When I was a server eons ago, I always dreaded when I would have a table full of foreigners. They’d ask for their check, and leave a measly amount for a tip. No matter how enthusiastic or helpful I was.
But I know that tipping is often a foreign concept to visitors in America. It’s understandable that it’s super confusing: who to tip, when to tip, where to tip, what to tip, and even why to tip.
In fact, just recently a co-worker of mine who was about to leave for the States had asked me just what the hell is the etiquette for dining out. And being someone who gets worried about not knowing the how-to’s of new places, I thought it’d be appropriate to clear up any tipping confusion for the apprehensive.
If you didn’t know, unlike every other country in the world, hospitality employees in America highly depend on their tips (unfortunately). Under the Federal law, all states must pay tipped employees at least the minimum wage of (at the time of writing) $2.13. Most states; however, have a slightly higher minimum wage than the Federal requirement.
According to the , the highest minimum wage for tipped employees is $9.32 in Washington State. The second highest is my favorite state, Oregon, at $9.10. (This makes it great for those creative, starving artists in Portland.) The Federal government feels that tipped wage can be different because these employees are earning tips as well, which supposedly compensates for the oh-so-low hourly wage.
Here’s a quick guide on tipping at restaurants in America.
Who: Servers (sometimes known by their archaic name: waiters and waitresses)
Where: They are usually found at any dine-in restaurants taking orders, bringing food, and pleasing people.
What: If you were happy with the service, 20 percent is the norm (but 18 percent is usually acceptable.) If you were dissatisfied with your server, then leave them 10 percent. That’s actually more of an insult than leaving nothing. If you were absolutely appalled by the food (and not the server), talk to a manager. It probably wasn’t the server’s fault for your steak being overcooked. Whatever you do, though, don’t tip 15 percent.
Why: Servers may only be earning $2.13 an hour. Their income depends on your tips.
Tip: If you’re using a debit or credit card, and you were highly impressed with your server, consider paying a tip with cash. That way, a server won’t be taxed (shh!) and they get the tip immediately. Where it says tip on your receipt, simply draw a line through. Your server will be thankful.
Another Tip: You may see on the receipt that the gratuity (normally 18 percent) has been added. Don’t feel pressured to tip on top of that. It’s possible that the restaurant automatically adds gratuity to larger parties (usually 8 people). You can find this in small print on the menu.
Where: They are usually found at–what I like to call–“upscale” fast-food restaurants (Chipotle, Panera Bread, etc.), coffee shops, or restaurants that offer take out.
What: Tipping is not expected because these employees usually earn more than a server. But it’s highly appreciated. Usually a couple of dollars will do. You’ll sometimes see a tip jar, which often have witty signs on it: “New Shoe Fund” or “Tipping is Sexy” to encourage customers to tip, near the cash register. If you pay with a card, there might be the tip option on the receipt (similar to in a sit-down restaurant and at a bar).
Why: They still have to do other things than take your money: make that fancy espresso drink, pack up your to-go-order, and act happy to be working on a Saturday night.
Where: They are usually found in restaurants, bars, or clubs making drinks.
What: I’d say one dollar per beer should be satisfactory. Two to three dollars if you’re feeling generous. Keep in mind though, if you end up buying an expensive cocktail drink, which actually takes a little more effort than pouring from a tap, expect to give at least a 15 percent tip.
Why: They have to put up with drunkards all night. Anyone who has to deal with that shit should get a tip.
How: If you’re using cash, simply place it on the bar after the bartender hands you the drink. They will usually take it right away. If you’ve kept a tab open (by giving them your credit or debit card), ask the bartender you’d like to close your tab. She or he will give you back the card along with a receipt. You will put the tip amount on the receipt.
Who: Hosts and Hostesses
Where: They are often found greeting guests who are entering dine-in restaurants. They’re usually wearing a forced smile.
What: They never ever expect a tip. Hosts should be earning way more than a server.
Why: It’s a busy Friday or Saturday night, and the wait list is nearly five pages long. You’re hungry and are on the bottom of the list. Get chummy with them and slip them a $20. Depending on how they feel, they’ll likely accept it and bump your name up on the list.
Tell me your American tipping experiences and annoyances!