate over tipping at the fabulous restaurants there. St. Barth is a French island and it is required by French law that "service" be included in the menu prices. Exactly what that means is the debate. According to some, that is to provide servers, etc. a living wage and it is inappropriate (maybe illegal) for a restaurant to submit a bill with a space for tips. That rule is not always followed and a recent article in the St. Barth weekly newspaper pointed out that some restaurants are putting a space for tips on their bills in "an attempt to dupe American tourists." At any rate, it is almost universally agreed that a 15-20% tip on a bill there is the sign of a dope. A 5-10% "pourboire" is customary, but is truly voluntary and is generally left in cash after paying the bill. So just where did the tip idea originate anyway?

      2. Not sure where the origins are from. I was brought up by my mother who said T.I.P.S. stand for To Ensure Prompt Service. Therefore 15% as was left for decent service, 18% for good service and 20% for great.
        Another thing to consider is depending on where you live some states have tip credit wage laws. So tipped employees make very little hourly wage, in VA it's 2.13/hr, AZ/FL 3.30/hr (I think). But other states tipped employees make minimum wage.

        20 Replies
        1. re: chrystaldawn

          I'm almost positive that tipping customs in the U.S. changed from 10 to 15-20 percent in the early eighties when Reagan caved to the restaurant lobby and allowed restaurants (in states that allowed it) to pay tipped employees less than half the minimum wage. Essentially, servers pay taxes on the total of food they sell plus a percentage of their wages. When I was a server, sometimes I received checks that said $0.00 because I had sold enough food for my entire hourly to go to taxes. So my tips were literally my only income.

          1. re: diva360

            Diva that's what all my checks say, and I have to pay quarterly taxes as well. Luckily I make enough in tips to cover everything, but I never get a pay check. I had a hard time explaining it to my tax guy. "You don't make enough to cover your taxes?" "Yep"

            1. re: Missmoo

              I, too, have not received a paycheck in years as a server, and, to add insult to injury, I owe at tax time! I wish more people understood how this all works. (My brother, on the other hand, who waits in CA, receives federal minimum plus tips and is rolling in dough....)

              1. re: ctscorp

                He wouldn't be receiving federal minimum-- he'd be receiving California minimum which is current $7.50 per hour (and due to go up to $8.00 in Jan 2008).


                Somehow it never made sense to me that restaurateurs are the only businessmen that by law do not have to pay their servers a minimum legal wage.

                Mr Taster
                Protect Chowhound
                Boycott Avatars!

                1. re: Mr Taster

                  Elsewhere the minimum wage for servers is still $2-4/

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    Ooh, you're right -- and $7.50 is still more than $2 more than federal, no? Let's all move to California! Then it will sink into the Pacific even faster! ;)

                    1. re: Mr Taster

                      Unless he is living an a Living Wage city like Santa Monica where he could be making $12.50 per hour....

                      1. re: Mr Taster

                        California also taxes 8% of a servers total sales as income earned.

                  2. re: diva360

                    Restaurant tipping in the U.S.--in my lifetime, anyway--has always been at least 15%. See this pre-Reagan (1976) Straight Dope article from Cecil Adams, which addresses the origins of the 15% figure. "The fifteen percent standard is mostly a question of what the market will bear."


                    Restaurant wages under Reagan were more likely adjusted to account for the existing tipping standard rather than the other way around. It would be easier than re-training 200 million Americans how to tip based on the new wage standard.

                    1. re: tubman

                      I just received a prepaid dining card for $250.00 from Aeroplan Points for Air Canada. In teh weee small print, it saus when using the card n a restaurant, a TWENTY PERCENT GRATUITY will automatically be added to my bill. Wait staff seem to have gotten to AMEX, probably from all the tax savings on unreported tips when they do their income!
                      Please no flaming, I am a tax preparer specializing in performers, many of whom work as waitstaff in the downtime. Its like pulling teeth to get them to report tips, most see it as found money. My niece, who knows how to unbutton her top button on her blouse used to work as a waitress in a cocktail bar. When I did her taxes, her take home pay, when you included tips was SIX times miy take home pay. But when she didnt report tips, she was a "starving actress!"\

                      1. re: Danybear

                        Do you think there is a mass wait staff lobby? What power would wait staff have over Amex?
                        While it's a great idea to ask posters not to flame, I find it odd to do so in a post where you accuse "them" (many of whom read and post here) of being inherently dishonest and of trading on their bodies ("who knows how to unbutton her top button") rather than skills or hard work. Perhaps you didn't mean to be so insulting?

                        1. re: Danybear

                          Lets be fair its not just servers that under report taxes... its also psychologists, mom & pop retailers (including casual eateries), consultants... and hell even CPAs! Anybody that can receive payment in cash... or commonly where I live... who is willing to barter can, will & does under report taxes.

                          Don't tell anyone, but if you do my taxes...

                          1. re: Danybear

                            Maybe it is just me, but if the tip is being added on to a CC (in this case AMEX), there's a paper trail and they'd be more likely to have to report it. I have a running debate w/ a couple of folks I know, who prefer to pay the tip in cash when using a CC in order to help the servers avoid paying proper taxes. I prefer to put it all on my card - both because I'm already using my card and also to help *prevent* them from cheating on their taxes.

                          2. re: tubman

                            Interestingly enough, I was leafing through a copy of Emily Post's book on etiquette from 1945, and I thought that this passage might be of some interest:

                            De luxe restaurant tips:

                            "The conventional ten per cent of a restaurant bill was correct in the days when people ordered an excessive amount of food. But today, when most people go to the other extreme and 'rations vie with diets' in limiting your order, ten per cent of your bill must be qualified as 'ten per cent if above the minimum tip for the class of restaurant you are in' and for the class of person _you appear to be_. That is, if you patronize restaurants of greatest luxury and wear obviously expensive clothes with valuable accessories or if you are critical and difficult to please, greater 'compensation' is excepted than if your appearance were simpler and your manners more kind." (Exact tip numbers follow -- in New York, at a top restaurant, minimum tip is 35 cents for a lunch alone, twenty percent on a bill of three dollars or less, seventy-five cents on a total of five dollars and ten per cent above this. Remember this is in 1945 money, so in today's dollars that's around $3.50 for a lunch alone, etc.)

                            Average first-class restaurant:

                            "In an average first-class restaurant a reasonable accurate rule is a minimum tip of twenty-five cents, whether for one person or two, for a bill that totals less than two dollars; thirty-five cents for one up to three dollars; forty cents for one from three to four dollars. And a minimum of twenty cents a person for a lunch or dinner party... (parties of 10 or more snipped, headwaiter tips, bad manners to tip waitress less than waiter.) ... "In a bare-tabled cafe or tea room, a tip of fifteen or even ten cents is possible for a dollar meal. In a restaurant with tablecloths, you would add five cents (laundry?) tip.)

                            1. re: DingoWallaby

                              Wow, thanks for that. That's an interesting read.

                          3. re: diva360

                            Nope. Tipping has been 15%+ for decades before Reagan. That tax stuff is wrong too. Reagan stuck it to the little guy by making restaurants record servers' net sales, assume an 8% tip on sales and then they withhold taxes based upon the 8%. That's why you got a zero check.

                            Say you sell $1000 of food and drinks. The govt assumes you make a minimum of 8% in tips or $80. The restaurant withholds, say, $20 for federal taxes. Your base wage is $3.50 times five hours = $17.50, so you owe more in taxes than your regular wage.

                            Back in the 80s when cash tips were the rule, servers were getting away with murder on their taxes. I suppose they probably still are, since no competent server walks away with 8% tips. So a good server is probably only reporting half their income.

                            1. re: FrancoAmerican

                              Actually, Franco you are wrong about the government still assuming that we make 8%. Now they look at our (I'm a professional server) credit card sales and our tips. If we average 20% in cc tips then they take a look at out cash sales and assume that we've made 20% in cash tips as well. When I declare tips I don't claim what I tip to server assistants, food runners, bartenders, etc. If I get audited the the onus is on me to prove that I actually made only what I've claimed. The IRS is really cracking down on servers and the restaurants that they work for and it is every servers best interest to keep daily records of all their sales, tips and tip-outs as there is no other way defend themselves against an audit.

                              1. re: kimmer1850

                                the onus is on everyone, not just servers, to properly record and report bothincome and deductions. accurate record keeping is also required for everyone. not trying to flame but everyone operates under the same IRS code.

                                1. re: jfood

                                  Absolutely true. I was just trying to clear up the "8%" misconception.

                              2. re: FrancoAmerican

                                True that 15 - 20% is usually left as the total tip, the servers do not kep the entire tip. Back waiters, bussers, bartenders, hosts, expeditors, etc. all get tipped out of that total amount, usually based on total sales. Therefore even though a diner leaves 15 - 20% the server will usually only get about half of that, give or take, depending on how many other people need to be tipped out their share. So the server actually walks with only around 8%.

                          4. These days, in most upscale casual or upscale establishments, tipping should be 18-20% if the service is good, more if the service is excellent. I would venture to say that servers in these kinds of restaurants would be concerned and somewhat miffed if they received a 15% tip. Casual restaurant servers should receive a 15-20% tip depending on their abilities. In the majority of states these days there is a separate minimum wage for servers that ranges between $2.00 and $3.50/hr

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: kimberlya

                              They might be miffed, but that would reflect a lack of understanding on their part about what their customers actually know.

                              1. re: Karl S

                                what do you mean what the customers know...? i suppose if a customer knows that the server is drawing a higher salary than usual than a smaller tip is in order. but a 15-20% tip is customary throughout the hospitality industry and beyond (get a massage? tip 20%. get a haircut? tip 20%....). once you tip out the other workers in the restaurants (ie: bussers and runners) the normal 10% there really isn't all that much left for the server!

                                1. re: kimberlya

                                  You can assume that American customer should know 15% is a base, not 18%. You assumed the latter, which is not as widely true as 15%.

                              2. Despite the push from many servers (mostly in big cities, it seems), I see no good resaon to increase tipping from 15 to 20%. The nice thing about percentage-based tipping is that it stands the test of time.

                                14 Replies
                                1. re: pikawicca

                                  Amen. If a server is going to just show up and go through the motions, he should expect 15% from me. If he contributes to a nice dining experience, he'll get 20%. Tick me off, he'll get less than 15% along with some discussion with his manager. Really make my day and do something extra-special for my kids, then we'll head north of 20%.

                                  Servers who feel they should be making more money should either do something to boost their performance evaluation from 15% to 20% or higher in my mind, or simply wait around for a cost-of-living adjustment when management raises the prices. That's how the raises of most Americans are calculated--performance evaluation and inflation--why should a server's be any different?

                                  1. re: tubman

                                    I suppose my question is....say you're out to dinner at a restaurant in NYC where the average entree price is between $25 and $30 (pretty average). The server does nothing wrong, is knowledgable and gracious. Do you tip 18-20% then?

                                    Or, what if the restaurant is swamped that day and your server has twice the table load they usually do, or there's no busser for the day, or there's a fiasco in the kitchen having to do with your meal? None of these things have anything to do with the server, really, though undoubtedly these will affect their "job performance" in the eyes of customers. Do you tip 15% because service was so-so, or do you take into the circumstances into consideration and tip a bit higher?

                                    When I tip, I tip at least 18% I noted...much of the tip may go towards other staff and not to the servers themselves.

                                    Also, please take into consideration that servers get many fewer perks than the average employee, tubman. Servers get no sick time, no paid vacation time, and most can only dream about having health insurance. Many are students or are freelancers without a steady income. The job market is currently oversaturated with qualified people (too many kids coming out of college), so many have to resort to these jobs to cover the rent since they can't get a job right out of school. What if it were your kid?

                                    As an end note, salaries/raises for the majority of Americans (from working to upper-middle class) don't take inflation or increases in housing costs into consideration. Just saying....

                                    1. re: kimberlya

                                      But it has always been thus. Why should present servers make a higher percentage in tips than past servers? Is ther service universally better? I don't think so. And, of course, waiters' salaries DO reflect inflation: Restaurant prices go up, tip amounts go up, even when the percentage stays the same.

                                      1. re: pikawicca

                                        Well, maybe because servers' base hourly in many states hasn't gone up in a long, long time, even when the regular minimum wage has. For example, when I started waiting tables in WI in the mid nineties, the minimum wage was something like 4.25, and the server wage was 2.13, or roughly half of that. Now, the federal minimum wage is 5.15, and the server wage in TX is still 2.13. The minimum wage will probably go up again shortly, and I bet the server minimum in many states will still be 2.13. As others have mentioned, this wage is so low that it is often entirely consumed by taxes, resulting in checks that read 0.00. And note that your tip does not merely pay your server for waiting on you while you're there, but for rolling silverware after you're gone, cleaning the restaurant after you and the other customers leave, and setting it up before you get there, and doing a variety of other tedious duties that allow service to happen. What that means is that typically a server might work an eight hour shift, but only actively be making money for five or six of those hours, and then the servers have to tip out the bartenders and busboys to help pay them, since the restaurant certainly won't do so directly. As a customer, you may not think it is fair that your are asked to subsidize this otherwise unpaid work and these auxiliary employees through tips, but don't expect it to change anytime soon, if ever in the U.S. The restaurant lobby is far too powerful to allow that to happen. And, believe me, if restaurants suddenly had to pay busboys, bartenders, and servers a good living wage, the price of your food and drink would go up substantially more than 20%.

                                          1. re: diva360

                                            Well, that does not serve to change what people understand the custom to be. Custom, by its nature, is glacial in changing. And tips are about custom. Servers waste their energy if they cultivate an expectation ahead of what people understand the custom to be. And that's a choice.

                                            1. re: diva360

                                              Here's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge: waiting tables is an unskilled job.

                                              Yes, there are some really great servers out there, but for many it's a job you can get with no experience or training. You earn money based upon the skills that you learn on the job. You make more money if you work in a more expensive busier restaurant. I know people that work 3-4 hours a day as servers and maybe four shifts a week and do quite well.

                                              In other jobs, you are compensated based upon your skill level. A server's minimum wage is unimportant is he/she is good. It's a brutal free market system. Car salesmen usually earn comission only. If they are good, they make great money, if not they starve and go into some other line of work, like being ... a waiter.

                                              I'd be fine with getting rid of tipping altogether and let restaurants establish their own rates of pay for servers. That works well in France and as a consequence you can sit at a cafe table with a coffee for six hours and no one cares.

                                          2. re: kimberlya

                                            "...what if the restaurant is swamped that day and your server has twice the table load they usually do...?"

                                            Just for argument's sake, let's say every customer in the place thinks the way I do, and a server who has normally warranted a 20% tip in the past has twice the table load and simply doesn't have time to deliver his trademark personalized service at a 20% level. While I recognize how hard he's trying while being swamped and that it's not his fault two other servers called in sick, the bottom line is that I'm not getting service I'd tip at 20%.

                                            How is this guy getting penalized when he's getting 15% *ON TWICE THE NORMAL NUMBER OF TABLES* generating $200 in sales per hour versus 20% on the normal number of tables generating $100 in sales per hour?

                                            My gross pay doesn't go from $20 to $30 per hour when I get swamped with twice the workload at my job. And certainly not when I have little choice but to do it in a mediocre fashion just to get it off my desk in a timely manner.

                                            "...or there's a fiasco in the kitchen having to do with your meal?"

                                            Part of good service is maintaining contact with the table when there's a problem in the kitchen, seeing the problem through to resolution and getting management involved before the customer asks to. A server who does these things gets 20% from me because that's part of doing his job well, even though the end result was my dinner came out 10 minutes after my wife's. A server who doesn't do these things gets 15% because maintaining communication with the table in the face of a screwup *is* something that's clearly under his control.

                                            1. re: tubman

                                              bravo indeed, diva. you're much better than i am at saying these things graciously...

                                              tubman, they may be serving twice the amount of tables, and maybe bringing in twice the money. but when customers are having a good experience, they're much more apt to have more courses or more drinks. if a restaurant is packed and a server is rushed, and you're not feeling like you're being tended to, you're just not going to spend as much! i'd say the amount spent isn't quite double...

                                              also, communication is key, of course, and i'm glad to hear that you'll tip according to the server's reaction skills. the sad thing is, though, that so much of the public doesn't feel the same as you

                                              perhaps, tubman, if your boss is giving you twice the workload and you're paid only hourly, it's time to speak up? or, like diva said, you could emulate a server and stay extra hours just to get all of the extra stuff done...and then tip out 10% of your daily wage to your secretary, file clerk, copy-maker, etc. =) (note: not meant to be a personal attack)

                                              1. re: kimberlya

                                                ps, tubman- if its any consolation, i'm off to school to perform manual labor in a kitchen in 100 degree weather that i pay THEM for. heh.

                                                1. re: kimberlya

                                                  <Here's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge: waiting tables is an unskilled job.>

                                                  Franco, are you serious?!?! Have you ever worked in a restaurant waiting tables?? Sure there are those "kids" who wait tables as a temporary means until they move on or finish school, but waiting is just as legitimate a job as any other out there. Is a job any less because no degree is involved? Plus there is plenty of training and experience needed to serve. Off the top of my head you have to know a ton about food, preparations, wine, techniques, terminology, spirits, ingredients, beer and so much more. I can't think of any reputable restaurant that would hire someone just for the heck of it with no experience.

                                                  1. re: cocktailqueen77

                                                    Here are some other tidbits of wisdom collected from FrancoAmerican's other posts (which are, curiously almost exclusively on tipping topics)...

                                                    "Nobody tries to hurry you at a bar so that they can turn over the table. Servers hate single diners often. They see the empty seat(s) as lost earning opportunity"

                                                    "Take out tipping is foolish"

                                                    "If you are waiter who has to take and prepare caryyout orders, your job sucks. Get a new job or convince your boss to structure it better. It's not my fault that your boss is a jerk."

                                                    "Tip jars other than a bartender's are about shaming you into giving money. That's despicable. If you want to give someone a tip, just give them something. No need for the public display of American vulgarity. How about a return to grace regarding money in public."

                                                    and the best yet..."I think the next time I visit my regular bar, I'm going to set out a tip jar. You know, for providing excellent conversation and unsolicited advice. And for not peeing on the floor"

                                                    So essentially, servers should also hate 3 person tables as well? Or 5? I'm not sure where you've been going to eat recently, but any decent restaurant isn't going to hurry you out the door because you're by yourself. I know many people who have had very pleasant experiences whilst sitting alone in a restaurant...

                                                    It's not your fault that someone's boss is a jerk, but between these comments and your comment about almost cutting someone's hand off, you're not sounding too pleasant yourself. Are you holding a vendetta against some servers at the moment?

                                                    You seem to speak of Americans with an air of displeasure quite often. What gives?

                                                    And lastly...excellent conversation is subjective. For not peeing on the floor, you got to continue gracing the bartenders with your presence. Really, from the way that you're speaking, you probably believe that's enough. =)

                                                    While heated discussions in regards to money are somewhat expected, snide and condescending comments aren't appreciated.

                                                    1. re: kimberlya

                                                      Kimberlya, perfectly stated, thank you.

                                                      1. re: cocktailqueen77

                                                        Yes. Kudos and smooches, kimberlya -- from one *very* highly skilled server!