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Tipping the owner?

A friend of mine owns a restaurant. Sometimes some of us will eat dinner in the bar area. Usually, but not always, the person handling those tables is my friend's wife / co-owner. Sometimes my friend will join us, and he'll often comp the meal for everybody when he does. (And sometimes even when he doesn't, although I get the sense that his generosity may occasionally be the subject of minor marital friction.)

When a regular server is handling our table, we always get good service and tip accordingly. Maybe even a little heavy, since our presence means that she has to deal with her boss(es) more than usual. When the co-owner is handling our orders, though, the level of service is somewhat, shall we say, relaxed. Forgotten drink orders, mistakes on the bill, long absences while she deals with a crisis in the kitchen, etc. But we're all friends, so no worries, right?

The question is, what to do about tipping in this situation? If the meal is comped, I'll tip the bartender, but leave it at that. Otherwise, it seems a little too much like somebody slipping me a $20 after dinner in my home. On the other hand, when I pay for the meal, the charge slip has a line for a tip. Then I throw on 20%, if for no other reason than to avoid seeming stingy after all the generosity we've been shown.

Is this the correct thing to do? We're in a weird kind of limbo between guest and customer, and she's in a similar no-man's-land between host and server. And I seem to recall having heard something a long time ago about tips being appropriate only for employees. But we're getting table service, so it seems cheap not to tip. Can my fellow Hounds help me figure out whether my current scheme is the best way to handle this situation?

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  1. I'd feel a bit weird tipping the owner. Tip the employees by all means. Get the owner a nice gift perhaps (nice bottle of wine or something you'd think he'd appreciate).

    1. I would tip the owner because in many establishments tips are pooled so if there was no tip from your party the average tip per table would be lessened and would hurt all the other members of the staff.

      1 Reply
      1. re: KTinNYC

        Thanks, KT! You've just given me what I need to rationalize what I've been doing all along. Unless somebody tells me NOT to tip, I'll just keep on tipping on the assumption that the money is going to take care of the entire staff rather than my individual server. Nobody can get offended about that, right?

        BTW, when I don't tip (that is, when a meal served by the owner is comped) I make sure to take care of the bartender. Servers usually set up and bus their own tables.

      2. you are in a weird situation, & Paul's suggestion is a good one. however: are there other employees indirectly helping your table, such as a bartender or busser? who set up the table prior to your arrival, the owner, or the wait staff? these folks would split tips under normal circumstances, but if you don't leave a monetary amt, we have to assume the owner will have to tip these employees out of her/his own pocket, or use the restaurant's petit cash.

        when owners are working with other staff to serve customers, they may add their tips to a pooled tip fund which is divided at the end of the shift between general wait staff. the owners can take a fraction (1/2, 1/4) of normal share or a pittance of the total before it's divided up. owners should not *have* to work for tips--and if she's forgetting your drink orders, she's certainly not!-- but especially at smaller places or newer places, or, erm-- *struggling places* i.e. *most* places-- a small amount of cash tips can be an important part of an owner's income. many restauranteurs don't pay themselves during the months of january/february, for example, because these are the slowest months in the restaurant year. there's a lot that could be happening with both your service and where the tip $ goes that you don't see (and you're not supposed to), & it's hard to give a hard-and-fast answer when the circumstances can have so many shades of gray.

        i think the best approach, since you are indeed friends, is to come out and ask what's appropriate: how should you tip, & should you leave a separate tip for the bt/busser/other service staff? your friends may really appreciate you being proactive about the situation.

        1 Reply
        1. re: soupkitten

          I agree w/soupkitten. If the owner is acting as a server, especially not just for you (say there are 3 servers on the floor and one of them is the owner) then you should definitely tip. This is part of their income, and will also affect other staff members who would be tipped out, whether it be a pooled house or not. If it's really not clear -- the owner isn't acting as a server that night except for your table, say, then by all means ask them how you should handle it.

        2. I would simply ask the "friend / owner" what would be appropriate.

          2 Replies
          1. re: RickMoore

            I agree with asking, especially since he is a friend.

            1. re: RickMoore

              Especially if you don't want to tip anymore.

              I mean c'mon, folks. What do you think the owner, who is comping entire meals, will say if asked "Do you want me to give you a tip?" The closest one would get to an affirmative will be "That's not necessary."

            2. I worked at a tiny bistro restaurant where the chef owner would wait on tables three nights a week because business wasn't steady enough to justify having a server on, and I know she depended upon that tip income. But I also know that some of the regulars felt awkward about tipping the owner. If you feel comfortable enough asking, then do so, however, I know that if I were the owner, and even if I needed that money, I would probably tell my friend, the patron, that it wasn't necessary.

              I'm sure you already do this, but thought I'd throw it out there anyway, if a regular server or waiter or bartender is waiting on you, tip on the total bill, including the approximate cost of the comped items, not on your actual bill. Even if a round of drinks or desserts (or whatever) are comped, that waitstaff still does as much work as if you're paying for all of it.

              1. If you feel uncomfortable asking the owners about the gratuity, you can ask another server or bartender what the owners do with the tips (if any) left for them since it seems they work the tables frequently.

                1 Reply
                1. re: tom porc

                  I think this is a poor suggestion to put an employee in an uncomfortable and compromising position to "rat" out his bosses or criticize them. For all the employee knows, it could be a set up to see the response. Even telling the truth could have a negative impact.

                2. Am I the only one who picked up on: " although I get the sense that his generosity may occasionally be the subject of minor marital friction" ? If you noticed it, I'm sure it's a reality and not all that 'minor' His wife may like your group a great deal but is probably none too pleased that he's comping entire meals to friends, no matter how friendly you are. (I'm thinking about The Soprano's Artie and his resentful wife :-}.) He probably feels understandably awkward about charging for meals that he's shared with you so his way to deal is to just comp the entire table. The way I see it, it's a for profit business, just like any other business. I don't mean to sound unkind, but if your friends wanted to provide free meals, they would volunteer in a soup kitchen. You should probably tell your friend that while you greatly appreciate his generosity, you really want to pay for your meals, regardless of whether or not he dines with you. and you should insist on doing so. If he occasionally 'comps' you dessert, or a round of drinks, that's fine and is often done for many regular customers but otherwise the free food thing should end and you should tip as you would at any other restaurant.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Tay

                    unfortunately a lot of women in the restaurant business, though full partners in the business and doing their fair share of the work, are still "the owner's wife" as far as customers' perceptions go and not "the owner or co-owner" as they should be seen. i didn't go there because the op has stated that his friend owns the restaurant, and perhaps op's & the owner's friendship predated the marriage, or perhaps the ownership of the restaurant predated the marriage, what do i know? :)

                    if i were to venture a guess, possibly projecting (what do i know?)--the reality of the "marital friction" he reports is probably less "marital" and more "business friction." even though the husband and wife have a marriage, they also work together and have a business relationship that is hopefully separate. if the female co-owner has a problem with the male co-owner's comping, it may have nothing to do with their marriage, or with the male owner's friendship with the op. it may be strictly a difference in how her business style differs from the other owner's. people who have never worked with a spouse or other close family member may not pick up on the difference in relationships though.

                    1. re: soupkitten

                      FWIW, the restaurant not only predates the marriage, it predates the owner. His dad started the business more than 50 years ago, and my friend and his brother inherited it. You are correct that the friction is related more to the business than to the marriage; she has a by-the-book business style, while he's more laid back and informal.

                      As to declining the comps, my business style is a lot like my friend's, and I often provide professional services without charge. (I, too, work with my spouse, and she thinks I should bill everyone for everything, but we manage to sort it out.) As this particular friend has been the occasional recipient of my largesse (or maybe laziness--I just don't like preparing invoices), I have no problem accepting a complementary meal now and then. As he likes to put it, an hour of my time is a whole lot of steak sandwiches.

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        fair enough. & i would probably comp your steak sandwiches too. going off of your answer i'd also venture to guess that she is not from a restaurant family or background and so she may not *get* her husband's gestures of old-school hospitality, leading to a friction that may well in fact become "marital!" LOL! if you say i am right i will cheerfully smack my own paw for butting in!

                    2. re: Tay


                      Your observations are astute. The wife as co-owner has a legal anchor around her neck in this case. It's one thing if you are the owner and bartending to save labor or protect your interests, but when you are waiting on tables regularly, it suggests to me you are doing so to save costs and also provide additional income.

                      When I was in college and tending bar for my father in the family business, I was not paid any salary. Customers would say to me as an owner, I would not be tipped by them. I explained to them my father was the owner, and I was only an employee who was not paid any salary. From that day on they tipped me.

                      With regards to my father, who did comp many meals and drinks for his friends, there was one particular friend from his Country Club who was a regular customer for food with his wife about once every couple of weeks and also was a regular at the bar a few times a week with other members of the country club( he received many comps on many occasions). One time with the other members present at the bar, this one friend called my Dad out and asked him if he was going to buy him and everyone else a drink or not. My Dad's reply was when he sees him and all his friends at the club he would be more than happy to pick up the bar tab there, but here(at the restaurant) they all had to pay since it was his place of business and if he did not make any money, he would be unable to fulfill his intentions to pick up any future bar tabs at the club. It was a strong message that all his friends accepted and it was a valuable lesson I learned and still adhere to today when I visit any friends restaurant.

                      A question I have for the OP (alanbarnes) is, after the food comp by the owner, why is it the bartender only benefits from the owners' generosity?

                      As evidence by the strong beliefs on the recent topics of tipping, i will not suggest what anyone should do in this case. What I will do is tell you what I do when I receive comps for food or liquor. Assuming I am alone, free food........I give $20 to the owner in his hand and tell him to pass it on to his wait staff. In the case of liquor.......I give $20 directly to the bar person. If I received a comp of $100 or more......I give $50 to the owner directly and tell him to distribute to the entire house staff how he sees fit. I personally do not care what the owner does with any money after I put it into his hand, because All the owners I know are generous to their staffs in many ways and treat them exceptionally well as both employees and as friends in the restaurant and out.

                      The worst reputation tag in life is to be known as cheap............especially in restaurants or bars.

                      BTW.........Even though I stated earlier my life lesson learned from my Father, some restaurant owners who are friends, would be insulted if I tried to decline their generosity. In cases as such, I tell them I will only accept if they allow me to treat them for a night out or come play golf one day with me at my club/

                      1. re: fourunder

                        Funny, just got home from the restaurant we're talking about.

                        To respond to the question asked, maybe I wasn't clear in my first post. If waited on by a (non-owner) server, I tip. If, when waited on by the co-owner and I get a bill for the meal, I tip. If waited on by the co-owner and the meal is comped, I don't tip her, but make damn sure to tip the bartender, who would otherwise lose out on a share of the tip. So the reason the bartender is the only recipient of the tip is that s/he is the only non-owner who has provided service.

                        BTW, the bartender tonight was the owner's son, which is completely irrelevant until he inherits the place. Then I may buy him a drink, but I'll still stiff him.

                        1. re: fourunder

                          Dont quite understand your logic. In your bartending days you "ratted" out your boss and yet in Alan's situation you wish to keep things quiet and esoteric.
                          Assuming its a pool house I believe there is a discreet way to dtermine if tipping the co-owner is necessary. When going up to tip the bartender one could ask "should I also leave something for the busboys?" If he says yes then do so in case the owner pockets the money or puts it in the til to please his wife. If he says no, then assume the owner takes care of them.
                          This whole situation is uncomfortable for everyone. The co-owners friction, to comp or not, to serve or not, to tip and who. I personally wouldnt go to the restaurants very often if ever so that the friend wouldnt have to think if I expected a comped meal or not and that's why I visited as much.

                          1. re: tom porc

                            Two different situations. In my first response to your post, the employee is not related to the family. The bartender is not a family member as well, but he is receiving a tip. Asking any employee of the restaurant puts them in a situation to discuss their employers actions or lack there of. A direct question to make judgment concerning character.

                            In the situation with my family's restaurant, a customer directly tells me he thinks I am an owner and therefore I will not be tipped. I merely explained my position my father was the owner and I was an unpaid employee. I did not "rat" out my father as you suggest, because the customer did not ask me anything directly related to gratuities given to my father If you imply I "ratted" on my Father for not paying me a salary, and disclosing this fact to the customer, that would be extreme. There isn't enough space or time in this column to give you every detail, but let me tell you the customer had already been patronizing my family's restaurant for 20 years by the time and knew my family well. For the record, my Father was also paying for my college tuition, a very nice and new Oldsmobile Cutlass and was allowing me to live at home for free. I feel I was more than compensated by him and the least I could do was help him out.

                            With no disrespect to (alanbarnes), there is obviously no agreement or understanding between them, so this situation exists. If there was a bartering agreement, there would be guidelines set forth. It is noted both have provided services to each other which has been appreciated and acknowledged by both parties I'll make an assumption (alanbarnes) is a successful professional and fortunately for him, he has a comfortable income. Consistent with what I said earlier, throw something down and say thank you. It would show appreciation on AB's part. If anyone is or has become consumed with who is receiving the better end of the unwritten deal or generosity of each, then I would say it's time to stop entering the restaurant and the friendship no longer exists....which I do not believe is the case.

                            I commented earlier I did not feel proper discussing tipping practices. Personally, I feel the whole issue of whether to tip the owner or not is antiquated. If you want to tip, tip. If you do not, don't. If you feel comfortable with your actions, that is all that matters. What others think is only important if you are concerned about your reputation, or lack there of. If a business is generating gross sales of $50,000 per week and the owner is driving a Cadillac , don't tip, he doesn't need your money, If however, the business is does not appear to be "busy and packed" most of the time, and the owner have time to sit with you, while driving an older model car, assume he's not doing great but trying to survive and could use the income .

                            My only exception to the tipping the owner topic is at the hair stylist. I get my hair cut by the owner, but the charge is less than $25. I give the wash girl $5 and the owner a $20. The owner frequents my business, so I make more than that back in the period between visits. However in the past, my GF tried a new upscale salon upon the recommendation of a friend. The owner's charge was $100 for a wash/cut/dry, ridiculous in my opinion. I paid and gave the guy a $20 tip. Some time later while waiting to see a movie, I sat in the bar of a franchise restaurant adjacent to the movie house and enjoyed a burger and beer. I witnessed this salon owner come up to the bar and on three separate occasions , order two $1 draft beers during happy hour, and stiff the bartender each time. If an owner charges such a high fee, I would never tip them again, even if they frequented my place of business.

                            1. re: tom porc

                              HI, I am an owner in a family restaurant where we all work. All of our employees get paid and tipped. My daughters also get a small wage and rely on thier tips as income. My husband is there over 80 hrs per week and gets paid, though sometimes less than the waitstaff make. He cleans, preps, makes sure all of thier food comes out perfect, etc. he never would take a tip for expediting, etc. I am the head bartender and I do not take a paycheck. I service the staff and the customers and totally rely on tips as my income. I have regulars that treat me great, and I do buy back drinks and occ. comp food to regular paying customers. The wait stall all eat for free, and we always buy them drinks at the end of the shift.
                              Suddenly out of the blue the wait staff have told me that they will not tip me as I am part owner and it is illegal. We live in NY. Upstate and the business is not making money yet. I put my home up to start this business and rely on every penny made to pay my bills. Am I wrong and is it illegal to expect tips on busy nights from the waitstaff?

                        2. What about tipping an owner you don't know? Is this done?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ny.foodie

                            (in response to ny.foodie) If they are serving tables or bartending, I would assume they are working for the money. I would tip as usual. Why on earth not? It would feel wrong not to (for me, at least).