Should a 25% Tip Be Standard at High-End Restaurants?

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A mysteriously sourced story is creating buzz that San Francisco servers want to make a 25% tip mandatory. While the talk is thus far unsubstantiated, the question remains: Should a tip ever be automatic?

The article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times. The author says “there’s a move” to make 25% the standard tip in San Fran, citing only unnamed “media sources” and unnamed “high-class restaurants.” Not exactly fact-checkable stuff. But news affiliates from California to London have picked the story up all the same because the mere notion of a mandatory tip revives that age-old tension between patron and provider: the servers want all the money, and the customers want all the attention. (The author has not yet responded to a request for more specifics.)

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Most of the men/women-on-the-street quoted in the Times article are decidedly in favor of tips being earned, rather than simply expected. “I usually tip 10 percent or 15 percent, which I think is fair. If they really want a bigger tip they might try to increase their service to justify it,” one says. “The whole tipping system is bad. People ought to be paid for doing a job. Any attempt to impose a percentage won’t work,” says another.

That’s proven true in other states. Yes, many restaurants impose “mandatory” tips for groups of six or eight customers, but in places like New York, case law has established that no gratuity can be forced, regardless of what a menu says. (You’ve gotta love that people have been so bent out of shape about their service that they were willing to shell out hundreds in legal fees to avoid paying a tip.) The idea is that, as one New York district attorney put it, “The discretion to refuse payment is an essential element of a tip or gratuity.”

Charges were dropped in Pennsylvania in a similar case in 2009. A group had terrible service, refused to pay their mandatory tip, and though the cops initially treated the refusal as theft, the district attorney reversed course, saying, “It’s not worth prosecuting. Gratuities are generally volunteer payments.” That legal sentiment reflects the the idea that tipping is about having the opportunity for work to be duly rewarded. (A sentiment generally cherished in America, outside of self-loving restaurants where the wait staff acts as if every drop of water they pour is a huge favor they’re doing for you. You know who you are, cool cats.)

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Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


10 to 15%?! that is a horrible tip.  I've been a server bartender for about 6 years, and if we're talking about a restaurant and not a diner the customary tip is 20%, and of course if the server screwed up repeatedly or was rude it should be less(but never 0 or really never less than 10%, he's still done some work for you and deserves to get paid for that at least), and also if he went above and beyond for the customer it should be more.  What some people don't realize is that the server has to tip out a certain percentage him/herself to hostesses/busboy/bartender/food runner etc, regardless of the tip he receives. It is usually 3% of sales at most places I've worked for or heard off, so if I receive a 20% tip, I'm only actually getting 17%.  And that's the reason why lots of places have the 18%  gratuity (not 20% so they would still try to earn those extra couple of %) automatically added to bigger parties because if they would decide to stiff the server,he would actually have to pay out of his own pocked the 3% of the bill, meaning he would actually have to pay to serve on someone instead of getting paid.  So the automatic gratuity is there to protect him from that.  But I don't agree with places like South Beach Miami where there's 20% tip added to every check regardless of how many people are in the party, and it's overpriced, I paid $23 for a bottle of Corona, which is ridiculous, and you can definitely feel it on the quality of service when servers are guaranteed a decent tip.  But if everyone tipped 10-15% like the gentleman mentioned in the article you wouldn't see any of the capable quality servers anymore.  You gotta realize that the tip is really all we're making, the $4 or so an hour like it's in Florida just covers the taxes on the claimed tips, my paycheck is usually about $40 biweekly ;)  I think the tipping system is great in the US.  Has anyone been to restaurants abroad, the service is usually pretty horrible!  So appreciate your server, it really is a lot harder job than most people would think.  It get physically and mentally draining.