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Color of Money Live With Michelle Singletary

Once, Only Good Service Rated a Tip

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Michelle Singletary

I hate tipping. So when I tip, I resent it.

It's as if we all have this tipping disorder that compels us to give a gratuity even if we are treated poorly. There has to be a war crime committed before many of us will withhold a tip.

What all consumers should do more often is stiff the person who fails miserably to provide good service. Tipping should be reserved for service beyond the call of duty.

Ever left a paltry tip for a waiter or waitress because you felt the food was bad or you hadn't been treated well? They give you this evil eye or growl at you. In my latest column, I contend that we are too often guilt-tripped into tipping.

Today I invited Allan Ripp, director of press relations for New York-based Zagat Survey, to join me in discussing the issue of tipping. Zagat produces a definitive guide to restaurants and hotels, a compilation of many experiences both warranting generous tips and cold shoulders. The company is currently surveying readers to compose a diner's bill of rights.

Should you have tipped that waiter? Should you not have tipped that driver? How much? How little? Ask Allan and share your experiences with us.

Please note: We cannot offer specific personal financial advice or answer detailed questions about individual situations.

Michelle Singletary: Welcome to another online discussion. I have to say that I've received a lot of mail from tippers and "tippees." Seems this tipping thing hit buttons for a lot of you. Now to answer some of my critics (many of whom weren't very nice or respectful). Yes, I have worked in a restaurant before in which my pay depended on tips. No, I'm not from a privileged background. In fact, I know very well what it's like to live off minimum wage or less. But here's my point - again. Employers should pay their people a decent wage and not rely on us tippers to subsidize their business. If a tip is suppose to be voluntary then let's put the voluntary back in the meaning. Sorry, had to vent some more. Now for the questions.

New York, NY: Do you realize that many people who typically receive tips -waiters-taxi drivers- are paid very little base salary as tips are meant to be a large source of their compensation?

Allan Ripp: Hello, New York. Of course we realize that tips are meant to support salaries of service people, but the employers often use that as an excuse to relieve themselves from the obligation of paying adequate salaries. It should not be up to the customer to supplement the income if the quality of the service delivered -- be it a cab ride or a dinner served -- is not up to standards. We are very sympathetic to waiters and busboys. However, the employer should work to raise the level of payscale beyond minimum requirements.

Ashburn, VA: I was amazed when our waitress complained to us about how little she earns doing her job. She actually told us about the earlier party who left her a small tip. I guess she thought we would take pity on her and leave her a big tip but in fact it turned us off. Her negative manner in combined with the very unattentive and slow service we got from her made us barely give her the 'requisite' 15%. I thought customers were there to have a decent meal and wait staff to serve it professionally. When did we become the sounding board for the wait staff?

Allan Ripp: This is the generation of self-disclosure and the art of the suggestive sell. It's nice that your waitress played her violin strings for you, but this is what we mean about extortion. It's not your job to compensate for the sins of fellow diners.

washington, d.c.: Do you base a restaurant tip on the pretax total, or the total including tax?

Allan Ripp: The standard formula is to calculate the tip based on pre-tax. But you should also calculate pre-drink.

Michelle Singletary: In fact, I find it interesting how some restaurants will have the wait staff bring over the bill already totaled so that you can't see what the tax was. I always asked for the bill and tip before taxes. I think it's a sneaky way to get more money out of customers.

Washington, DC: I frequently order food "to go" from restaurants -- usually enjoying a drink at the bar while I wait. Is it appropriate to tip 15-20% for the full cost of the bill? Or just for the drink? Please advise -- Thanks!

Allan Ripp: You are being very generous if you tip a full 20% on a take-out order. Plenty of people do not give a gratuity on meals to go. Think about it - if you tip anyone for a takeout meal it should be the people in the kitchen.
By the way, why isn't the bartender giving you that drink on the house? A lot of restaurants provide a free drink while you wait for your meal (that way the bartender gets a better tip).

rockville, md: Hi, Alan, I'm Alexandra and I'll be you waitress for the evening...-don't you love unnatural, forced familiarity...?-

I don't believe in tipping - you should only tip when someone acts exceptionally. The service industry stinks -I know, I used to work in it-, and people generally do their work only grudgingly. Service with a smile is supposed to be STANDARD, not worthy of a bonus! If wait staff or service staff feel they are underpaid, they need to collectively bargain -union or not- for higher wages. But, I already feel like I'm getting the short end of the stick when it comes to value for money. Take it out of the owner's pocket, not the customer's. If the owner can't afford it, then he or she should either raise prices directly, removing the "hidden cost" of tipping, or, if he or she can't justify the increased cost -re: no one will pay more for what they are getting there-, then they need to find a new business. Life's tough, and capitalism's tougher. Give us the direct cost, without assuming hidden subsidies for service workers.

I mean, really. Tips for pouring coffee at Starbucks. What will they want next - a tip receptacle at the Coke machine...??

Just an opinion - but what do you think? Thanks for letting me vent, Alan, and Michelle - love your column!

Allan Ripp: Boy -- you have an ax to grind with the business -- it sounds like you got the short end of the stick while working in the industry. People who worked as waitresses or bellhops or busboys usually end up being extra generous on tipping. What made you so tough on your former peers? Tips should be earned, but I don't think they are only for exceptional performance. However, everyone sets their own bar and it sounds like yours is pretty high.

Pittsburgh, PA: On a cruise how much should you tip the steward for the 3rd and 4th person in the cabin?

Allan Ripp: You're on a cruise. YOu've already spent more money than you ever thought. Splurge -- I don't think you should stick to a strict formula in this setting. Personally, I don't like to tip stewards unless they provide super advice or make some terrific recommendation. But if you're on a cruise you're probably dropping tips left and right. What's another couple of bucks to the steward? I'm from Pittsburgh, by the way, so you want to give us a good reputation as generous tippers.

Vienna, VA: I just read in the Post that Stevie Wonder tipped 30 percent at Perry's in Adams Morgan. What's the biggest tip you've ever heard a celebrity -or anyone else- has left?

Allan Ripp: When I was a busboy in college, a semi-drunken patron left a $200 tip for a waitress on a $25 bar bill. When the manager tried to make her give it back, the customer not only refused to accept it but he threw down another $100 bill. Stevie Wonder's tip doesn't sound that big really. Actually, celebrities are supposed to be skinflints since they're usually the ones that get treated and they're notoriously tight about having to spend their own dough.

Washington DC: I really feel that, for the most part, what I pay for services, such as cab rides, supershuttle rides, and restaurant service, should be a given, with the compensation being included in the price. I don't really like doing anything more than "keep the change," even if it seems a bit stingy. I really have a problem with tipping a supershuttle driver beyond the 26 dollars I already give him.

Allan Ripp: Tipping for cab rides and airport shuttles can be awfully annoying. But I usually engage the driver in conversation to try and find out a little about their life. It helps make the ride more interesting and it makes the tipping part of the ride much more satisfying. Engage those who are servicing you and it takes away the sting of the transaction when the ride is over.

Pittsburgh, PA: Should the quality of the owner of the restaurant effect the amount in the tip?

Allan Ripp: Knowing the owner of a restaurant should always improve service. The owner makes for better hospitality and should make you feel more comfortable. But that doesn't mean you need to tip any greater. By and large, you should tip based on your experience with those who are waiting on you, not on those who own the establishment. How far can you hit a ball, by the way?

Alexandria, VA: What about buffet restaurants where all the waitress usually brings is the drinks? Since I'm getting my own food, the tip should be less than 15%. But is it 5%, 10% or nothing at all?

Incidentally, is there any justification for tip cups at places like Starbucks? The local fruit shake place now has a tip cup, but all they are doing is filling an order, not making a special effort.


Allan Ripp: The whole world has a grudge against Starbucks. I have never seen anyone tip in a coffee bar -- unless it's to make change for themselves amidst all the pennies! Many restaurants charge an automatic gratuity for buffet dining. I emphatically agree with you that there is no obligation to tip in that circumstance. The thing I hate about buffets is that the carpet is usually filthy.

Washington, DC: How do you feel about the automatic 15 or 17 or 20% tip on groups of 6 or larger? Why should a restaurant be able to determine what the tip will be long before service is even given?

Allan Ripp: As you may know, a New York attorney was arrested because he disputed the automatic gratuity added to his bill because he thought the service was lousy. And the judge dismissed his case. On the other hand, a large party (six or more) demands considerable resources on the part of the restaurant. Customers should be asked ahead of time if they would agree to automatic tip included in the bill. The truth is that a lot of people are comfortable with that because it takes the burden off of them from having to calculate the amount, which is the last thing you want to do when you're eating out with a large party. And most restaurants calculate a reasonable fee, around 18%. You can always add to the tip if they gave you great service. And typically, the restaurant is more responsive to larger groups in the first place, so they've probably earned that 18%.

Denver, CO: Out of curiosity, who sets what percentage should be given? Let's take out the fact that a tip should be representative of the services given, why is there a "usual" percentage for a tip? I remember when the "usual" was 10%, now it's 15%. If the reason is higher cost of living, then will there be a day when the "usual" reach, say, 30%?

Allan Ripp: I don't believe there has been any real tip inflation in more than 25 years. 15% was standard when I was growing up in the 1960s, and it still seems to be the base average. Certainly diners haven't balked at $100 meals that used to cost $25, so I think the tipping portion has increased only in actual dollars, not in percentage of the bill.

Washington, DC: Are you supposed to tip the cleaning service when you stay at a hotel? I wasn't aware of this practice until recently. What's the rationale? Is it really possible to base their tip on the "quality" of their work?

Allan Ripp: If by cleaning service you mean the maid service - that has long been an accepted practice at hotels. Most travelers save this gratuity for checkout. These are hard-working people, largely immigrants. Most hotel guests are slobs and need a lot of cleaning up after. Even though I'm one of those people who folds his hotel towel, I have a soft spot for the folks who have to clean the rooms. I usually tip $5 per day.

Michelle Singletary: Is there some tipping grand law out there that we poor consumers should follow as it relates to how much and when we should tip. For example, recently my husband and I signed up for a meal plan at a local restaurant in which after a certain amount of trips we got a free meal. Well should you tip on the free meal? I say no. My husband says yes and we did. I felt like if we are suppose to tip on the value of the meal why is a tip warranted if the meal is free.

Allan Ripp: I agree completely with your husband. The tip for a free meal is for those who served you. Whenever I'm given on-the-house treatment I tend to leave an extra generous tip. The people serving you are still working -- you're still taking the place of a regular paying customer who would have tipped. So you've gotten a freebie -- doesn't that make you freer in turn with the hand-out?

Washington DC: So -why- don't employers pay their employees right so that tipping doesn't have to be a problem or a handout?

Allan Ripp: The custom of tipping goes back a long way, and has been built into the economics of the restaurant business. Restaurants would have to charge considerably more if they were to pay waiters a wage approaching their tip income.

Michelle Singletary: You see that's what I mean. Why can't I chose to keep my money in my pocket. If a tip is suppose to be my choice, I would rather keep my savings from such a meal out. Baby need a new pair of shoes.

McLean, VA: Here's a scenario: I had my hair done and paid a 15% tip. The cut and color was almost $200, so it was a hefty tip. I returned a few days later to have the color redone because I was not happy with it. Out of guilt I left a few dollars tip for the hairdresser's time. However, inside I felt that I didn't have to tip the second time since I covered the tip the first time and I wasn't happy with the results. What do you think would have been most appropriate?

Allan Ripp: A) If the first job was not incompetent, and the "repair job" was done for free, I would tip the second time around. B) If the hairdresser was not the proprietor, I would tip the second time around. C) If the "repair job" was done by a second hairdresser, I would tip the second time around. Only if the hairdresser did a really poor job the first time and the same hairdresser did the second job would I consider not tipping.

Arlington VA: Here is a question that I have about tipping: I never give any less than 15%, and usually 20%. But when I have poor service, I often feel guilty about tipping poorly, because I am African American and I feel like my poor tip will reinforce the stereotype that black people don't tip well, and will encourage poor service for blacks.

Allan Ripp: Generally, I would imagine, one only withholds a normal tip when one feels that the server has been hostile, indifferent to your comfort as a diner/customer, or otherwise demonstrates the wrong attitude. I would not worry about bearing the burden of racial perception when refusing to reward willfully poor service.

New Haven, CT: I understand your point that the restaurant's owners ought to pay service employees a living wage. As a former waitress, I agree. But it hardly seems fair to penalize individual service people for an unfair system. After all, skimping $5 on a tip for a merely-adequate waiter won't send a message to the owner... unless service or quality was so bad you complained to that owner...

Allan Ripp: As you suggest, a tip is a communication/transaction with the waitperson, not the owner.

Santa Ana, CA: Why not tip the waiters based on the amount of time and the quality of the service they provided to us instead of the percentage of the bill? I would rather give $20 as a tip for a cheap $20 meal to an excellent waiter but don't want to give $20 to a lousy waiter for an expensive $100 meal.

Allan Ripp: The percentage is a benchmark that adds predictability and sets a limit to what expect yourself to give the waitperson. Within limits, it makes sense to tip according to the quality of service, but most people don't want to pay double for a meal, even if it was relatively inexpensive and service was good. I guess there's also an implicit assumption that a waitperson at a fancy restaurant needs to be more skilled and provide more nuanced service.

Michelle Singletary: What a great discussion. There were tons of questions left unanswered but I'm sure I'll be revisiting this issue again. Thanks to all who submitted questions and sorry we didn't get to more. Thanks to Allan and Zagat for being my guest today.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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