Tip Secret

You think you're rewarding good service, but here's the truth about the money you leave on the table.

April 24, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

You know that $20 tip you left for the waiter the last time you went out to dinner? Well, there's a chance it never made it into his pocket - not after he divvied it up among the busboy, bartender and the Internal Revenue Service.

In some places, managers may even be taking a cut. Former employees of several upscale restaurants in Boston recently filed lawsuits alleging they were forced to hand over as much as 25 percent of their tips to management or lose their jobs.

All this doesn't even begin to address the question of how much to leave. Fifteen percent? Twenty? On the pretax amount? Post-tax? And what if the service is shoddy?

For something supposedly so cut and dried, restaurant tipping causes a surprising amount of confusion. It's also revealing, research shows, sometimes saying as much about the diner as the server. Anthropologist George Foster, in fact, has suggested that the custom of tipping evolved as a way of avoiding the server's envy - to keep him from poisoning the soup.

"It's anxiety-provoking," says Michael Lynn, an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration who has been studying tipping for more than 20 years. "We care about what people think, and our tipping impacts their opinion of us."

Traditionally, Americans leave money for servers under the assumption that they're rewarding good service. Maybe not. Studies have shown that a sunny day has just as much influence on the size of the tip as the quality of the service.

"My philosophy is that the tippers are going to tip, and the nontippers aren't," says April Hansen, of Cafe Hon in Hampden, who has been waiting tables for 23 years. "You can bend over backwards for them and they're not going to tip."

Sad to say, your waitress will probably make more money "upselling" - that is, by persuading you to buy a more expensive entree than you planned to and therefore increasing the final bill - than by bringing you your entree promptly.

According to Lynn, the size of the check determines the amount of money left on the table 70 percent of the time. It's more than twice as powerful as all other factors combined.

In other words, you had a long wait for your food and your waitress forgot to bring you the clean fork you requested, but you're probably going to tip her 15 percent of the bill anyway.

"Mostly people comply with the norm," he says. "Service is a very distant third [factor behind check size and whether you liked your server]."

Even if your waitress doesn't persuade you to buy the more expensive steak and therefore spend more on food and drink, research has shown she can get more money simply by establishing social rapport with you.

Manny Gonzalez, a New Yorker who has a Web site on tipping at www. tipping.org, believes good service should be rewarded accordingly. But the largest tip he ever left had more to do with the personality of the waitress.

"I worked as a manager for a Radio Shack," he says. "We had a really good month, and I took the staff out to dinner to celebrate. We are talking about seven Type A personalities, having fun, drinking, the works. Really obnoxious. We had a waitress who was truly on the money. She handled everything with grace, poise and was super, super nice. We each gave her $100 as a tip. She deserved it, and we were having a really good time. She was in shock. I think she even cried."

Men are perceived as better tippers than women, but that may be because more servers are women, says Lynn. There is evidence to suggest that when women are tipping men, they are just as generous.

One of Lynn's latest publications is a meta-analysis of 23 major studies on why people tip. (And yes, Lynn - who refers to himself as "Mr. Tipping" - feels compelled to leave good tips.) Some of his findings read like a psychological primer for servers on increasing their incomes. And a cautionary tale for diners: Are we trying to buy a friend when we tip?

Here's some of what he found:

Servers who squat down at the table (as they do at the Outback Steakhouse chain, for instance) are rewarded accordingly. There's better eye-to-eye contact.

Waitresses who draw smiley faces on the check or write "thank you" tend to get better tips. (But waiters who draw smiley faces do worse.)

Touching customers briefly on the shoulder or hand also increases tips.

Lynn acknowledges some of this is surprising because we all make jokes about waiters who insist on telling us their names or act too friendly. But research has shown we reward their behavior.

"If you asked most people if they wanted to be touched by their server, they would say no," he says.

Maybe all that's as it should be. Maybe tipping shouldn't be just a reward for good service. After all, much of what we consider poor service is out of the wait staff's control. Someone didn't show up and the manager has the waiter handling too many tables. The kitchen has gotten backed up or lost the ticket, and you don't get your entree in a timely fashion.

When service is bad

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