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Percentage Tipping

There have been numerous discussion on CH concerning tipping, but none that I can find discuss the following:

Why do we tip a percentage of the bill?

The amount of work required to serve me a prime rib dinner at the "family restaurant" and the "quality steak house" are about the same:

Greeting/present menu,.
"Would you like a beverage?"
Delivery of beverage
"May I take your order? (maybe "Come back in a couple of minutes")
Bring apps and/or bread service
Bring salads
Bring mains
"Would you like desert?"
Bring dessert (or not)
Present check
Bring slip to sign (or present change)
"Thank you for coming. Please stop by again."

OK, there are intermediate steps, like clearing dishes, refilling beverages, ensuring everything is satisfactory, and the like, but that happens (or doesn't happen) at all levels of restaurant.

The family place charges $15.95 vs. $24.95 or more at the steak house, with a corresponding price differential for everything from beverages to dessert. The quality of the food is not the question (though in the example presented it is every bit as good at the family place), nor is the atmosphere. Neither materially change the amount of work the wait staff has to perform.

Along that same line, it takes no more effort to serve me a local craft beer with said meal than a Bud Light at either establishment. Open the bottle, place glass on table, pour some beer in the glass, place bottle on the table, smile. Yet the craft brew costs more, resulting in a higher tip.

As an analogy, if I buy a new refrigerator at Sears, Home Depot, or an appliance store, they charge the same rate to deliver it to my house. It doesn't matter if it is a low end GE or a high end Samsung with all the bells and whistles.

So does anyone know where the tradition of tipping a percent came from? I am not familiar with the European model. Isn't the service charge also based on a percentage of the bill?

Part II (If you care to go there?) OTHER THAN "paying a fair wage and eliminating tipping" (That would be my answer) how would you change the system? If you would prefer to leave it as-is, why?

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  1. Sorry to ignore your question, but on the Bud vs. craft beer, l tip differently on food than wine for that reason. Not much service difference between the $ 25 bottle or the $ 100 bottle, thus l tip either a flat rate or a smaller percentage on wine while use a far higher rate for food. Your point is well taken but do not know how to make it equitable.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

      I learned to tip many years ago from my late father. Dad went through college in the 30s by waiting tables and tending bar. I also tended bar in college and waited tables at the Catskill resorts during holiday and summer breaks.

      Dad taught me that you tiiped a percentage on food (10% then, 20% in these times) and tipped a flat rate per alcoholic drink. It was 25 cents when I was 18 and $1 by the time I was 40. Now it seems to be about $1 on a beer or $2 on hard liquor. In an establishment without a sommelier, I was taught to tip for a bottle of wine at $1.50 per person being served or $5 minimum.

      I don't order wine by the bottle (not much of a wine drinker), but IMHO $1 is ample for handing me a beer, and $2 more than generous for a mixed (non-exotic) drink.

      1. re: bagelman01

        Many feel similar, and I, in no way mean to diss your dad, but I seldom break things down, and almost always (other than breakfast) have wines.

        I also do not bother to factor in taxes, and tip on the total, unless something is amiss, and then I do break things down a bit.

        With wines, if things are spectacular, I still tip on the total, but might slip a US$20, or $ 50 into the sommelier's hand, upon departing.

        Many others will create intricate spreadsheets, and then dole out tips to every person involved, based on their personal formula. I cannot be bothered, so make it easy on myself - the patron.


      2. re: Delucacheesemonger

        That old-fashioned flat rate on bottle rationale worked before the IRS started mandating % withholding on server receipts a couple of decades ago; now, the server is taxed more heavily on the expensive bottle regardless of what you give. Hence, the rationale is now anachronistic.

        1. re: Karl S

          example....$150 food bill @20% tip = $30
          $100 wine @ $10 Flat = $10
          Tip $40
          $250 total sale, IRS mandatory 8% = $20
          Using Delucacheesemongers method the server still gets TWICE the IRS tip mandate and the IRS mandate has ZERO affect on this transaction.

          If IRS had a mandate above 15% then it would make a difference to the server.

          That said if the server has to tip out the bartender 3% based on the sale, a flat tip might have to be adjusted upwards. But if the server merely brings the bottle, purs the first round and leaves you to refill (as often happens) then the server does not deserve 20%,

          And yes I have worked as a waiter dependent on tip income.

          1. re: bagelman01

            It works in that example - a 16% tip, a bit higher than the larger US standard of 15%. It less likely to work when the bottle represents a disproportionate amount of the total and if you were to use (as most Americans do) use less than a 20% factor for the tip.

            1. re: Karl S

              I think you will find that most CHers leave 18%+
              (Impressions gathered from many threads on tipping)

              1. re: bagelman01

                CHs are not representative in that regard, and many are 15%ers who live in the many areas where 15% is still the customary threshhold.

              2. re: Karl S

                Karl S,

                That is why I do not get involved, at that depth. The time to do all of the intricate calculations, is worth more, than a few US $'s, at least to me.

                For most of my meals, the wines are the larger portion of the bill, but that is just me. I could drag out the calculator, work up an equation, and apply it, but do not.

                Call me lazy, or perhaps "busy."


        2. I have pondered this same question myself. It could be argued (wrongly I think) that the "good" waiters are able to get the jobs in the more expensive restaurants and therefore deserve a higher income.

          I would prefer that waiters be paid a wage commensurate with their labor and that tipping be outlawed.

          1. It is a good question and I've wondered about it too.

            One difference is that sometimes (and I do realize only sometimes) the nicer restaurants actually do staff differently so that the level of service is better. It is often subtle but the frequency with which a server can refill water, clear plates, get another round of drinks, etc, etc is directly related to how many tables they have to serve. You can't drop a round of 32oz sodas or a pitcher of beer at a higher end restaurant.

            So there is a service difference, you might not always appreciate it, which is a different argument.

            1. It seems to me that servers in finer establishments are more experienced and knowledgable. The better places often have changing menus that the servers must be able to understand, describe, and recommend. The menus at lower end places are usually big, colorful, self-explanatory documents. At a nicer place they also usually have fewer tables to serve. If everyone tipped the same amount per each meal served, the college kid working ten tables at a chain restaurant would be making oodles more money than the professional server with years of experience working four tables with elan. The way it is seems fair to me.

              3 Replies
              1. re: L.Nightshade

                There's also a higher likelihood that in finer restaurants not only will your server have fewer tables, there are more "service" people working. Bussers, back servers, and bartenders are all tipped out by the server. That's right, your server is tipping all of those other service people. In Denny's, one person is doing it all and keeping all the tips.

                1. re: L.Nightshade

                  It seems to me that servers in finer establishments are more experienced and knowledgable
                  Menu pricing doesn't necessarily relate to the level of service. I have had both ends of the service scale, and everything in between, at all levels of pricing, as, I'm sure, have you. Incompetence and indifference can happen at all levels. At one higher end place, a dining companions asked about a particular beef dish on the menu. The server's answer: "I dunno. I don't eat meat.."

                  For our first anniversary dinner, DW and I went to a better place owned by a highly regarded (and decorated) chef. A chef friend had even called ahead for me and made the reservation with the owner, explaining it was our first and I wanted it to be a "special night." Being the middle of the week, our waiter had only one other table of three to tend to while we were there, yet she provided a decidedly lower level of service than we typically receive at the family style place cited in the OP.

                  Yet for our fifth we went to a similar place on a crowded Saturday evening and received excellent service from a waiter who didn't stop moving the whole time we were there.

                  The menus at lower end places are usually big, colorful, self-explanatory documents.
                  This may be the case for chains like IHOP or Denny's, but I've been to many a place at all price points where the staff had to explain a menu item to someone in our party. In the example I cited, the family restaurant menus are composed in a word processor in 12 pt TNR font. No color, no pictures, and the note: "Ask your server about our specials." Sometimes you get an extra similar page with the specials, but not always.

                  At a nicer place they also usually have fewer tables to serve. ...
                  It could be argued the college kid working ten tables at a chain restaurant does more work in a shift, and therefore deserves more.

                  1. re: L.Nightshade

                    I seldom differentiate between "levels" of restaurants, and tip, based on that service, for the bill.

                    Like with wine (there is wine, good wine, fine wine and great wine), I feel the same about service.

                    Obviously, at a restaurant, such as Restaurant Daniel (NYC), the total bill will be different, but my percentage will most likely be based on the tab. At such a restaurant, a 22% tip will be much higher, than the tab at a "mid-level" restaurant, unless I go heavy on the wines. That is, how I see it.


                  2. Sometimes I think I'd rather tip on a sliding hourly scale. Say that minimal basic service gets $4-5/hr extra, up to fine dining getting $8-9 extra. So the guy who brings your pho and coffee and makes change gets $2 or $3 and the tip on that birthday tasting menu is $25-30. Of course servers have multiple tables in an hour, so they still can do very well.

                    I hate tipping.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: babette feasts

                      Or, you can create a spreadsheet, then fill that in on a server, have all of the calculations, including the exact location vs all other possible locations, then a "local fudge factor" included, and then, the phases of the Moon. When that calculation comes back to your smart phone, from the server, you can offer the tip. Of course, you must create that spreadsheet, and allow for all variables. Shouldn't take more than about 15 mins, plus the time to develop that spreadsheet, and locate all possible variable, and by that time, I have picked up my car from the valet, tipped them, and am back in my office. Still, you are way ahead of me, as I just did a 22% tip on my total bill, and kissed the hostess.


                    2. Another example, and perhaps a better illustration of the question:

                      At any restaurant at any price point, the tip is proportional to the cost of the meal, not the level of service. A $5 app takes no more work to serve than a $9 one. The same with a $15 main vs. a $25 one, yet if I splurge on the $9 app and the $25 main the tip would be half again as much than if I went with the two lower priced items for the same service from the same server.

                      Since their tip depends on the final tab as much as the provided service, "good" servers, especially in higher end places, regularly steer diners toward the higher priced apps and mains. Bourdain bragged about this in his No Reservations' NYC "Into the Fire" episode, extolling the abilities of waiter Tim Siemens in this area.

                      When I take my car in for an oil change, the chain quick-lube place and my local shop provide approximately the same service for about the same price. The the labor rate doesn't go up just because I use a more expensive oil.

                      What of we went to a system of charging a time-based service charge, similar to the auto repair service? The longer you linger, the more you pay. A higher end place could charge a higher rate than a diner, just as a shop specializing in high-end German cars charges more than the local Ford dealership.

                      16 Replies
                      1. re: al b. darned

                        >>>What of [sic[ we went to a system of charging a time-based service charge, similar to the auto repair service? The longer you linger, the more you pay.

                        In many ways we already do with percentage tipping. I spend less time at a Denny's than I would at Per Se or Alinea.

                        >>> A higher end place could charge a higher rate than a diner, just as a shop specializing in high-end German cars charges more than the local Ford dealership.

                        Sorry, does not compute. The time it takes to fix cars -- be they German, American, Japanese, high-end, or low-end -- is more a function of the problem than the make or model.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          The time it takes to fix cars...

                          Not necessarily these days, especially the way they pack the mechanicals in. Simple tasks are about the same. It may take more time to change the plugs in one car over another, but the process is the same. And you will pay a higher hourly rate for that job from an Audi shop than a Ford shop

                          Many shops use a flat rate manual for pricing the labor for jobs. Any shop using this method charges the same number of hours as any other shop using it. A plug change at either shop will be billed the same time. And yes, it's easy to beat the flat rate.

                          1. re: al b. darned

                            Right, but I thought you were using auto mechanic shops to show how tipping (or prices) should be based on the length of service.

                            You pay a higher hourly rate at Audi (as you say) not because it takes an Audi mechanic longer to change your oil than a Ford mechanic, but simply because of the cache, perhaps, that owning an A5 has over an Escort.

                            Which is the same thing as tipping more -- based on a percentage of the final bill -- at Per Se than at a Denny's.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Maybe I'm not being clear. At either of the places you name, the tip is based on what you order, not how much service you received. If you choose the most expensive entree at either place you will pay more at the end of the meal than if you chose the least expensive. You will pay a higher tip at either place, based on a percentage of the higher cost entrée, even tho it took no more effort to serve it to you.

                              A steak at Per Se costs more than a pasta dish, but both are the same effort to serve (by the server). Hence the higher tip generated by the steak is equivalent to the repair shop charging a higher hourly rate for using synthetic oil over standard oil when doing an oil change.

                              With a time-based service charge you pay the same rate at that establishment no matter which entrée you order. An hour at Denny's would generate the same number of units as an hour at Per Se, but the cost of those units would be higher at Per Se, just as the hourly rate is higher at the Audi shop.

                              Though there are a number of ways to implement it, a service charge based on the actual service received and the time spent in the establishment is inherently more fair than one based on the cost of ones meal.

                              1. re: al b. darned


                                What I am saying is that percentage tipping already takes into account time-based services.

                                You tip more for a steak at Per Se than a steak at Denny's because the total time you spend at Per Se will be longer than at Denny's. The longer you stay at a restaurant, the more attention and time a server has to devote to your table.

                                This is why it makes sense to have percentage tipping, at least on some levels. Is it perfect? No.

                                That's all I'm saying.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Actually, my tipping is based on a % of the bill, whether we are talking about Per Se, or Denny's. The restaurant has factored the costs, and if the service is the same, each will get between 22 - 25%. Now, whether that % covers all of the differences, I am just not responsible. It makes no difference on how much time I might spend, though cannot recall doing any Denny's in the last 30 years. Still, my tipping would be based on a % basis, for either, and I might give a "nod" to the Denny's, as there is a differential (or there was 30 years ago), between those two restaurants.


                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                    We aren't disagreeing Bill. I, too, tip on a % basis -- be it at Per Se or Denny's.

                                    My point, in riposte to those who believe % tipping is somehow unfair, is that it *is* fair because a meal at Per Se will be longer than a meal at Denny's, which justifies the higher tip.

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                You pay a higher hourly rate at Audi (as you say) not because it takes an Audi mechanic longer to change your oil than a Ford mechanic, but simply because of the cache, perhaps, that owning an A5 has over an Escort.

                                You pay more for an Audi mechanic per hour because it costs more to train him/her and to outfit the shop to service such a needless complex machine. You pay more per job with an Audi because you pay more per hour AND it takes longer to do the job.

                              3. re: al b. darned

                                As an aside, the mechanic and the "service rep" you're dealing with in dealerships are usually getting a percentage of the "upsell" when your oil change and tune up turns into a $700 brake job that they tell you you should have done now because you'll need it in a few months anyway. No difference than when the server upsells you in a restaurant - they get an extra 20% on that dessert.

                                1. re: bobbert

                                  Now, I am not quite sure how that figures into a restaurant, but auto analogies ARE popular.


                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                    My daughter has an Audi A6.
                                    If she goes into the Audi dealer, labor is $125 per Hour. If she ges into the VW dealership next to Audi, owned by the same people. The car is worked on by personnel trained at the same place (Audi is owned BY VW) and the labor rate is $104 per hour. The parts used are the same.

                                    So, when the ambience is not that important why have to add 20% onto in already inflated cost?

                                    1. re: bagelman01

                                      Well, way back when, I had a Jaguar XKE. I needed a rear wish-bone set of bearings. The exact same bearings were used in several autos. For the Jaguar, they were about US $ 100 per pair. If one ordered the Rolls Royce version, they were US $ 300 per pair. Those same bearings were used in several Fords (US), and were US $ 25 per pair. I ordered mine from the mfgr., and they cost me US $ 12 per pair.

                                      I do not mind buying auto parts, based on the parts.


                              4. re: ipsedixit

                                Agreed, though I shudder at the price of parts for either my Mercedes, or my Landcruiser.

                                Still, the time to fix, is predicated on the problem (parts not considered).

                                For me, the above argument does not equate.


                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                  I had a friend who bought a second hand Porsche years ago, mostly because he thought that he could get it serviced at the Volkswagen dealership (it was years ago). He thought he could look good in an "elite type" car and pay Volkswagen maintenance prices. Ha! Then the VAG group came down with the policy that Porsches must shall will be handled only through Porsche dealerships.

                                  Seems to me that if you want to eat at an elite restaurant, you're going to pay more for the food and more for the service. Fair or not, its part of the package.

                                  Like I always said to my friend, "if you want to play, you gotta pay"...

                                  1. re: freia

                                    Good analogy, and hopefully, one WILL receive great value at the high-end restaurant.


                              5. re: al b. darned

                                Hey, again, we can construct a spreadsheet, that factors in the cost of the ingredients, an average of the time to prepare, for every possible restaurant in the world, based on the cost of labor for each, depending on their location. We can calculate every aspect, and even get updates on all commodities involved, based on the market, that very day.


                                My time is valuable. I charge by the hour. If I need to spend 15 mins. to do intricate calculations vs a simple % of the bill, that costs me, at some point, and at some level.

                                Do we need to calculate the price of a head of lettuce on the exact day that it was purchased vs what it is on the commodities market today? What if they bought from a local producer vs a national provider?

                                What if the chef requires an extra level of slicing/dicing, over what the guy, down the street uses? That requires more work by the kitchen. Should we count each movement of the knife?

                                Nah, too many variable for this boy.


                              6. The OP is correct. In Europe, our service charge (when there is one) is a percentage. The amount will depend on which country you are in.

                                I also can't really get beyond the "pay a living wage and eliminate tipping" as a way forward. Where I am, minimum wage is minimum wage - but restaurant servers will usually be paid a higher rate than that. Some restaurants will have a service charge, others will have a traditional tipping system. Both are discretionary and folk will feel free to leave an amount lower than the "going rate" or, indeed, leave nothing. That said, I would much prefer us to move towards the system in France, and some other countries, where service is inherently included in the menu price of the food and no further payment is required by the customer

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Harters

                                  In the US, I believe studies have shown (I don't have cites off-hand) it is the good long-time servers who resist replacing the tip with a "living wage" (which will be defined a regular minimum wage).

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    Good points.

                                    I do not feel responsible to determine at what level, my server might wish to live, and accommodate them.

                                    Let's say that I am dining in Los Angeles, CA, USA, where the median income is US $ 90,000, but some servers (maybe mine?) are not earning that much. Is it my personal responsibility to insure that they are brought up to that point, just by MY tips?

                                    Somehow, I do not think so, but others might disagree. When they begin to dictate such, I will just not dine in that area. They can "pick up the slack."


                                  2. The reason that I tip, on a percentage of the bill, is that I do not have the time, nor do I wish to break down every possible aspect of service, based one what each person provided. Instead of saying, "FOH - good job, here is your US $ 5." "Service Captain, you did a good job, and here is your US $ 20." "Busser, you did a good job, and here is your US $ 5.00 for that service." "Sommelier, you picked some killer wines, and on the wine tab, here is your 25%."

                                    Maybe I am lazy, in that there can be so very many levels of service, and so many people involved involved.

                                    I leave the ultimate responsibility to the owner, though have been known to hand out "special tips," where individuals go beyond.

                                    Yes, it is all about laziness, and needing to attend to my guests at that dinner. I put the ball in someone else's court.


                                    1. Because it's a sales job where there is a commission (the tip). This is why the BMW and Mercedes salesperson makes more money than the person who sells you a Corolla. The more you sell, the more your % of tip or commission. If you sell shoes, it's the same way. It's basically like a comission-based sales job, and you are rewarded with more money for higher sales, either through volume or higher check averages.

                                      1. It makes sense to tip more at a nicer restaurant because there is much more to the service. You can order a high end appliance from a specialty store and pay a lot more for service and delivery than you will from Sears. At the same restaurant, it's a good question. At an average place I'd go entrees can range from $8-$30 and there is no difference to the server. I think it's odd when I pay double the tip as a friend when we eat out, just because my entree cost more. The work is the same.

                                        10 Replies
                                        1. re: chowser

                                          Maybe I am very wrong here, but when dining at a "high-end" restaurant, I expect more, and better, service.

                                          By tipping a % of the bill, that should handle things, but maybe not.


                                          1. re: chowser

                                            ]I think it's odd when I pay double the tip as a friend when we eat out, just because my entree cost more. The work is the same.
                                            Exactly my point! You started it more clearly than I.

                                            1. re: al b. darned

                                              Funny, I posted that from my phone and when I read it from my computer, it didn't make as much sense to me. Anyway, in the same restaurant, the price of an entree is irrelevant to the amount of work a server does. Added to which, if two people share an entree, that would be half the tip, even if the entree is split in half in the back (I realize it shouldn't be but generally it is the case). I have no better alternative, though.

                                              1. re: chowser

                                                I suppose an alternative could be to add a service charge to the price of each menu item. Not a percentage based service charge, but one based on some sort of fuzzy math calculated from time and difficulty to serve.

                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                  And, in the long run, it comes down to diner's conscience which it kind of is anyway. I'd tend to tip more for a caesar salad made in front of me than one that was prepped quickly in back and just brought out by the server. It would be interesting to see a menu price and then a suggested tip price. What a headache to calculate the bill in the end. This is one reason I'd love to see an end to tipping and just have it added to the price of the food.

                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                    I suspect that it would be easy to add the tip to the price of the food, but then tips would still be expected or given as it really part of North American culture. Interesting idea, though...

                                                    1. re: freia

                                                      You hit the nail on the head. In the early 1970s I worked summers at a sleep-away camp for children. I was administration, not a bunk counselor. Counselors and waiters (no female servers then) depended on tips for the vast majority of summer earnings. Parents complained about how many hands were out when it was time to pick up the kids in August.
                                                      So, the camp decided to raise fees by $100 per camper and raise staff salaries to account for the previous suggested tip amount x average number of kids in a bunk.
                                                      The next summer the staff made more, the the parents paid more, plus they felt obliged to tip anyway. Couldn't break the culture.

                                                      1. re: bagelman01

                                                        you can only break it by forbidding the giving and receipt of tips, with loss of employment as a penalty. that's how it was broken in my parents' lifecare community.

                                                        1. re: Karl S

                                                          Unfortunately, that doesn't work in seasonal employment situations. No one knows if they or the operator will be back the following year.
                                                          Not one of the Catskill resorts at which I was a seasonal or holdiay waiter when I was in college still exists.
                                                          The threat of termination if I took a tip at the end of the Xmas/New Year holiday week would have been meaningless. Hotel B would grab me as an experienced resort waiter come Passover/Easter.

                                                          1. re: bagelman01

                                                            It would work by extension. Once people get used to the idea of not tipping the waitstaff when they eat out in their hometown 50 weeks out of the year, they'll start wondering why they still have to tip when they go away for Christmas and Passover. (Then again, people who celebrate both Christmas and Passover are probably not overly concerned about having a consistent set of rules in life…)