What You Think You Know About Servers…But Don’t!

| November 29, 2010

The other day I was talking to my mom as we waited at Pete’s A Pizza for the guy to bring us out the slices we had ordered and she started rustling through her purse looking for some money.  I asked her what she was doing and she replied that she was going to tip them…there was a jar by the cash register so she was going to put a lil’ something’ in there.

I asked her why she would do that.  We had just ordered some slices of pizza to go and all the guy did was walk it from behind the counter about 3 feet and hand it off to us.  I did not feel that it merited a tip.  My mother felt that it was appropriate to leave something since she was planning on returning at some point.

Now, I am the LAST person to discourage someone from tipping, but I really didn’t feel like a tip worthy service was provided.  She left it anyway.  My mother is not a novice diner.  She knows food and she obviously appreciates good service so when I started telling her about the earnings of a server I was surprised to hear her tell me that she had no idea about that.  So here’s what I shared with my mom.

Servers make NO money…in hourly wage in DC.  The hourly wage for servers in DC is $2.77 per hour.  That means that any money they make per hour goes to cover taxes or social security, etc.  And every two weeks they receive a blank check for their records…generally.  Now, this is not true in every state or jurisdiction.  In Washington state servers are paid the federal minimum wage and the same is probably true in many other places.

What this means is that in DC what a server earns in tips is their salary.  If they’re good and work in a decent restaurant they can make a very good living, often more than the managers of the same restaurant.  One reason many servers who would be great managers are reluctant to make the switch.  Depending on the restaurant, that server most likely has to pay out a percentage to the food runner (the person that actually delivers the food to the table), the bussers (the folks that clear the dirty dishes from the table and reset them), and the bartender.  In some instances they also have to tip out the host or Maitre’d.  And in some really bizarre places they have to tip out the kitchen (I think that’s just a bad idea).  These other positions generally earn more money by the hour than a server since they are not directly receiving tips, but as a group they do receive tips from all the servers.

At Jaleo, for example, the servers tipped out to generic pools of these groups, runners, bussers and bartenders and then however many of them they are they then have to divide it up amongst themselves.  It’s a complicated activity but in the end it generally comes out pretty fair.

So the next time you are trying to decide how much tip to leave, remember to take into account the ENTIRE team.  Your server is ultimately responsible for the bulk of your experience and if they are shotty then the rest probably will be, too.  But if the server is good remember that s/he has to tip out to several other people so leaving 15% would NOT be a nice thing to do.  18% is generally acceptable but 20% is much better.  Servers appreciate 20% tippers and there’s a good chance they’ll remember you.

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Category: Featured Articles: Food Politics, Food Politics

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  1. Belinda says:

    Thanks! This is super insightful. I knew at many Chinese restaurants, the waiters pool the tips for everyone to share at the end of the evening. Do they do that at all restaurants or just a few, like Jaleo? It definitely does shed new light that it goes to the WHOLE team.

  2. Sommer says:

    Wonderful post! I waited table for several years in college and made great money!

    I’m still often baffled by servers with bad attitudes! When your whole income depends on how the customers respond to you, it seems silly that so many servers treat you like they are doing you a huge favor.

  3. Could not have said it any bettttaaaa than you did. Your mum is a boomer like me and we are wired differently. Tipping is far more important to me than it is to my children even though I have taught them how to tip. It all depends on the establishment and how the tip pools are set up.

    Good service should always be rewarded and bad service should be questioned and the individual who is tipping should never be coerced but instead be fair and equitable. These people do not earn wages. The saying that they chose this profession may be true but you and I both know that circumstances many times have thrown them into this occupation and not by choice. They are simply doing the best they can …. or are supposed to be doing the best they can.

    Love this post!

  4. Kat says:

    This is a very informative and insightful post. Thanks you Tonija! Also, great photos!!!

  5. Juliana says:

    Great great post…and really “bugs” me when you have a bad service, knowing that most of their pay comes from tips…but we usually are very patient after all we all have our good and bad days, therefore, we try not to judge the service and give them a good tip…that way, if the service was bad they may feel embarrassed 🙂

  6. Hazeleva says:

    Thank you for that useful info which should be made widely available to non US readers. Here in the UK and Ireland, staff are happy to receive 10% and many diners leave only a token if anything. The worst tippers I have come across are ‘group diners’ such as colleagues going out for lunch together.

    It must be infuriating for servers in US restaurants to receive meager tips from European visitors. So many European tourists that I have asked about their tipping policy when visiting the States, reply that they might leave a dollar each for a meal. They would also tip a dollar in hairdressers, nail bars etc.

    When people here comment that it is less expensive to eat out in the States, I always ask, ‘Do you include the 20% tip and tax?’

    Personally I think that tipping is antiquated and humiliating; far better to pay an honest wage!

  7. Mark Wisecarver says:

    Excellent! I have to be honest to the point of total embarrassment. With what little income I have going out with my 3 kids is getting so very expensive, adding 20% to the tab is a show killer. Sad but true.

  8. JonDavies says:

    Good post. I’m a server and let me tell you, we often tip out 50% of our tips to our team. Not to mention, taxed on 15% of our sales. I feel the need to direct you to this waiter on YouTube who says what so many of us in the industry think and feel.


    He’s funny, bitter, cute, angry, foul-mouthed, and most of all – truthful.

    I’ve seen his channel grow from 20 subs to over 1600. He deserves more, I think.

  9. Brit-Girl says:

    lovely photos!

  10. Gera says:

    You know it depends of the waiter, restaurant and quality of the service. In my country Uruguay 20% is high, usually is 10% but not to the team.

    If the service is bad zero – but some times is more than 20% in birthdays with good waiters.



  11. Liz says:

    This is a really good post–informative and smartly written. I think you appeal to the public’s conscientiousness about what it is they are participating in when they go to a restaurant, just as Zomppa is concerned about conscientiousness about what we eat. I appreciate the “tip about tips” and the fact that servers may be paying out a whole team. I found that when I am at home in Peru, even though it isn’t customary, I always tip (if it hasn’t already been added to the bill) because it’s a small amount to pay for nice service and as a regular, the wait staff always remember me.