Tipping Protocols


People who work in the bar and restaurant industry always wish that the rest of the world would have to do their job just once so they could see what it’s like on the other side.

Serving the public can be enjoyable and rewarding, but with it comes much anxiety, stress and frustration, many long shifts and late hours, and copious clean up, stocking and prep work. Servers thrive on providing customers with a great experience and some mutual fun. Unfortunately, portions of the public believe that just because someone is serving them, they have carte blanche either to treat the server poorly or to stiff him or her.

As a bartender, I was asked to write on the subject of tipping so those not on this side would understand the special challenges servers face in making a living. You probably don’t know that Tennessee is not an optimal state to be in the restaurant business. The minimum wage an employer is required to pay for workers who receive tips is only $2.13 per hour, though some establishments pay more. Once taxes are taken out, a server’s paycheck is zero. That’s right. Zero. The bottom line is, a server’s actual income comes solely from tips.

That’s rather scary when you think about it. Our ability to put a roof over our heads, feed ourselves and our loved ones, buy goods, have insurance, make car payments, pay utilities, spend money in the community and recreate comes entirely from the goodwill of customers.

Here’s something else you probably didn’t know. Bartenders and waiters have to pay out a percentage of their total revenues after each shift to barbacks, bussers, DJ’s, expediters and various helpers. So when a customer leaves a meager tip (or none), it means that sales are driven up, and without proper tipping, results in the bartender or waiter actually paying to serve the customer. I see this happen over and over, and it is terribly disheartening.

I think part of the problem of poor tipping or stiffing is the misperception of some of the public. I have been in this business for a long time. Not once have I seen a bartender water down or under pour a drink, yet I have gotten "punished" with a stiff for this accusation from people with a high tolerance for alcohol, because they weren’t buzzed enough or their palate was trashed from one too many already. Indeed, there are mediocre servers and bartenders out there, but generally speaking, waiters want to give you great food and service while bartenders live to give you an excellent cocktail and a good time. It’s truly not an "us verses them" dynamic (unless you’e in L.A. ). On the flip side, if you’re known to be a stiff or someone that costs money to serve, staff will dread seeing you walk in the door, and that is just sad.

So, what are the protocols? I’ve never seen any server expect you to throw money at them like P. Diddy on a binge. They just want what’s reasonable. Of course, we’ll not complain about generous tips from those who can afford it, but for most of the normal, struggling public, reasonable is fine. Try to leave a minimum of 15 percent on your total bill and take care of your bartenders when at the bar. For those pinching pennies– and Lord knows most of us are–figure tips into your entertainment budget. It’s like someone once said to me, "If you don’t have the gas, don’t get in the car."

Remember that a server’s ability to make a living and generate income that is then spent in your community is based on good tipping protocol. Look at it like a bunch of green energy that needs to be spread around for the good of all.