THE RESTAURANT — Here comes the waiter with my that little black folder which holds my check and a breakdown of the cost of my meal, the tax, a line for a tip and another for the total. This is the same detailed-dedicated waiter who has ignored me all evening as I desperately waved my napkin and bread plate trying to catch his eye. Have you ever noticed that a waiter can weave through tables at a restaurant, looking straight ahead like a guard at Buckingham Palace?
Yes, he can do that and, yes, I can leave a lousy tip, although those days may be coming to an end. The hot new thing in pricy restaurants is to lump the tip in with the total. Some places are calling it a “service charge,” others don’t bother. Either way, the gratuity goes with the price of the meal. This does away with the customer trying to figure out the tip, and it does away rewarding bad service with a bad tip. This operation also ends waiters stuffing cash tips into their pockets without notifying the IRS. (Actually, the tax collectors have their own formulas for determining what to collect, and today most people pay with credit cards anyway.)
Bus boys/girls and cooks like the surcharge because often they — the lowest paid employees — don’t get to share in the money. Under this new policy, the menus read “shared by the entire staff.” Also, many restaurants have small print at the bottom of the menu reading: “For parties of six or more a 20 percent gratuity (they never use the word ‘tip’) will be added.” Why? Do people in large groups not tip? Speaking of fine print, notice those little words at the bottom of your hotel room service check: “20 percent will be added to your bill for room service, plus 20 percent for gratuity and another 50 percent to come pick up your tray afterwards. If you can afford hotel room service, you can afford this.”
How much do you tip? Or do you tip at all? For years the rule of thumb — or fingers if you eat that way — was 15 percent at restaurants. Now it’s 18 to 20 percent. But in most Texas cities an 8.25 percent tax is added on, so if your tip is based on the total at the bottom of the bill, you are actually over-tipping. A good way to figure your tip is to spot the tax and double it. That gives the waiter a 16.50 percent tip which is close. Of course, if you are extra trouble and want a clean plate or bread without mold, you should add extra money. I generally tip 20 percent because the waiter or waitress (waitstaff is the trendy new name) has to explain to the chef what kind of jelly I want with my peanut butter. You may also need to tip the sommelier or wine steward 10 to 15 percent, especially if he has trouble opening the plastic spout on the box.
There are a few reasons when I only tip 10 percent. If I am paying in cash and the waiter returns with some bills and coins and says, “Do you want the change?” That’s my decision, not his. Also, I am cheap if she says, “Are those spoons in your pocket?” or, “Our all-you-can-eat buffet does not include food on other tables.” Some customers also tip the maitre’d, which is French for “a table by the kitchen door.” At this point you are wondering why “tip” is short for To Insure Promptness. Shouldn’t it be TEP? To Ensure Promptness? I’m buying a po’ boy not a policy.
Besides eateries, there are other service folks who work for tips (or teps). Hotel maids have a tough job, so leave a $2 tip daily, not at the end of your stay. Remember that a different Honduran may come each day to clean up your mess. When John Kerry was running for president he would leave a $20 tip at each hotel stop. And he wanted to balance our budget? I tip my barber well, mainly because he stands behind me holding a straight razor. But valet parkers have the best deal. At restaurants the valets put orange cones in the best spots so customers can’t park there. Then the parker takes your keys, drives your car maybe 15 feet, and parks it. You pay $2 to get your car back. Actually, I was paying $2 only to find that the new going rate is $3 plus any loose change I left in my car ashtray.
A prof at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, who teaches Buckingham Palace Stare 101, taught me something. Even when I pick up my own lunch at the counter and dump the remains in a bin, I leave a buck on the table. As the prof explained, “Somebody has to come behind you and wipe the table, re-set the chairs and sweep under the table.”
This same UH prof told me: “One time I was having dinner at a restaurant. I was sitting at a bar table that overlooked the dining room. The tables were cheek by jowl. This fellow and his significant other – wife, girl friend — were having dinner, and he was effusive in his praise of the service, kept telling the waiter how everything was perfect. At the end of the meal the fellow put a cash tip in the check wallet, and got up to go to the bathroom. While he was gone, the girl looked in the leather folder and apparently decided the tip was too big, so she took out some of the cash. After the couple left and the server checked the tip, the server was cursing a blue streak. ‘If my service was so good, why did the SOB leave me such a lousy tip?’”
Ashby receives teps at firstname.lastname@example.org