Innovations in Restaurant Tipping: Just Do the Math For Us

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At a local cafe in western Massachusetts the printed bill contains something I’ve never seen before: At the bottom is a list of percentages—15, 18 and 20—with suggested gratuity amounts based specifically on the bill’s total. While tipping is a social norm in the U.S., it’s a hassle to figure out the right amount to tip. The tip amount is rarely suggested, and never in specific dollar terms (though sometimes a gratuity is included for larger groups of diners).

So why not do this everywhere?  Perhaps it could be viewed as crass; but it saves time and makes the social norm explicit (as it already is in our minimum wage laws)—and it might shame those who refuse to tip.  I hope this innovation spreads rapidly in this time of apparently decreasing social cohesion.

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  1. JerrySeinfeld says:

    Did you check the math to see whether it had been calculated pre-tax or post-tax?

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  2. JBJ says:

    Or you include the wage of the staff in your prices like the rest of the world does. If the staff isn’t up to scratch you get rid of them and hire others.

    Why do the customers have to calculate what the effort of the waiter was but not what the effort of the cook was? Get rid of tipping, put them on the payroll proper.

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    • kevin says:

      Agreed. The “ip goes to the waiter, host, and busboy. If the food is bad, does the kitchen suffer if you tip less than 15%?

      I hate tipping. I do it, but I hate it. And I tip 15%. The relative price of services versus food hasn’t gone up or down, has it? Is the value of the service worth more than 15% of the meal now?

      If I had any guts I’d stop tipping completely. We should all stop tipping, after one week, the system would change.

      Yes, I’ve never waited tables.

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      • Enter your name says:

        Food costs less than service compared to, say, the 1920s, when a 10% tip was normal. I’m not sure that it’s changed much in the last two decades. The ratio isn’t the same across the whole country, though: service is a higher proportion of total cost in NYC or San Francisco than it is in Boise or Tulsa.

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      • Lexi says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Char says:

        I just got back from Sri Lanka, Italy, and England… there is tip is not expected, but appreciated / deserved if they go out of there way. Also, please don’t make your bad career choice my problem.

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      • Frank says:

        You’re talking about countries with a much different socio-economic structure. Please to be comparing apples to apples.

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      • pawnman says:

        So, do you tip the drive-thru staff at McDonald’s? They are essentially performing the same service, no?

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    • JCL says:

      You can complain about tipping all you want, but you fail to understand that wait staff and kitchen staff are compensated differently on the basis of incentivization. If you put wait staff on the payroll or have them automatically tipped, you wind up with rude and less accomodating service and give them little incentive to treat the customer with respect.

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      • Enter your name says:

        Except that one of the best, most friendly waiters I have ever encountered was a French waiter in a German restaurant, where “tipping” meant “round the bill up to the next Deutsch Mark so I don’t have to carry fiddly change” (yes, pre-Euro days).

        Incentives for good service can be provided by management, not just by customers. And an incentive provided on an overall basis, rather than table-by-table, is likely to produce more uniformly good service, rather than tables of women, Black people, shy people, and oddly dressed people getting noticeably worse service than tables white men who look like they’re on an expense account.

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      • Paul says:

        You occasionally find good service in Australia, where the minimum wage is about $16US per hour, but most waiters are foreign or very young. Experienced waiters are paid more than $16US per hour.

        I still occasionally tip here, never just 10%, but only when the service is good and I expect to return to a venue where I will be recognised – making the tipping of potential benefit to me. Otherwise, I am over-subsidising a public service of no particular future benefit to me.

        Tipping is similar to bribing police is less developed countries: In places where the police know that Australian expatriates do not bribe, but Chinese expatriates do bribe, Chinese drivers are pulled over for traffic infringements far more frequently than Australian drivers. We just need to similarly train waiters to not expect tips.

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      • Frank says:

        You’re not going to “train” waiters to not expect tips as long as restaurants can legally pay them only $2 – $3 an hour. If you’re so concerned by the hassle of paying an extra buck or two to have some decent service, why don’t you start asking owners and managers how much they pay their staff? You can start frequenting restaurants that pay their workers a decent living wage and train the *owners* of restaurants to pay their workers a wage that doesn’t require your subsidy.

        Of course, it’s elementary economics that the customer will end up sharing in the burden of the increased labor costs, anyway, but at least the waiter won’t ever have to know it came from you.

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      • Ricard says:

        Oh, come on… That’s not how it works. If that was the case, you’d have to tip everyone, everywhere to get anything done, which, I believe is not the case. You don’t see a construction worker getting tipped or having a bonus just because he gets the house built to standards. I can’t see why waiters and waitresses shouldn’t be able to be professional and do their jobs properly, just because they’re not tipped. And where’s the sense in paying the busboy less just because the chef didn’t grill the steak enough?! I hate tipping, because it’s so clearly unfair and counter-productive for the staff as well as complicated for me.

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      • Char says:

        So people complain, and the wait staff are replaced with better staff

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    • Mike B says:

      My friend is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Europe partly in fact because he’s excited not to tip.

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      • Frank says:

        If not tipping is really one of the things that makes your friend excited about a European vacation, give me that Philistine’s ticket and I’ll pay for all of his tips at home for the next two months. I just want to see Vienna once more before I die.

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      • Joseph says:

        “Paul says:

        August 14, 2011 at 10:43 pm

        You occasionally find good service in Australia, where the minimum wage is about $16US per hour, but most waiters are foreign or very young. Experienced waiters are paid more than $16US per hour.”

        (Jaw drops) As a post-calculus Math tutor in Chicago (ABD status for the PhD in that subject, 4 years experience as a TA) I get $15 / hour, US, very infrequently, usually having to settle for minimum wage in most of the work I can get ($7.25 / hour). So, if I move to Sydney, and start washing dishes, I’ll make … no, that can’t be right. Can it?

        (40 hours per week ) times (50 work weeks per year) = 2000 hours per year.
        2000 hrs. x $16 / hour = $32,000 per year?!

        My peak yearly income to date: $6000 us / per year, for which I had to work 40 – 60 hrs/ week, before studies. Is Australia accepting immigrants? Would it be a problem for me, as a prospective immigrant, if I couldn’t pass for Anglo-Saxon very convincingly?

        Moving out of this hellhole of a country would be nice, if only I had somewhere to move to.

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      • Joseph says:

        Update … I looked into the possibility of migrating to Australia. What I was told was that my skills were irrelevant because I was no longer 20. I could be a Nobel laureate, and it wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, the class clown who just barely avoided flunking out, last semester? They’ll welcome him with open arms.

        Well, that’s just lovely, but that’s the Anglosphere for you. The Aussies would rather miss out on supposedly scarce skilled labor, than pass up an opportunity to engage in age discrimination, and the Americans behave in the same way. The value of wealth, for the upper classes, doesn’t seem to be found so much in the things that wealth allows them to enjoy, as it is in those things that wealth gives them the power to keep so many of the rest of us from being able to enjoy. I would guess that schadenfreude, not greed, is the source of the misery that this eternal “recession” (read: depression) has brought, based on my own experiences and the experiences of so many others I have talked to.

        I wonder if Pakistan is hiring? It really does seem like it’s time to give up on the West.

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    • Brian Salerni says:

      I never understood why tipping is considered the norm in the food industry and not in any other service oriented (or service heavy) industry.

      For example, I feel more inclined to tip someone at Home Depot for properly assisting me, making proper recommendations, and thoroughly helping me work through my projects. Yes product selection and quality play a role, but that is no different than any restaurant I go to.

      You could make the argument that the price of labor is already incorporated into the products of a retail company, however, in this day and age, I believe that it is difficult to find quality service. Commission is sometimes offered, which can be a bit too much of an incentive sometimes (i.e. if you don’t make the sale, they don’t make any commission).

      Lastly, tipping at retail stores is sometimes forbidden and even frowned upon by management. This leads me to believe that employees have little incentive to work hard for their money. Minimum wage is simply not hacking it anymore and the labor market needs to somehow adapt.

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      • Steve says:

        As an aside, if you’re tempted to tip at places like Home Depot, make sure the manager on duty knows the name of the person who helped you and why. That’s about as good as it gets for the workers at stores like that. You’ll also probably make the manager’s day too because he/she will be talking to someone that isn’t complaining about something just to get a discount.

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    • Justin Trombley says:

      I’m ok with getting rid of tips, but if we do i also feel all bonus. That is all that a tip really is. Its just that its called in the low wage servers industry. I don’t like the idea that tips are expected. They are a good incentives to insure good quality servers. If you believe that a paycheck alone should be all someone needs to do the best possible job then I am sure you don’t think anyone should ever get a bonus either.

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    • Jason says:

      To that end, why not go the other way all together. If tipping is supposed to incentivize good service then why not let the customer set the price for the meal as well? As customers, we are rating the service with our dollars. What if the meal was terrible, but the service was great? Customers should be able to set the price for both, why stop at the wait staff? The bill can easily be split into two parts, the meal, and the service.

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  3. John says:

    This type of things also contributes to the mental laziness of Americans. It is sad how many people cant figure out a proper tip and need the help.

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    • Mike B says:

      Mental laziness means that people will tip 10% or something like rounding to the next 5 or 10. It’s not being lazy per se, but that you will end up paying less by not thinking too hard about it. So perhaps it should be called a learned cultural coping mechanism to avoid proper tipping yet not feeling guilty about it.

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    • nixar says:

      Not wanting to do something useless is not being lazy.

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  4. Michelle says:

    I’m all for it! Hey, if it helps to ensure that waiters — most of whom rely on tips are part of their living wage — get their tips, I’m happy to follow the suggested tip, with one exception.

    Call it miserly, but I don’t tip on the total with tax included. I tip on the total cost of the meal before tax (food, alcohol, corking fee if applicable). The tax has nothing to do with the cost of the food you ordered and how the service went. I’m more likely to give a generous (20% +) tip when I exclude tax, and that ensures that more of my dining-out dollar goes to the servers who made the meal memorable.

    As for those restaurants who automatically charge gratuity on groups of six or more — I’m sorry if that means the servers don’t see as much of it (presumably the house keeps it, or a percentage of that automatic gratuity) but if the establishment is helping themselves to my wallet, I can’t help but be a bit less forthcoming with my cash.

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    • George says:

      I’ve waited tables at lots of restaurants, and I’ve never had any restaurant take a portion of the required tip on large tables. It’s only to protect the waiter, whose risk diversification is reduced by waiting primarily on 1 table that night.

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    • Chris says:

      Assuming a 10% tax rate, a 20% “pre-tax” tip is equivalent to an 18.2% “after-tax” tip which is still quite reasonable. It just doesn’t make much difference whether you include tax or not.

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  5. Rich says:

    Even more useful would be the list of percentages, added to the total, rolled up to the next round $ figure.

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  6. Jeff Frazier says:

    Seriously, just pay wait staff a fair hourly wage and wrap it into the cost of the food. I hate making my choices and having to add 15-20% in my head when I’m looking at the menu just to stay on budget. Tipping is a ludicrous social convention.

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    • Alex says:

      I agree to a certain extent to your comment, but then we would have to listen to 95% of our customers asking why a burger costs $14 and a pop is $2.75! Then see what happens to that restaurants customers… there wont be any. Then the restaurant goes under and you have to listen to more and more people complaining that there is nowhere to go out to eat. If you go to the grocery and try to make anything comparable to what you would get in the restaurant, you will find that you are not able to do it for hardly any cheaper. Restaurants are a business and have a lot of overhead. People need to realize this and that food costs have gone up a ridiculous amount in the past decade. Just stop whining about the prices and the tips. If you can’t afford to tip accordingly, DON’T go out!

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  8. derric says:

    I *do* love this, but perhaps I don’t find this innovative as I’ve seen this at various mid-high end restaurants on the west coast for years. I have noticed polar reactions to the suggestions: some with whom I’ve eaten are deeply relieved at not having to work out the math themselves–these have often tipped more than they usually would out of gratefulness. Others have expressed offense or quiet outrage at being told how much to tip and conversation quickly devolved into nit-picking either the server’s job performance or the merit of the tipping system. Tipping amounts from these friends depended on how likely they were to give into pressure from other dinner guests.

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