The Ever-Expanding American Restaurant Tip

It’s no secret that waiters and cooks don’t always get along—our mutual dependence leads to mutual resentment. Waiters always seem to be letting hot food languish in the pickup window, while cooks always growl when a customer has a special eating request. But the main reason for this animosity is that waiters get tips and cooks generally do not. Waiters seduce customers with our food, so there’s nothing harder than mopping the floor at the end of the night and watching them count tens, twenties, and hundreds.

Part gift, part sales commission, and part salary, the tip is a peculiar artifact. The etymology of the word is in dispute, although the most oft-quoted story (and likely a spurious one) is that jars were conspicuously placed on the tables of 18th-century British coffeehouses “To Insure Promptitude”—shades of the good-karma cups that have so inflated the cost of a cup of coffee in the past few years. 

The tip and its symbolism are at the heart of Hey, Waitress! America From the Other Side of the Tray, Alison Owings’ book of transcribed oral biographies of waitresses. She has interviewed a fascinating roster of waitresses: one who worked at the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s lunch counter during the 1960 sit-in; a union firebrand; and another who was the first woman to serve at La Côte Basque. Owings is a non-waitress herself, and there’s a strange, admiring exoticism filtering though the work. Nonetheless, the interviews give a good sense of the complexities of the waiting life, particularly the fickle tip. In the words of Frances Donovan, an early-20th-century sociologist quoted by Owings, tipping is “the gambling factor in the life of the waitress.”

Gambling is the right reference. Every night in a restaurant is a turn at the craps table. You simply never know whether people will actually show; whether they’ll spend money; and whether they’ll have a good time (a surprising number of people who eat out seem to dislike food). And then there’s the cash. Few legitimate businesses pay employees with so much cash. In the words of one interviewee, a former waitress with a Ph.D., “there are all kinds of perks and hidden exchanges of money. … I never felt as rich as I did as a waitress.”

But here’s where some of my tip jealousy is unfounded: The cash comes at a price, of course. “The last thing they want is a decent meal, you know,” says one of her interviewees, of the customers who eat out as an exercise in being served. Many of the waitresses in Owings’ book jokingly make the link between waiting tables and prostitution. Debra Ginsberg, whose memoir, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, captures the tart tone of the restaurant business even better than Owings’ book, writes that “the server is, effectively, the customer’s private dancer for the two hours he sits at her table.” 

Tips might come rolling into a waiter’s pocket, but they are constantly leached out as well. All the other cogs in the restaurant machine expect a little trinkgeld, too. In the same voluntary-involuntary way a customer tips a waiter, a server might whittle away nightly profits by giving 15 percent to 20 percent to the busser, 5 percent to 10 percent to the host, 5 percent to 10 percent to the expediter, and buying drinks for the kitchen. (We are easily appeased.) Or tips might be pooled by management and redistributed equally among all the servers (a system that invariably pisses off the seasoned waiter who’s expertly coaxed a table into ordering a $200 bottle of wine). Of course, the biggest drain of tip income comes from the IRS. Tipped employees are subject to a different minimum wage than everyone else in the country: It varies state to state, but the federal minimum is $2.13 per hour. While waiters are supposed to report all their tip income, the IRS double-checks their math based on the restaurant’s sales. Once Social Security and Medicaid are withheld, waiters often get $0 pay stubs—even after two weeks of double shifts. Stiff a server and you’re not denying her a perk, you’re denying her regular income, and you’re making her pay taxes for it, too.

For all the hand-wringing about how much to leave, tipping is less of an incentive for good service than we think. While big and tiny tips stand out, it’s hard to tell exactly what a moderate tip, say 17 percent, is communicating. Plus, tipping after a meal is not the best way to guarantee good service during it. In theory, the promise of a tip works to the advantage of diners, who reward attentiveness and punish indifference.

But not according to Cornell Hotel School Associate Professor Mike Lynn.  For one thing, he has determined that between 20 percent and 25 percent of the dining population are “flat tippers” who don’t take the bill size into account when they add a gratuity. Furthermore, his meta-study of tipping studies shows that the correspondence between tips and consumer satisfaction with service is minimal. (A typical study, conducted at the Chili’s chain, revealed that some customers who rated the service as poor to fair left 20 percent tips, while some satisfied customers left chintzy tips of 7 percent or 8 percent.) What a tip does seem to evaluate, however, is the diner, and how much she or he cares about what the server thinks.

Lynn has also performed a cross-cultural study of tipping and national personality traits. Americans tip more often than others because we’re more likely to be extroverts and/or neurotics, he suggests. Extroverts tip because they like the attention, while neurotics tip to reduce their anxiety and guilt about being served.

This line of reasoning might explain why tips have gone up over the past couple of decades—the average is now somewhere around 18 percent in metropolitan areas. Perhaps some of the rise can be attributed to Americans’ exploding interest in food and dining; maybe it’s also because service has actually gotten better over the years. But Lynn surmises that if we tip for the approbation of the person who is serving us, and “an average tip doesn’t get that approval or attention,” over time the definition of a generous tip must grow.

There are rare exceptions to the tipping status quo. At Chez Panisse, where I once worked, the service fee is included in the tab, and the wait staff is paid a good wage, plus benefits. At the tapas restaurant where I currently cook, the waiters are also paid more than minimum wage, and tips are pooled (as are duties—cooks serve customers at the bar) and shared equally among everyone, even the dishwasher. Both restaurants display uncommon accord between the front and the back of the house. These experiences make me inclined to argue for a regime change in the restaurant world, shifting the onus of paying servers decently from the customer to the employer. A service charge would be added to the bill, making the tip unnecessary. This system has worked in Europe for years.

But the change won’t happen anytime soon. Restaurant associations will continue to lobby to underpay employees, waiters will continue to want the cash, and customers would continue to tip above the service charge. According to Owings, tips “turn each of us from customer into employer, whether we want the job or not.” In some way, I think we do want the job. Going out to eat in America is an escape because we momentarily try on certain undemocratic principles, including snobbery and classism. Part of the ritual pleasure of dining out is the potlatch effect—the show of power through giving (witness the end-of meal credit-card fight). It might be that we crave the tip as much as the crème brulée.