Tripping over tipping

Do you make it a point to tip your server when you dine in a Lexington restaurant?

Judging by the results of one study, folks in our neck of the woods have a tight grip on their wallets when it comes to this matter of leaving a tip.

The average tip for good service in the U.S. is 18 percent, according a Harris Poll commissioned by Michelin. The study found the region that includes Kentucky with the nation’s the highest percentage of diners tipping less than 15 percent.

Ask servers and many will tell you that tipping is a system with ups and downs, positives and negatives. Ask restaurant owners and managers and they will tell you there is no other way it works financially for the economic health of the restaurant business.

Owners feel if server wages go up, the price of food would have to be increased commensurately. And no one wants to drive prices higher when wooing price-conscious customers is the name of the game.

Employment in the full-service restaurant industry has grown over 85 percent since 1990 while overall private-sector employment grew by only 24 percent, says a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Yet, the minimum hourly wage paid to servers has remained the same for 48 years.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 1966 to establish a sub-minimum hourly wage of $2.13 for restaurant, hotel and other service industry employees who typically receive tips.

Here’s how it works under the law, according to the U.S. Department of Labor: “A tipped employee engages in an occupation in which he or she customarily and regularly receives more than $30 per month in tips. An employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages if that amount combined with the tips received at least equals the federal minimum wage. If the employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 per hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.” So, in essence, a portion of the employer’s labor cost is subsidized by customers via their tips, leaving the server to rely on the kindness and mood of strangers.


Many servers consider themselves in a partnership with their customers to try to make each other’s day a little better. They want you to enjoy your experience and they want to work hard to make that happen.

Most of us take exemplary service for granted and don’t wax poetic about a restaurant meal that goes well. Conversely, we tend to remember clearly when things go wrong.

“When there is a problem with the food, it is amazing how many people take that as an excuse for lowering the tip. Generally the waiter has nothing to do with that,” noted Louis Bickett, Jr., now entering his 30th year as a professional waiter at Lexington’s tony a la Lucie.

A restaurant, and more accurately a restaurant kitchen, is a chaotic place.  A lot is going on and a finely choreographed ballet needs to take place each shift, each meal. When you order dinner a small army of people are employed to make it happen.

Things can go wrong.

Soup awaits pick up too long and cools as a server rushes to take care of another table’s needs. The kitchen can mix up an order and send out two mistakes. A hostess can become overwhelmed by a large crowd and seat far too many people in one server’s section, creating momentary mayhem. The list goes on and in that environment, anything can happen.

“Communication, communication, communication with the kitchen, the fellow staff members and the customers” is essential, according to Bickett. “Respect for the kitchen is very important.”

Another Lexington server who preferred anonymity said she takes a great deal of pride in her work and considers it her mission to ensure that each person has a good experience. When she ends a shift having earned a day of fair tips she feels great. On the other hand, “It can be disheartening to work a long hard shift, do your best and go home with minimal tips. It gets discouraging.”

That inconsistency can make life difficult. “I can make $40 one shift and $10 the next,” she noted. “I have a mortgage and bills, too, so it is hard to never know if you will get a shift of decent tippers or some really bad tippers or a super slow day when no one comes in. Two tables one day and eight the next.”

Have you ever “camped” in a restaurant?  Had a meeting and took up a couple of hours at a table?  Had lunch with the girls or guys and stayed for hours catching up on old times? If a lengthy stay is unavoidable, it is proper to tip your server an appropriate amount that compensates them for having their livelihood on hold while you “rented” the piece of real estate (the table) where they make a living.

The Cell Phone Factor

Enter the era of the ubiquitous smart device and things become even more difficult for the server whose daily earnings depend on turnover.

A Craig’s List rant that recently went viral told of a private study conducted by a New York restaurant trying to get to the bottom of slowing sales. A consultant hired by Market Diner utilized ten year old surveillance video footage from the dining room compared to new camera footage. It was discovered in the more recent footage that cell phone distracted diners and also those stopping to photograph their food and posting messages about it, were responsible for meals taking sometimes as much as 40 additional minutes per table, resulting in far less turnover in tables for the restaurant per seating.

The practice is not limited to Manhattan. “I can’t tell you enough how it disrupts service in so many ways,” noted a la Lucie’s Bickett. “If we did not wait on the table while the phone was engaged we would never wait on the table. We just interrupt the person.”

“I was a career server for years and remember when cell phones first started to interrupt service,” commented former O’Charley’s server Kelly McBrayer. “Back then, the minute I saw that one person in a group was on the phone during the lunch or dinner rush I would politely stop them from ordering their drinks or appetizers by saying, ‘I’m sorry, the table next to you is ready to order, but I’ll be right back!’

If you think inconsiderate restaurant behavior and bad tipping habits go unnoticed and unmentioned – think again.

As a recent New Yorker cartoon depicting two diners looking over their bill captioned, “How much do we have to leave to avoid a social media incident?”

Whats the right thing to do?

One percent of diners surveyed for Michelin’s study said they never tip, an outcome that has a ripple effect throughout the restaurant.  Here’s why: servers have to share their tips with several other people including a host or hostess, the table bussers, food runners, bartenders, etc. The tip you leave is divided among many you may not realize are part of your service.

There are stories of $20 tips on a ten dollar tab – every server remembers those magic moments with great joy. Big tippers account for 12 percent of men and eight percent of women diners, according to Michelin’s Harris poll.  But there also are many stories of $5 tips on hundred dollar tabs.

Interestingly, servers frequently observe that well-off patrons can often be the stingiest tippers while lower income customers can be the most generous. Many report that young people, both high school and college aged, are terrible tippers. This seems likely due to a lack education on the matter. Raising awareness is key.

What could make things more positive?

Websites about proper tipping and restaurant etiquette have sprung up all over the internet and many good books are available, some serious and some offering advice with a good deal of levity thrown in. Some cases call for better training of server staff. It is not unusual for servers to be hired, handed an apron and tossed into the mix. Serving is not always treated as a career, but a brief stint between other jobs – and it can show.

A few restaurants are experimenting with ways to eliminate tipping and even servers, altogether.

Packhouse Meats, a Newport, KY. restaurant that opened in January has a no-tipping policy.  Packhouse servers are paid ten dollars an hour or 20 percent of their food sales per shift, whichever amount is highest. This guarantees money made per shift and eliminates the uncertainty of tips as income. No sweating the good or bad tipper variable.

Some restaurants are experimenting with using computer tablets enabling customers to see menus and message their orders digitally, eliminating the need for most servers.

Time will tell whether these are viable ideas. In the meantime, in nearly every eatery where tables are waited, tipping is not only acceptable, it is essential to those serving you.

One server I spoke with was asked, “What would you like the public to know about servers?”  The answer? “Be careful how you treat the people who are handling your food.”

Words to live by.  Words to dine by.

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