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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.”