Dining a la King: How much should I tip these days?


By: Marshall V. King

Marshall V. King/Flavor 574

Casey Keene tries to train college students on the life skill of tipping your server.

The bartender at Constant Spring in Goshen is honest about how he does it.

If he knows you tip, you’ll get a more prompt and warmer welcome than if he remembers you as someone who doesn’t. He says some young people at the Goshen bar will ask their friends how they get served more quickly. He wants them to learn that tipping is the answer.

He’ll be professional and nice to everyone. “Nice to everybody, but we’re definitely more receptive to folks who are tipping,” he said.

Most servers earn $2.35 an hour from their employers, most of which goes toward taxes owed. “People waiting on you don’t make anything hourly,” he said.

He relies on tips. So do others, but the landscape is getting more confusing. There are restaurants in other parts of the country that are doing away with tipping. They’re paying servers larger wages and charging customers flat fees for service.

That’s often the way it’s done in other countries, where service is included in the overall price of the meal. Folks in the United States pay less for food, but then have to add a tip, Constant Spring owner Aaron Nafziger said.

He believes tipping results in better service than if servers aren’t working for tips. But depending on the type of restaurant, how much you make can vary widely.

“I feel like people don’t realize it’s the server’s living,” said Marissa Wallace, who until recently was a server at Lucchese’s Italian Restaurant in Elkhart. She now oversees the banquet business for her family’s restaurant.

More places are charging automatic gratuities of 15 to 20 percent for parties of six or eight or more. Constant Spring servers can charge an automatic 20 percent for parties of eight or more, but sometimes won’t if they feel they’ll earn more by not doing so. Wallace isn’t a fan of the practice, which is called “auto grat.”

At Maple Indian Cuisine, owners Bobby and Rosie Singh started paying employees in the dining room more because it was too difficult to make enough money from tips.

The teenage girls in the Goshen restaurant’s dining room earn $8 or $9 an hour, the owners said. They may fill drink orders and clear plates. You can put money in a tip jar on the counter or add it to a credit card bill. But because it’s a buffet, not everyone does.

The lunch buffet is $9.62 with tax. Some people leave the 38 cents to make it a round $10. Others leave a bit more.

“No matter what happens, we give them $8 (an hour),” Singh said.

She’d like to see people leave a dollar and at least 10 percent at dinner, when food is plated in the kitchen and served.

Because the front of the house staff act more like hostesses, they don’t get all the tip money. If Rosie is serving, she may get some. The kitchen staff members, who are on salary, may get some.

Wallace said at most restaurants, people should leave a minimum of 15 percent, even for poor service — and in that case, perhaps the customer also talks to a manager. Decent service should get 18 percent and great service should get 20 percent. She said the best tippers give 30 percent.

At a bar, an easy rule is a dollar a drink, Keene said. If you’re running a tab, a 20 percent tip is best, he said.

What I usually do is take the cost of the meal and more or less double it and move the decimal point to get 20 percent. Not everyone says you need to tip on the tax, too, but it’s easier to just multiply the total by two.

If service is poor, I ask myself if it’s the server’s fault. If the kitchen is slow on a given night, sending a server home with less money probably doesn’t make sense. That’s where the system in our country falls short and why some restaurants are pushing back on by adding an automatic charge.

I ate at a restaurant recently where the server overcharged me. As I left, a manager apologized, said it was the server’s first day and refunded money. The server still got a tip, and I wondered more about the manager leaving her so alone on her first day than about the server’s ability to do well at the job long term.

At coffee shops and bakeries, I’ve had servers tell me they’re getting more than server wages but appreciate any tips. Jodi Byer at Iechyd Da Brewing Co. said the employees there get more than server wages and just appreciate whatever is given.

The way I look at it is that if a server is taking action to get me something, I owe them money. Even if the employer is paying them more than $2.35, it’s not much and I owe them, too.

If I have concerns about the service, I’ll sometimes raise that with a manager, but serving is hard work, and doing it well is an art.

Great service will make a meal, and bad service can ruin it. I’d rather have one memory than the other and enter a partnership with a restaurant and server to make that happen.

If a restaurant changes the contract, I’d like to know about it. If the tips go to the kitchen staff, I’d appreciate knowing.

The landscape of how we order and get food is changing, but the human interaction remains at the heart of it. I’ll do what I can to send the workers home with a living wage and want them to give great service the next time they see me.

Marshall V. King is community editor for The Elkhart Truth and food columnist for Flavor 574. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, mking@flavor574.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more dining news and commentary from Marshall, subscribe to the Dining A La King email newsletter.

As restaurants evolve, the culture of tipping does, too. We want to hear your stories, opinions and questions on the topic – whether as a customer, a server or a restaurant owner.

Posted by Flavor 574 on Thursday, May 28, 2015

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