Ten years ago, the 15% rule always kept you out of trouble: twenty dollar meal, three dollar tip. No one could fault you, sneer at you, or make fun of you after your departure. Times, they are a-changin’. Our new millennium has created two distinct issues surrounding tipping. Money is tight and service is relative. While these things have always been true, the internet age of Facebook and Google makes both exultation and retribution instant and global.
Service as an Industry
The service industry has always been subjected to, well, subjectiveness. What I call great service, you may consider merely adequate. With today’s pace of life, it seems that service must be extreme to be noticed – extremely good or extremely bad. It’s difficult to really pay attention during the course of a meal filled with fighting children, phone calls, text messages, and the latest email updates on your tablet. Not to mention the 30% of the time you spend actually eating. During your 45-minute meal, you may see your server five or six times, but you wouldn’t recognize them on the street later in the day because you probably never once looked them in the eye.
This leads to a quandary: did you, or did you not, receive good service? Was there one mistake that drowns out everything or one joke told that brightened your day? How do you keep track to properly decide your gratuity? The answer is simple: sugar. Or any chemical sweetener in a little paper packet.
Start your meal with the carafe of sugar packets set beside your left hand. Decide which side of the carafe is ‘positive’ and which is ‘negative’. Always use the same sides at every restaurant. If the server greets you with a smile, brief introduction, list of specials, drink order, etc. – take a packet out and set it on the ‘positive’ side of the carafe. You don’t need to think, track, count, or otherwise put any effort into this small decision other than to move the packet. Each time the server visits your table, follow the interaction with another sugar packet placement. At the end of the meal, you should have a half-dozen packets laid out on your table.
Do the math! If the positive stack is larger than the negative stack, your tip should reflect your satisfaction with the service. How much is up to you. For some, a single packet difference equals a single percentage point. In other words, if I have one more negative than positive, I lower the tip by one percentage point. For others, the choice is a threshold. For example, in order to give an increased tip, I must find a positive difference of at least three packets. Decide your measure before hand and stick to it. You’ll find it easy to emotionally justify the good, bad or indifferent tip you leave at every meal.
It’s the Economy, Silly
So now, you’ve decided that your service met a certain level. How much is that worth? 15% will still keep you from being beaten up by the dishwashers in the parking lot, but it doesn’t really mesh with today’s dollars. As tight as money is for you, it’s every bit as bad for the wait staff. Often much worse – these folks live almost entirely on tips. In many cases, they are paid below minimum wage with the expectation that tips will cover the shortfall.
What’s the new norm? Twenty percent, adjusted for service. Personally, I tip 20% plus or minus a percentage point for my sugar packet count difference. If, however, I find at least a five-packet difference in my stacks, tip alone will not satisfy me. Should my experience have been measurably excellent, I will tip 25% and stop to tell the manager what a great server I had. If the count shows up at least five packets to the negative, there is no tip. There is, however, a pointed conversation with the manager. Don’t worry, though – it takes quite a bit for anyone to reach a five-packet difference with me.
There you have it. The next time you’re in a restaurant, pay attention to the wait staff one visit at a time and you’ll leave knowing you tipped fairly and likely helped the next customer receive even better service.