Tipping Points

Gratuities: why, when, and how much?



Tipping Points

 

Wherever you venture, somebody’s expecting a little something extra for their service: a tip at the takeout counter, a buck for the barrista, a gratuity for the parking guy, a sweetener for the hairstylist, a perk for the pizza man. No wonder so many of us are

feeling tipped out nowadays

 

By Lois Podoshen

Illustrations by Colin Johnson

 

It’s the end of a long day, but you have one more errand to run before heading home. So you stop at the dry cleaner, where you’re ecstatic to find that they’ve managed to erase the Merlot stain from your beige linen jacket. But your glee comes to an abrupt halt when a cup on the store counter prominently labeled “TIPS” puts you on the spot. Just looking at the importuning cup makes you feel angry.

 

Such sights seem to be proliferating faster than crabgrass in August. No longer is tipping restricted to adding 15 percent to your restaurant bill, or giving an extra couple of bucks to a cabbie. Those, my friend, were the good old days. Nowadays, nearly everywhere you go, it seems, you’re beseeched for a tip for a service performed (whether or not it’s for a job well done is another matter). Everybody in the service biz is expecting a little something extra.

 

Today, for example, you’ve already left a $1 gratuity at the Chinese takeout for your lunch of kung-pao chicken. And you dropped a quarter into the little jar at Starbucks for your daily fix of low-fat, no-caf latte. Earlier you slipped a dollar bill into the palm of the guy wielding the towel at the car wash; thanked your hairdresser for a haircut and blow out with a brand new portrait of Andrew Jackson ($20) and the shampoo girl with a crisp portrait of Abraham Lincoln ($5); when you left, you had to take care of the parking valet ($2). And tonight when you get home, make sure you have a few extra singles to tip the delivery guy for your extra large pepperoni, anchovy, and pineapple pizza ($3).

 

Ka-ching!

Ka-ching!

Ka-ching!

 

No wonder so many of us are feeling tipped out. “I resent having to tip for a 30-second service,” admits Yorktown Heights resident Marsha Drillings, an administrative assistant. Or worse, to tip for a service that ends up being a disservice, say, valet parking most places. (Most of us can walk a block or two or even three to park.)  “I don’t have to tip someone to change the settings in my car!” Drillings says.

 

Exactly how much money we Americans pay each year in gratuities is hard to come by (at least we couldn’t find out), but multiply your daily outlay of tips by some 275 million, and you’re talking about a pretty big pile of change. Professor Ofer H. Azar, an economist formerly at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, now at Ben-Gurion  University  of the Negev in Israel, who has studied tipping, estimates that in restaurant tips alone Americans leave $26 billion on tables annually. Faced with an ever-increasing parade of outstretched palms—from waiters, hairdressers, bartenders, cabbies, caddies, coat checkers, deliverymen, doormen, and skycaps—is it any wonder many of us find ourselves suffering from tip overload?

 

And tip anxiety. “How much and when to tip is always tough to know,” laments retired teacher Penina Aviram of Croton-on-Hudson. “My friends and I still don’t know whether you do or don’t tip the proprietor of an establishment.” She has a point: after all it’s not as if there’s a When and How Much to Tip Rule Book.

 

“Tipping,” says Patricia Post, the great granddaughter-in-law of the renowned etiquette authority and publicist for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, VT, “is always at the tipper’s discretion.” Perhaps so. But somehow most everyone’s discretion leans toward 15 percent. Here’s Post on how much to leave with your restaurant tab: “In the United States, the standard is 15 to 20 percent of a meal, excluding tax. If you have drinks in the bar and the tab is forwarded to your table bill, you tip on the drinks only if you have not already left a tip for the bartender at the bar. And, you do not tip on the tax for the drinks, either.” Got that? According to Zagat, the average restaurant tip in Westchester is 18.5 percent; nationally it’s 18.6 percent

 

Of course, we often tip not because we got stellar service but because we’ve got social fear: we don’t want the waiter, the cabbie, the hairdresser, or the skycap, among others, to think we’re cheapskates—or worse. 

 

Certainly, some of us are happy to exchange a fat tip for good service. Beverly Jacobson of Somers, for example. “I have potentially life-threatening food allergies to garlic and onions, and if a waiter is solicitous, checks with the chef, and warns me of possible problems, the tip goes up,” she says. The converse holds true too, she notes. Bad service equals bad tip.

 

She’s hardly alone in punishing bad service. “I once went to a Chinese restaurant in Northern Westchester, and the service was just awful,” says Roy Bernstein, a Mahopac resident who dines out in local restaurants at least twice a week. “I asked for water. I didn’t get water. I asked for chopsticks. I didn’t get chopsticks. I was unhappy and wanted to leave a message, and that message was a tip of nine pennies.” Why nine? “I didn’t have ten,” the retired accountant explains.

 

Tsk, tsk, says Post. “We recommend leaving no less than a 10 percent tip and then speaking quietly with the manager,” she says. “Alerting the management has a much better chance of having the service improve.”

 

On the other hand, anybody who has ever worked in a restaurant has tales of tables from hell. Just ask Nelly Volsky, who once worked as a waitress at Solera on the Hudson in Irvington, a Spanish tapas bar, where dinner entrées range from $25 to $30. “You expect most people to be generous when the service is good, but many people are stingy and rude,” she says. “We placed a suggested list of tip percentages on our bills and some people really liked this service.” Some clearly did not. Says Volsky: “One day a customer yelled at me and called over the manager because the suggested tips were based on after-tax sums. He thought we were trying to cheat him. He left no tip.” Was Volsky unhappy?  “I was just happy he left!”

 

If you’ve ever been tempted to stiff a waiter, be warned: thanks to the technology, servers now have ways of exacting their revenge upon you. At the website called Bitter Waitress (www.bitterwaitress.com), there’s a whole database where waiters and waitresses can post the actual names of customers who burned them on tips. “Vile vulgar woman.” “Nasty to waitress and busboy.” “She is a sow,” reads one typical entry from, yes, a bitter waitress regarding one particularly obnoxious diner who tipped $10 on a $350 check.

 

It’s no secret that our tips help subsidize the restaurant industry; tips make up the lion’s share of waiters’ incomes. The current New York minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers is only $3.85 per hour. Prof. Azar estimates that servers in sit-down restaurants earn 58 percent of their income from tips; those working behind a lunch counter take in 61 percent of their earnings in tips. (He notes that the actual percentages are probably even higher, because tips are often underreported.)

 

“Yes, my staff earns $4.50 an hour, plus tips,” says John Conneally, owner of Somerfields, a neighborhood restaurant in Somers. “But even on a slow night, they’re never making less than the minimum.” But waiters don’t even get to keep all the tips to themselves; it’s a custom in the industry to “tip out” 10 percent of what they take to the restaurant’s bartender, and another 15 percent to the busboys. Even so, a hardworking waiter at a Westchester top restaurant who works both the lunch and dinner crowds can earn up to $1,000 a week in tips, according to Cristian Istratescu, the maitre d’ at the popular Freelance Café in Piermont.

 

But what about those annoying cups labeled “TIPS,” once found only at the beach and at resorts where college students worked through the summer, which in the last few years they have become fixtures nowadays just about everywhere? Some customers cannot resist their guilt-inducing entreaties. “There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from where I work, and I always put in a dollar,” says Port Chester resident Janet Celestino, a dental hygienist. “I can’t insult the employees by putting in pennies.” Yes, there’s always the guilt factor to make you reach deep into your pockets.

 

But then again… “I have mixed feeling about them,” says 24-year-old Eugene McClelland, sales rep for the Wireless Zone in Brewster, NY. “While any form of service should be eligible for a tip, having the cup there is just rude. And it’s not as if they are going out of their way to do their job.”

 

I can be swayed by both Celestino’s and McClelland’s arguments. So, who’s right? Let’s ask etiquette guru Post. “If you frequent a particular coffee bar or lunch counter on a regular basis,” she says, “it would be nice to leave a tip once in a while.” Nice, we know, but do we have to?

 

Besides restaurants, 15 to 20 percent is  also the standard tip for barbers and hairstylists, though sometimes patrons dig deeper? “The biggest tip I ever received was $100 for a $65 service,” says hair designer and colorist Frank James DiBrino of Salon D in Eastchester. (He notes that the “best” tip he ever got, however, was not monetary but “a hug and a beautiful plant from a chemo patient who said I made her feel alive again.”) So one does tip the proprieter, right? No one can say for sure, it appears, so Post recommends asking the salon receptionist. 

 

If you’ve gone away for a romantic weekend, do tip the hotel staff before you head for home. How much? “If you stay at an inn for one night, leave the maid $4 to $5 depending on the state in which you leave the room; for a weekend stay, leave $10,” advises Theresa Henklemann, co-owner of the Homestead Inn and Thomas Henklemann Restaurant in Greenwich, CT. “Give the bellman $1 a bag, unless they’re very heavy. Tip the parking valet at least $1, but if it’s a rainy or snowy night and the car has been completely cleaned off, tip more.”

 

A big tip is supposed to reward good service. It may also guarantee good treatment the next time you walk through the door. Every restaurant employee has a story of the favorite free-spending patron they love to pamper. But few can match this story from the Freelance Café’s Istratescu.

 

“A few weeks ago,” Istratescu says, “a rich and famous businessman from Westchester came to our restaurant. We opened the restaurant one hour early for the 85-year-old man and his entourage of eight people, which included two bodyguards entrusted with two suitcases, one filled with cash and the other with medications. He also brought his own chair and his own chef to work in collaboration with ours.”

 

The staff accommodated the man’s every wish, including rushing through a dinner of a half-dozen courses in 45 minutes. “He gets bored easily,” explains Istratescu. “The dinner was fabulous. A little before we got ready to open to the public, he thanked everyone for the service and proceeded to call the staff one-by-one and give them their tips: they ranged from $100 for the kitchen staff to $500 each for the chef and maitre d’. The dinner bill for nine people came out to $1,500—$3,000 with tips.

 

“He says he is coming again,” continues Istratescu. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Ka-ching!

 

Lois Podoshen tips well, but until she wins the lottery waiters probably shouldn’t expect a suitcase full of cash.

 

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