You’ve savored your meal, sipped your wine, delighted in dessert and now need to swallow that bitter pill: the bill. When paying the check in the United States, it’s not just a matter of covering the invoice, but also calculating a gratuity for the wait staff. Here’s some guidance.
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Spreading the Wealth
When you pop that Jackson into the check presenter for your server, she’s not simply pocketing it. A service staff is a team, so they share in the tips (and pay taxes on them). Depending on the house policy, either all of that shift’s gratuities enter a pool and are divided by a point system, or each individual server is responsible for tipping her support staff—a busser, a runner, a back waiter, and/or a bartender. Also, be aware that your tips are not just a supplement, but are the main source of their salary. In New York, for example, the wait staff minimum wage is $4.60/hour…not exactly a living wage.
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In general, tip size should range from 15% to 20% of the bill’s total. If a waitperson covers the basics (is gracious, gets the food to the table, and is available to meet your needs), 15% is appropriate. When a waitperson provides more nuanced service, the gratuity should increase. Explaining menu additions, listening to dietary concerns, assisting with wine, and anticipating guests’ needs deserve reward. If my water is maintained during the course of the meal, service is rendered extraordinary (as I drink a lot of water). Tipping on exceptional service begins at 20%.
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Often restaurants opt to add a set gratuity or a service charge to the bill for large parties. This should be printed on the menu or stated when you make a reservation. Restaurants are protecting their staff from being short-changed. If service is exceptional and you would like to leave additional gratuity, your servers will be thrilled. If, however, you feel your service wasn’t up to snuff, confront the management.
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Hidden Service Charges
It’s always a good idea to scan your bill, instead of blindly popping your credit card into a check presenter. Two scenarios to be aware of are A) During late night dining, regardless of party size, some restaurants tack on a service charge (perhaps they are counting on guests’ intoxication to work in their favor), and B) When you are involved with a large party and a standard gratuity is added, the house should be calculating the tip based upon the pre-tax total.
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Exceptions to the Rules
In instances where a complimentary course is sent out, or when food is taken off the bill—irrespective of the reason—make a mental note to tip more heavily. The wait staff is servicing your table…just because you’re not paying for the food, doesn’t mean the server shouldn’t be paid for her services.