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Jean Le Boeuf: Tips aren't the only way

Sep. 11, 2013

Looking to inspire insecurity in your workplace?

Make your employees dependent on tips.

There’s nothing less motivating than not knowing how your work will be valued (Thank you for this week’s column, Jean. We’ll see how the readers compensate you for it Friday!).

Yet the American restaurant industry tells us tipping is the only means of ensuring good service. And as they preach they pay their waiters and waitresses as little as $2.13 an hour, leaving the bulk of their livelihoods dependent on the erratic whims of us diners.

We don’t tip our doctors or our nurses. We don’t tip the cashiers at Publix. Yet each manages to serve us ably, competently and professionally.

Research shows that diners don’t tip based on the quality of service received. They tip based on what they consider to be a societal norm. For me that’s 20 percent. For my immigrant mother it’s 10 to 15 percent (with me slipping in an extra $10 when she’s not looking).

As’s Brian Palmer pointed out in a July article subtly titled, “Tipping is an Abomination,” the factors that correlate most strongly with tip size have little to do with quality of service.

“Credit card tips are larger than cash tips. Large parties with sizable bills leave disproportionately small tips,” Palmer wrote. “We tip servers more if they tell us their names, touch us on the arm, or draw smiley faces on our checks.”

According to a 2000 study the quality of a server’s work only accounts for about one to five percent of the variation in tips at a restaurant.

We tip our servers because we are morally obligated to. Because we know that, if we don’t, that waiter or waitress may not be able to pay their rent or feed their children.

That shouldn’t be our moral obligation.

Jay Porter ran his former San Diego restaurant, The Linkery, without tips. Porter added an 18 percent service charge to checks, paid his servers as he paid his cooks (based on seniority and skill level) and distributed that service charge equally between his front and back-of-house staff.

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Shockingly, his restaurant didn’t implode. Quite the opposite happened, “our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn't feel taken for granted,” Porter told “In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system.”

Before I started reviewing restaurants I worked in them. I was the closing server at a small, lunch-only restaurant way back when.

It was three minutes till closing time when a Rolls-Royce purred into the parking lot. I considered locking the door and hiding in the kitchen, but figured these high rollers would be worth my extra time.

The couple enjoyed $30 or so of food. I thanked them as they left, then ran over to grab my gratuity. The coins (a quarter and three pennies) jingled as I tumbled them out of the book.

I gave Mr. and Mrs. Rolls-Royce exceptionally good service. I was quick and efficient, all the adjectives I use when raving about my own good waiters.

Why? Because I knew they had money, and I figured (oh-so incorrectly) my efforts would be rewarded.

This is the problem with tipping.

Diners don’t tip based on service. And servers, even the most conscientious ones, don’t serve all customers equally. Black and Hispanic patrons are commonly perceived as poor tippers. Tables who buy bottles of wine are perceived as good tippers.

Sometimes that works in a server’s favor. Other times they’re left with 28 cents.

- Jean Le Boeuf is the nom de plume of a local food lover. or @JeanLeBoeuf (Twitter)

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