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Recessionary gratuities: Is 2009 the year of lousy tips?

Thanks for the tip (Photo by Wade From Oklahoma)

Thanks for the tip (Photo by Wade from Oklahoma)

What to tip at recession time? This is the latest question in the never-ending gratuity debate; and since the market went south, it appears to be striking a nerve in Toronto and elsewhere. The New York Times‘ etiquette authority, Frank Bruni, wrote about it on his blog recently, sparking chatter about servers getting stiffed during hard times. Apparently diners are not just ordering less food, but they are then dialling down the percentage of their cheques left for gratuity. The recession effect—Bruni calls it a “double whammy”—is being felt closer to home, too. Toronto servers have been reporting paltry pourboire during the downturn. “Before the crisis, money was getting thrown around, but now people are more careful,” says France Salmon, who has been serving for over 10 years at celeb sanctuary Bistro 990. It seems even stars can be guilty of skimpy tipping (we’re looking at you, Madonna). With everyone else getting their bonuses trimmed and salaries frozen, is it all right to be less generous with the gratuity?

Unlike in Manhattan—where the standard is generally understood to be 20 per cent—Toronto’s case is somewhat complicated, since the so-called tipping point was already in flux before the bubble burst. Over the past decade, the accepted amount of 15 per cent had been edging up. Now servers increasingly expect 20 per cent, explains Oddfellows manager Jenny-Orenda Smith. While 15 per cent is still in the mix, it represents the low end of a new range in which 20 is the new 15. Kerry Grove of Pangaea has been serving almost 30 years, and he’s witnessed the shift: “It’s a trickle-down from New York’s influence that’s reached major cities. I know that it hasn’t reached Winnipeg yet, though.”

For Smith, the impetus comes from below. She calls it the “trickle-up” effect, whereby an increasing number of people eating out have ties to the industry and feel compelled to tip liberally. The upward trend is confirmed on menus: many of the city’s restaurants now advertise an inflated gratuity for groups. King West’s Brassaii asks 17 per cent, while organic eatery Globe Bistro and upmarket Bymark are among many to calculate at 18 per cent.

The verdict appears to be that the higher percentages are here to stay and should remain unaffected by the TSX. True to Smith’s trickle-up theory, the servers we spoke to all agreed: whatever the times, it’s never cool to skimp on the tip. One tray toter at Rodney’s Oyster House summarized the issue simply: “If you can’t afford to tip properly, don’t eat out.”

  • Alexander

    That photo is awesome.

  • Danny

    Sure all your respondents agreed 20% should be the new normal and tips shouldn’t reflect the slide in the economy. How about interviewing a few of us on the other side of the fence. We are hurting economically just as much, and we are considering eating at home a lot more. That thought will be re-enforced by servers muscling us down when it comes to tipping. Come on folks ITS A PERCENTAGE!, not a flat fee.

    One of the problems with servers and their problems with tips is that it is paid in cash, and a lot of it goes right out the door directly after a shift, when they need to “wind down”. I see this constantly as a tax preparer, when I ask a server how much he or she is going to report in tips, it’s in the ten percent neighborhood, followed by “I don’t have any money left from tips”. Servers who want 20-25% tips ought to be paying that amount when they file their taxes!

  • LPorter

    I found this a fascinating read. Are you actually trying to encourage people to come out and spend money in these tough economic times. If you went to NY and saw the sea of empty tables and then closure signs weeks later, maybe getting 15% or even a tip at all AND keeping yourselves in busy WITH a job, would seem like a pretty good thing.

    You folks did know that many people 1-lost their jobs this year, 2-did not get bonuses (tips!) or 3-did not get pay increases of any kind, right?

    I have been reading other stories where upscale restaurants are being creative and offering all kinds of options to lure people in the door.

    Something to think about.

  • Tim Devlin

    Regarding Tips…I have been tipping 20% for several years now in Toronto but there seems to be a dispute among servers as to what the 20% is applied. I do NOT tip on TAX.
    I tip on the actual bill but some restaurants have bills that do not make it clear what is the bill and what is the Tax. Why would anyone tip on the tax? One of the best ways to tip 20% is to tip 15% on the total bill including tax. It works out about right but restaurants need to put the Tip line after the base price and stop trying to get people to tip on the bottom line. Tipping on the tax can put your tip up over 25%!

  • Randall One

    What ever happened to tipping based on service. Has this era of entitlement engulfed the service industry. Are we supposed to leave 20% for crappy service simply for the privilage of eating out? Give me a break.
    I think I will take one of the servers suggestions and stay home.

  • Laura

    The tipping tyranny in this city (and country) has really gone too far. The expected standard for tips keeps getting higher, while the levels of service continue to plummet. Tips are no longer regarded as a discretionary extra for exceptional service, on the contrary, servers expect (and in some cases, outright demand) a 15% minimum tip to augment their paltry wages. Customers have fallen for this manipulation as well, cowed into believing that they are obligated to pay a gratuity, regardless of how dismal the service is.

    And why is it that every time an article on tipping is written, some arrogant prig of a server is quoted as saying “If you can’t afford to tip properly, don’t eat out.” How I wish everyone took that advice to heart and just stayed home! No customers, no tips, no job…how would they like them apples?

  • Agatha

    I must agree with the comments – if servers truly want a flat rate of 20%, then by all means, but let’s report this as proper income for taxation.

    If taxation is not of interest, then assuming that 20% is deserved is nonsense. Bad service is bad service – often ruining the entire dining experience – wishing that you DID stay home.

    A little humility and appreciation for a few of these servers would go a long way.

  • Sjane

    I agree that before deciding to eat out, the cost of tipping should be factored into your budget. However, on the other hand, tipping is called a “gratuity” for a reason: it is earned and is intended to motivate the server to provide a certain level of service. It’s no different than salespeople whose income is dependent on sales commissions. The more sales they make, the higher their income. It is not a right and it is not the diner’s obligation to “supplement” the server’s minimum wage income. If the server doesn’t like their base wages, then they should either find another job, or give the level of service that deserves good tips.

    But the fact remains that in hard times, when disposable income is lower, everyone feels the pinch and tips may be affected too.

    I will leave a 20% tip when the service is excellent, which for the most part, at Toronto’s high-end restaurants, it often is. That’s 20% BEFORE tax, not on the full bill. Wine will affect the tip %, however, as it’s my understanding that you do not apply the percentage to a bottle (i.e. the service involved in bringing and serving a $500 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine is about the same, so the server should not get $80 more just because you have expensive tastes. Of course, if there was a great deal of assistance given by the server and/or sommelier, then you should tip accordingly).

    If the service is not excellent, then I will not hesitate to reduce the tip from 20%. I’m also tired of the expectation that is rampant in the service industry. Cabbies are extremely guilty of it and seem to expect 20% no matter how horrible the ride. I will confess to being a typically non-confrontational Canadian and tipping even when I’ve been fuming most of the ride (for example, if they argue with me about which route is best to take to my own home, or spent time deciding before I got in the cab whether I was worthy of their time), but I keep it to 10%. For 20%, they better have been welcoming, pleasant, familiar with the routes, appropriately chatty or not chatty based on my reactions, and followed the rules of the road in a non-jarring manner.

    And that’s my rant for the day!

  • Thickskin

    Pay no attention to this gratuity brouhaha.

    People lashing out and decrying the death of decent patronage are excellent pictures of desperation.

    Don’t let them keep you in house. If you dine out, the tip shouldn’t influence you, financially, beforehand. If you let these few ornery servers anger you into staying in, the retaliation just hurts both sides’ quality-of-life.

    Go forth! Dine. Tip comfortably.

    The market will speak.

    And they’ll soon learn what the “new 15 percent” really is.

  • David

    “If you can’t afford to tip properly, don’t eat out.”
    How about if you can’t afford to pay your waitstaff a fair wage then you don’t open a restaurant. It’s absurd that we just accept the fact that these businesses depend on the customer to supplement their employees’ income. A restaurant that paid their staff well and gave them benefits and insisted on no tipping would have my business.

  • Lyla

    I’ve been following the debate on tipping and have wondered over the years why the expected percentage would increase. The price of restaurant meals has gone up over the years (as expected, like anything else). So why would the percentage not stay the same (given that as the meals increase in price, so does the tip)?

    I fully agree there might be some exceptions, such as a Winterlicious meal or a 2 for 1 special, where the price for the meal might not reflect the amount of work by the server.

  • Malcolm

    I like David’s comment regarding “…if you can’t afford to pay your waitstaff a fair wage then you don’t open a restaurant.”

    What exactly is a fair wage for wait staff? I’m sure there could be a heated debate on that topic. However I do recall a couple of facts from my good ol’ days in ‘the industry’ that maybe effect my tipping on a subconscious level.

    -Servers/wait staff minimum wage is lower then regular minimum wage
    -Most restaurants take a percentage of the wait staff’s tips for the ‘house’ based on a percentage of the severs sales not the gratuities. So if they sell a $500 btl of wine as apposed to a $100 btl of wine they better hope the customer tips on the full price of the alcohol, because they are ‘tipping out’ regardless.

    Having said that if service is poor as a direct result of the server, I’ll give up less of a tip. If it’s due to other factors i.e. food prep, long wait to get in, sold out of items, etc… I will most likely just choose to not frequent that establishment.

    As far as creeping up percentages go, I have always thought 15% on the total was fine, but maybe I’m behind on the times. After all, those pints or whatever they might be spending their unclaimed income on to ‘wind down’ as Danny put it are not getting any cheaper (I had one come to $11.50 in Toronto the other day: slightly ridiculous for a basic draft import). Well at least I can rest easy knowing my tip will most likely go right back into the economy when the bartenders shift ends.

  • Foodie

    In a nice resto, I tip 20% on the full bill – the bottom line, tax, wine, everything – perhaps because I used to live in the US. Am I going overboard? (I do believe that no matter how bad off I think I am, I’m better off than the people that are serving me, otherwise I wouldn’t be eating out.)

  • Pingback: Tipping Guide: How Much Should you Give? « Kivivi Blog

  • Robert

    Sorry, I have a problem propping up a restaurants prices by being expected to tip %20 for everyday service.

    I understand the servers issues, but all it does is allow the food industry to continue to abuse it’s patrons and it’s workers.

    When I buy a $12 martini, and pay $20 for pasta, I know they are making serious profit margin on that one meal, and get a bit angry that I have to pay another 20% for someone to walk to the kitchen and get it, having not offered suggestions, is brusk, or just everyday.

    10% minimum if they just do basics
    15% if they are more attentive and personable
    20% if they are above and beyond the call of duty (deal with problems quickly and suggest dishes or suggest you avoid others.

    Sorry, real wages for all of us have not gone up much since 1980′s. In fact a recent survey said after all is said and done, the majority has made $50 bucks more a year than in 1980′s. (inflation etc., all factored it) SO now suddenly I’m supposed to give more and help prop up a restaurant?

    No dice.

    And if they get stupid about it, I’ll do the smarter thing. Stay in, have a spectacular wine with my meal.

  • Robert

    And remember ultimately, the hell with anyone who try’s to make you feel bad. Pay what you can, and to hell with anyone who doesn’t like it.

    You will take what you are given…as we all are in life, and like it! If you don’t like the tips, I suggest you got back to school. Sorry that if that is cold, but that’s life. I do not get to complain about my income…so frankly I think it’s just complaining by people who have made bad choices! There I said it!

    Sorry baby cakes, but that’s the cold icy hell of life. :)

  • NOTLFoodie

    The first restaurant that takes the Aussie/NZ approach (restaurant prices include taxes and service, and the servers are paid a living wage) gets my business. If the menu says $20 for a plate of pasta, you know that when you walk out the door, you leave $20 on the table and that’s it!

    C’mon restaurant owners! Start this in a recession when servers are complaining about how tips are awful, and diners who hate the whole tipping concept will flock to your front door!

  • JaneDoe

    I agree that wait staff who drone on about lousy tips should take a step back and realize that they are to earn their money the same as the rest of us. The comparison with the sales person is a fine example–work it! Furthermore, if waiting tables is not paying the bills, maybe try another job, like the rest of us tend to do.

  • Diane

    JaneDoe, honey, it’s in poor taste to leave your server a lousy tip barring outright rude behaviour. It’s called being cheap and tacky. Furthermore, sales people make at least minimum wage with commission on usually expensive merchandise. When I was a server, I made about 6/hr and was tipped on bills not usually totalling up to more than $60. It doesn’t pay the rent by itself, in case you didn’t already do the math yourself.

    As to finding another job, it’s tough enough keeping whatever your idea of a decent job is in this economy. And by the way, I’m a student on my way to law school so you miserly privileged Torontonians needing to kick the poor and disadvantaged when they’re already down maybe need to find a working single mother with a disabled kid to pick on or something when you tell people to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Just sayin’.

  • Chris

    Ok for all of you people(LPorter) saying that you dont think that it is neccesary to tip, this is just like saying that where you work should pay you less for the job you do everyday but you should just bne thankful that you still have a job to keep you busy. It is people like you that gives the public a bad name. If you cant afford to tip then dont go out to eat. Or if you cant afford to tip on the amount of the bill, then maybe you should consider eating somewhere more in your price range its not the servers fault that you didnt get a decent job. Because you wouldn’t go to the restuarant and after you eat say its ok to not pay the bill beacuse you dont have the money, but be thankful that we gave you something to stay busy with. And to those who tell us we need better jobs Guess what most of us are college students working through college because mommy and daddy dont give us everything on a silver platter. And by the time we are done with school our jobs will probably be better than yours.

  • Server

    This one is for you foodie. What is it with you people that think people who wait tables are low lifes. All of my friends including my self are servers but you know what we are also working our way thru college. By the way robert I am working toward a better job but in the mean time I guess I will just have to deal with pricks like you.

  • Dariusz

    to Chris-Diane & server,

    I think you are over-reacting. Whether a high end restaurant or a cheaper one, the maximum tipping I do is 10% of amount before taxes. If the service is not EXACTLY the way I imagined it to be then no tips, sorry.

    You should be thankful for the 10%, because the Tim Horton’s McDonalds or the Burger King worker is not even getting that. What they do and what you do has so little and irrelevant difference (couple of steps more to the kitchen to bring the food to the table?), that a 10% tip is more than enough for you servants. But you have to earn it, remember.

    My suggestion is: Go ask your boss for the extra 5%-10% percent. He can’t afford to pay it? Don’t work there. Or ask HIM to close the restaurant.
    In 2010 we will start a new campaign of Maximum 10% tipping in Toronto restaurants. You want customers, patrons ? You should be happy with whatever tip we leave you.Period

  • Jen

    I have worked serveral different types of jobs over the years…all working class. Serving tables, taking money at a cash register in retail, sales, assembly line work ect…So I know what it is to work hard each and everyday for your money. But with each and every job, excluding serving tables, I was paid the same thing everyday. It was something I could count on each pay period. I never had to worry if the owner/corporate office “felt like paying a decent wage”…it was always the same. But working in the restaurant business as a server, you’re under the diners mercy for a living wage…You as a diner could be the deciding factor if your server will be eating a decent meal that night.

    That being said…in these hard economic times, jobs are hard to come by. College/living expenses are becoming more and more expensive each year while wages stay stagnant and people are having to take more and more work/jobs just to make ends meet. And sometimes that’s not even an option…

    So to those of you who say “you don’t like the job, find another one…” why don’t you try this out yourselves? See how long it takes you to find another job. It’s not an overnight thing anymore. It could take weeks, even months to come by another job…even at a different restaurant that has the same problems.

    I do beleive in the saying “if you don’t have enough for a tip, don’t eat out” I’ve always agreed with this. Part of your budget for the dining out experience should always include a tip…just assume your service will be great! If it’s not, then leave a smaller tip! But don’t always assume the worst of your server.

    I agree that restaurants should stop making the patrons responcible for paying a decent wage. But instead of punishing the hard workers there…You should make your views known to corporate office/owner. They are the bad guys, if that’s the case. Please don’t forget they these servers working their butts off are only making $2-$3 an hour…who in the world could possibly earn any living making that?? even working 40 hrs a week, that would be impossible!!

    So please diners keep this in mind…diners and servers should be fighting together against businesses that are allowed not to pay a living wage…you shouldn’t fight amongst yourselves. Until the day comes when servers are paid as well as other industries, don’t forget that if you choose to patronize a particular restaurant, you should also be making a commitment to yourself and your server and you will be fair to them in your tip…