- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Even though Americans leave $16 billion worth of tips on restaurant tables and in the hands of hospitality workers each year, 40 percent say they hate the practice.

A Cornell University study released in July details how, in theory at least, tips serve as gifts for good service and a means of making the server/customer relationship less awkward.

However, as authors Michael Lynn and Michael McCall concluded, tipping no longer serves a useful function in American society. Tips no longer reflect the quality of restaurant services rendered.

The study, which analyzed 2,547 groups dining at 20 different restaurants, showed that the relationship between tip size and server performance was weak. Variables such as customer mood, patronage frequency and server favoritism affected tip size as well.

"The weakness of this relationship belies many consumers' beliefs that their primary motivation for tipping is to reward servers for good service," Mr. Lynn and Mr. McCall wrote.

Tipping began in 16th-century England, where boxes were displayed in taverns with the phrase "To Insure Promptitude," hence the word "tip."

The practice continues in Britain today, where restaurant patrons tip between 10 percent and 15 percent, said Peter Reid, spokesman for the British Embassy. Pub patrons buy bartenders a drink at the beginning or the end of the night instead of giving a dollar tip with each round of drinks.

Other than England, tipping is one U.S. custom that is rare abroad. The practice is less popular elsewhere in Europe and unheard of in Asia. Only American society requires consumers to pay for their food, plus its delivery from the kitchen to the table.

Waiters, taxi drivers, hairstylists and countless others generally are rewarded with a 15 percent to 20 percent gift for good service. However, the Cornell study shows that mediocre and bad service generally are rewarded with the same size cash boost.

The pressure to hand out extra money for service is everywhere, even at the local coffee counter. At Vaccaro's Italian Pastry shop in Union Station, a tip jar sitting on the counter announces: "Tips are appreciated, but only for good service. Thank you, our employees."

Vaccaro's employee Azarias Fisseha said customers deposit $7 to $8 in the jar each day.

Upstairs in Union Station, Exclusive Shoeshine employee Dave Kirkley receives a 20 percent to 40 percent tip for every $4 shoeshine he delivers.

"It is very rare not to get a tip," he admits.

Tips have become more a charge for services than a random act of kindness. They are not to be confused with service charges, which are fees automatically added to restaurant bills. Peter Kilgore, senior vice president and general counsel of the American Restaurant Association, says there is no way of knowing if a service charge is going to a server or into the pockets of a restaurant owner.

"If it's a tip, under federal law it's a gift from a customer to a server," Mr. Kilgore said. "If a manager puts a 15 percent service charge on the menu, then it goes to management to do with it what they want to."

Federal law requires restaurant owners to pay tipped employees a minimum of $2.13 an hour. A $3.02 tip credit is added when servers don't receive enough tips to meet the federal minimum wage.

"Many tipped employees are paid a substandard wage, and this fact has created social pressures on consumers to tip even when the service is bad," Mr. Lynn and Mr. McCall wrote.

Some restaurant patrons, such as John Edwards of Arlington, Va., are aware of these low wages and try to compensate.

"It's just a courtesy, especially in the states where people get lesser salaries and make up for it in tips," he said.

Many people don't realize just how much waiters make from customer generosity.

"Most servers like their job because they are making far above minimum wage 8 or 9 dollars an hour," Mr. Kilgore said.

Brian Neville of Boyds says he tips servers between 20 and 25 percent as long as they do their best.

"I wouldn't want the job," Mr. Neville said. "But, I've heard they make a couple hundred bucks a night. I'm a carpenter, and it would take me a long time to make that much money."

Mr. Lynn and Mr. McCall found tippers are concerned about having equitable economic relationships with servers and thus, customers use a monetary gift to feel more comfortable with being served by strangers.

Emily Samargo of Shepherdstown, W.Va., is a former waitress who usually tips 20 percent.

"I usually tip exactly the same, unless they are pretty terrible," Miss Samargo said.

Over time, tipping has become less voluntary and more institutionalized. Local restaurant owners and managers say 90 percent to 95 percent of their servers' take-home salaries comes from tips. In other words, many restaurants pay their employees the $2.13 an hour and customers make up the rest.

Like all social practices, people also use tipping as a way to boost their images. A customer may slip a server a big bill to show off his or her personal wealth. What they may not know is just how much waiters count on and instigate customers to flaunt their wealth, local restaurant owners and managers say.

Miss Samargo said being extra friendly with customers would bring her bigger tips.

Patrons at Donatello's Restaurant in Washington tip anywhere from 5 percent to 45 percent, owner John Kim said. The servers who rake in the big bucks, he said, flamboyantly try to make customers feel comfortable by giving detailed explanations of the daily specials.

"Tips are something waiters live on," Mr. Kim said. "It's something of an art. Knowing when to strike up conversation and when not to helps the server. It takes a lot of skill."

Mr. Kim monitors server performance through a point system. A server's total sales, tips, tables served and even amount of upscale menu items purchased are all calculated in.

However, Mr. Lynn and Mr. McCall warn against using tips as a tool to rate server performance. Instead, they suggest that managers personally watch servers in action, hire mystery diners to comment on service quality or solicit evaluations from customers.

Judy Mikowski of Portland, Ore., usually tips 20 percent at restaurants. But she throws all suggested rates out the window when servers don't make the grade.

"I don't leave anything if the service is bad," she said. "And if taxi drivers don't carry my bag, I'm not going to give them a tip."

As long as the majority of waiters' salaries comes from tips, consumers indicate, they feel compelled to be generous.

However, the new evidence confronting the practicality of gratuities may prompt consumers to re-evaluate why they leave an extra 15 percent on restaurant tables to compensate for low wages.

Or as the author of a recent article in the Economist said, "The cry of stingy tippers that service people should 'just be paid a decent wage' may actually make economic sense."

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