Tipping in America

At the busiest little breakfast place in town, we were two people at a four-top for almost two hours.  The anxious young server was constantly trying to take my breakfast companion’s plate out from under him.  “He only got a half order of eggs Benedict,” I’m sure the poor kid was complaining to the other servers over host’s station.  “What is taking so long?”  We were deeply engaged in a conversation and enjoying the endless pours of coffee and the buzz and hum of a busy restaurant around our little two-person universe.

When plates were cleared and the check came, we each tossed in a twenty-dollar bill, and the waiter said, “I’ll be right back with your change.

Oh, I think it’s all—“ I began, but caught the eye of my friend, who was looking at me strangely.  “Nevermind,” I added quickly.  “Yes, the change, please.

The little book came back with a stack of dollars inside.  “I don’t want any,” I said.

You’re generous,” he told me, and he took a few dollars from the stack and put them in his wallet.

I was surprised by our different interpretations of the money, both equally valid.  Having taken up so much of our waiter’s time on a busy morning, when he easily could have turned our table over twice, I thought the time we had spent worth a few extra dollars to anyone.

This isn’t some Parisian cafe where you can linger for hours and never be asked to leave; this is a small-town American diner, and the waiter obviously wanted us to go.  Besides, we are not anonymous around here.  The manager of the restaurant had already come over and greeted us by name and said, “I’ll see you later this afternoon,” as we started packing up.

My friend, on the other hand, clearly saw that tipping is a mathematical standard, somewhere now between fifteen and twenty percent, and taking up a long time at a bigger table on a busy morning wouldn’t change the price of the breakfast.  We are locals; we are entitled to stay and linger as long as we want.  After all, when the tourists have gone, we’ll still be frequenting the place, which would otherwise be deserted and unable to stay in business.  Those Sundays will be quiet, and we’ll be free to stay as long as we like, and we’ll tip just the same.

We are all spending a significant amount of our money on restaurants and takeout, but the author of this article from New York Mag has no problem getting in a nice jab at all of us annoying Millennials who dine out more than any generation “(while, presumably, looking at [our] phones the whole time).” Pshhhh, if you think I’m going to be tired of defending my right to photograph my food any time soon, you are wrong.

Then, I started thinking about the numbers: my budget for going out to eat (and drink) is $250 per month, which means I spend around $50 on tipping every month—I don’t mind, but I realized it leaves significantly less money for my favorite foods, those extravagant delicacies of the twenty-first century such as ratatouille toasts with fried eggs or Nutella and bacon stuffed French toast.   Fifty bucks a month is six hundred dollars a year that I am tipping people.  I want to make sure this is money I’m spending conscientiously, the same way I spend my other dollars, and not just going around town and dropping dollar bills in every little cup.

And here’s the truly pressing question: how can we be sure we are all getting the most brunch for our money?

Important Takeaways:

1. You are not getting credit for being a super-generous tipper. Yes, there are moments when you feel that $20 is very cheap for the kind of prolonged and interesting conversation over a well-portioned and delicious breakfast at your favorite spot in town.  But the fact is that when you tip well, the server assumes it’s because they did a good job or they were likable (not that you are necessarily a good or generous person)—and in this case, tipping him for hounding us feels a little like reinforcing bad behavior.

2. You can weigh the situation accordingly: is this your favorite coffee shop, where the baristas are kind and generous to you in return? Leaving a generous tip at a place you frequent can have many perks.  Being considerate of the server’s time is also important, but you are a customer, and you’re entitled to sit and enjoy your meal—this doesn’t cost extra.  While the author of this extensive study and commentary on tipping concludes that it’s money well-spent to tip generously, I tend to think I could personally be a bit more conservative and remember to tip on the pre-tax amount, and still get my point across.


The Other Side of the Story.

On a summer afternoon, we set up camp at a table on the patio of the busy downtown restaurant.  It was a perfect day, and we were settling in for what we knew would be one of our epically-long conversation dates.  Hoping we were just there for a quick after-work cocktail, the waitress came right over to take our drink order, and then several more times to ask for our menus, if we’d chosen yet, if we were done with our drinks.  Three glasses of rosé (each) later, our waitress had long given up on hinting to us to turn over our table, the sun had long set behind the brick buildings, and we were still sitting there, chatting away.

I’m sure our waitress has no memory of us now, just a couple of girlfriends gossiping and laughing on a patio, but I have a clear memory of that afternoon, and she is buzzing about in the corner of it, irritated and anxious.  There’s a fine line; yes, we were violating the code of patronage that insisted that we should leave after one glass of wine, particularly at that coveted little table right on the edge of the patio, in the shade of a leafy tree.  But it was counterintuitive; did she jeopardize earning more money because she wasn’t able to just be friendly, realize we hadn’t seen each other in a while, engage us in conversation?  We might have been likely to leave even more money if she had gone out of her way to make it known that she wasn’t interested in kicking us out.

Almost half of Americans have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, so given a situation where two people sit down at a table together, chances are that one of them is among that 50%.  They likely understand what it means to wish your patrons, however kind or pleasant, would leave, so you can move on to your next task and earn more money.  Tipping has a long and sordid history in the United States, but nevertheless, the custom persists, and we have to abide by it, and servers, who don’t have any regular salary, need to have incentive to keep serving food because, of course, we all like going out to eat.

Important Takeaways:

1. There’s no reason to be shy about it; you are allowed to ask your server if the restaurant splits tips or if they keep what they’ve earned.  You are acknowledge that you’re take up their time and space, or to warn them if you’re going to be a while.  I don’t see any reason why this would be inappropriate, as long as mind-reading remains beyond human capacity.

2. Servers reserve the right to be annoyed by people who are breaking the expected contract that they will sit, eat, and leave. But, imagine instead if we saw it as an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer, so they’d have a reason to come back, spend more money, and pass along what a great establishment this is?  That’s even better for business, and everyone is a winner.



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