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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tipping - the scourge of holidays in the USA

I'm back for another rant - this time on a favourite topic on one of the travel forums I visit regularly - tipping when in the USA!

This one of a pair of pet peeves I have about visiting the Good ol' USA - and between them they raise my blood pressure every time I go over. Tipping is the main one - but the other one is the sneaky sales tax they hit you with at the check out in every shop or restaurant you go in to. Its not like its optional - you have to pay it whether you like it or not - SO WHY THE HELL CAN'T THEY JUST SHOW THE PRICE I AM ACTUALLY GOING TO HAVE TO PAY???????? But thats the subject of another rant - today's is about tipping.

So I happened to ask what I thought was a simple question.... "Why do restaurants and bars expect a tip which is a percentage of my bill?" To date no one has managed to give me a decent answer to that one.

I get told several reasons and here are a few...


  •  its because the employers of the waiting staff in most states don't pay them the minimum wage so the waiting staff rely on the tips for a living wage - well sorry - but why is the fact your employer pays you peanuts my problem?? If no one took the jobs - the employers would soon have to buck their ideas up and pay the going rate.
  • If a server doesn't make as much in tips - the employer will have to make up the shortfall in tax.... well duh! If they paid a living wage in the first place this wouldn't even be an issue.
  • Its because the IRS know that servers get tips and tax them on what they estimate they have earned - maybe so - but how do the IRS know exactly how much a server picks up in tips- especially given the different percentages tipped even in the same restaurant - don't tell me that every cent of a tip gets declared to Uncle Sam - because I bet you they don't!
  • the server doesn't get to keep it all themselves - they have to share their tips with the back of house staff and the bussing staff - again - the employer should be paying these guys a living wage.
  • if the staff were paid a high enough wage to warrant no need for a tip - the prices would have to go up. Well - that's fine by me - I don't mind paying a fair price for my food and drink. Again - why is it up to the customer to subsidise low wages and greed?
So far - as far as I can see - it boils down to the fact that without tips, waiting staff wouldn't be able to live on the couple of dollars per hour they get paid without their customers putting their hands in their pocket!

Next gripe - the percentage the staff and their management seem to think the customer should pay..... I don't really have a problem in giving 10% of my bill where someone has gone the extra mile to ensure that I enjoy my meal - but over the years the expected percentage has sneakily risen to 15% or even 20% of my bill - and to add insult to injury - I'm  usually asked to calculate my tip on the bill after the state tax has been added so I'm essentially paying a tax on tax! In a lot of restaurants - the bill when presented even has a helpful little extra section telling me what I need to add for 12'5%, 15% and 20% in tips. I actually find that a bit off putting - to me a tip should only be required when someone has done more than just their job - not added as a matter of course. Its a gift from me as the customer to the person who made my experience enjoyable and surely it should be up to the customer to decide what that is worth! I have read of places where the server has chased a customer down the road demanding their tip when not enough has been left.

So let's take a little example of just how stupid this expected percentage of the bill tipping can get!

On our last visit to the states - family Exwood stayed in a nice hotel in a ski resort for one night in the height of summer. The hotel wasn't particularly busy but there were enough guests staying to keep the small dining room busy, and whilst we were eating, the other tables round us turned over at least once, and there was someone waiting to slip into our seats as we left - so it was fairly brisk considering it was essentially "off season"!

The three of us had two courses, starter and main, and a bottle of wine and our bill came to just over $500 including tax. We left the waiter $100 as his tip - and he actually looked disappointed with it.! But lets do some maths here just to see why this chap should have been so "insulted" with getting $100 for bringing and taking away our menus and plates - total interaction with us probably no more than 10-20 minutes of 1:1 dealings over the course of the meal. Most of the parties in the restaurant were 4 or more, and all seemed to be enjoying food and drink.......  I would estimate that our waiter was looking after approximately 6 tables and they were all turning over at least twice on an off peak weekday evening......

Being conservative here - for the purpose of my calculation I'm going to assume he got $100 from each of his tables and each table was occupied by two groups in the evening.....(and I'm not counting in anything he may have taken at lunchtime!)

in one evening session that would give him $1200 per night in tips.
multiply that by 5 for the working week - and that is $6000 a week
I'm allowing him 4 weeks holiday - so times that by 48 and this waiter would conservatively get $288,000 dollars a year before adding on the pittance that his employer pays him too!

As I'd assume that in the ski season, the place would be buzzing and the restaurant busier than it was in summer - this guy would be taking over $300,000 each year - thats not bad money for a server! How does that compare with what a teacher, nurse or soldier gets each year (and they have had to train for years and in some cases put their own lives on the line) and you can see just how ridiculous the percentage system can be!

On the same holiday, we stopped at a roadside Applebees restaurant where we again had a starter and main, and a couple of drinks each and the bill was around $80. We left our excellent waitress a tip of $20 and she was ecstatic at our "generosity". She had done as much, if not more, for us in direct service as the chap in the posh hotel - who looked disappointed with getting $100 for doing pretty much the same same thing. She managed to give great service despite dealing with around 15-20 tables and had a smile for everyone and regularly checked on how we were doing. What did the chap do to warrant getting 4 times as much in a tip as she did? Absolutely nothing -  apart from having the luck to work in a high priced establishment - in fact the Applebees lady deserved the $100 far more than he did.

This is one reason why I think twice about going to the US on holiday and eating or drinking out. As a tight fisted Brit, I find it very difficult to gauge what is (or isn't) an appropriate amount to tip  in a restaurant or bar, and probably tend to err on the side of stinginess. To be honest, I just wish that the staff just got paid an proper rate of pay for the job they do - and the employers stop expecting customers to pay their staff (sometimes to the tune of ridiculous amounts ).

Mind you - that's not counting the place Gordon Ramsay visited somewhere on his Kitchen nightmares show in the US where the owner hung onto the tips given to the staff.....

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