Tipping the waiter – necessity or nicety?

There has been a lot of discussion in Toronto media lately about whether the standard restaurant tip should go up to the Manhattan standard of 20 per cent from the current standard 15 per cent so I thought I’d sort out some of the misinformation that’s out there from an etiquette point of view.

Before I begin, let me say that I worked as a waitress in a very busy restaurant for about a year so I am well aware of the rigours of the job – the hours on your feet, the demanding customers, the heavy trays, a pace that is often so frantic, you don’t even have time to eat.  Despite this, I considered it to be a great job at the time because the tips I earned offset the hourly minimum wage I was receiving. I was also fitter than any other time in my life, but I digress.

The point is, I considered myself very lucky to be in a job that involved tips because I had many friends who were also working in minimum wage jobs in retail and clerical environments who didn’t receive any tips at all.  That said, I knew that the size of the tip, if one was given, depended on the diner.  For the most part, the harder I hustled, the higher my tips but there were no guarantees. Sometimes I provided amazing service and got nothing.  That’s life.  Now that I’ve been in the workforce for two decades I believe that every job is hard, every job has challenges and every job has aspects of it that make you feel unappreciated and disrespected.  No single profession or industry has a monopoly on hard work.

A little about the history of this practice.  Tipping started in the taverns of 17th century England when thirsty patrons would slip bartenders a bit of extra money “to ensure promptitude” (the origin of the word, T.I.P).  It migrated to North America in the 1800s and, while it had a bit of a bumpy start, it is now widespread and even expected here.

The practice of tipping varies among cultures.  In some countries, it is not expected at all and in others it makes up the bulk of the server’s pay.  In some U.S. states, restaurant owners are allowed to pay wait staff less than minimum wage so that patrons can “make up” the remainder of their salary through tips which seems unethical.  Here in Canada, restaurant servers have to receive at least minimum wage and many of them rely upon tips to pad their take-home pay.  Culturally, refusing to leave a tip or leaving an amount considered less than appropriate, is often seen as cheap or insensitive and will often bring on the wrath of your dining companions.

The standard tip in Toronto is about 15 per cent of the pre-tax bill although I have certainly been in situations where I’ve rounded it up to 20 per cent for ease of calculation or to recognize outstanding service.  Although using percentages is simple, it bases the tip on the size of the bill, rather than the quality of the service which is not necessarily the fairest approach.  A family with kids could easily use up a lot more of a waiter’s time on a $50 dinner than a couple might use on a $100 dinner.

Although tipping is commonplace in Toronto, it’s important to remember that it shouldn’t feel like an obligation and the amount itself is technically also at the patron’s discretion, although most will abide by the standard.  Some restaurants get around this by automatically adding a tip (gratuity) to tables of eight or more.  Although I’ve never complained, this doesn’t sit quite right with me as it turns the tip into a non-negotiable transaction rather than a gift for a job well done.  According to a recent Toronto Star article, a growing number of restaurants in Toronto have reprogrammed their debit and credit machines to prompt patrons to include a 20 per cent tip.  According to owners, many guests have welcomed the change but there is a presumptuous air about it which doesn’t account for the fact that the tip is technically optional and the amount should be based on the quality of the service.

As when I was working as a waitress, there are still many people today making minimum wage in jobs which don’t provide any tips.  Most of the time, these jobs are no less grueling or demanding.  There is just no cultural expectation built up around how they are rewarded.

Over 20 years of dining out, I have had outstanding service and I have had crappy service.  I have waited for 15 minutes to even be acknowledged and I have been plagued by over-zealous  staff who are at the table every two minutes. I have had friendly, service-oriented waiters who genuinely want to enhance my experience and sullen, bored ones who seemed like they couldn’t wait to get home.  Even after my worst experiences, I have never had the nerve to leave nothing.  In the end, guilt or the opinion of my tablemates gets to me and I begrudgingly give something.  On the flip side, I have occasionally provided 25 per cent tips when the service warranted it.  This is as it should be.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this, where you stand, how you approach tipping.  And, while I did my research before writing this and based it on my own experience, if I’m missing a big piece of the information pie or some important context, please enlighten me.

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