Restaurant tipping: Did you cheat your server?

Feb 12, 2018
Jim Witmer
Tipping is for good service, but make sure you tip on the right amount. (File photo)

Your go-to neighborhood restaurant is running a free appetizer special and you’re eager to snap it up. You get a 10-buck starter for free. Good deal for you. But is it a good deal for your server?

Not if you’re a pathetic tipper.

You’re a pathetic tipper if you punish your server by tipping on the reduced amount on your bill. That’s assuming you had decent service, of course.

Your free appetizer plate didn’t just materialize before you. It didn’t put in its own order. It didn’t deliver itself. And after you inhaled the food, your empty plate didn’t spirit itself into the dishwasher.

» DID YOU KNOW: Local church compensates Outback server who lost job, not tipped on $735 order

Tipping can be complex, but it’s not tricky. It’s a topic worth exploring as seasonal deals and coupon offers ramp up. If you enjoyed your food and service, you tip your server. Your server, by the way, is likely just one member of the service team that attended to your table. Your server, more than likely, makes less than minimum wage and depends on tips for his/her living.

Jonathan Nitzan, a head server at Rocco's Tacos in Palm Beach Gardens, places the check on a customer's table. Photo: Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post

The gratuity topic has stirred in the national conversation since 2015, when some notable restaurant groups adopted no-tipping policies. One of those companies, Joe’s Crab Shack, has scaled back on its gratuity-less endeavors. The chain’s own research found some 60 percent of its diners disapproved of the policy because they felt it might zap a server’s drive, and because they didn’t fully trust management to be fair to its workers, CNN Money reported.

There are no hard and fast rules on tipping, but maybe that’s because a sense of fairness is implied. And this fairness meter should kick in automatically when you use gift cards or coupons or take advantage of that special freebie deal.

» HOW TO TIP: Your ultimate guide on how much money to give

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Listen to what happened to one local server, a woman we’ll call Mary.

Mary and a coworker served a table of eight diners at a local restaurant. At the end of the night, the bill totaled about $300. A fair tip after a night of good service might have been at least $60, 20 percent of the pre-tax amount. (Because there were two servers, I might have tipped a bit more.) If service was just okay, that tip might have been closer to $45, or 15 percent.

But Mary and her fellow server got about $10 less than that lower amount – and they had to share it. (“That’s before we had to tip out the bartender and host,” the server noted in an email to The Palm Beach Post.)

The culprit? After the bill was split three ways, one of the bill-paying parties used a gift card. The $75 card was applied to a $143 amount, leaving a new total of $68.

“They tipped us $13,” Mary wrote.

That $13 tip is not even 10 percent of $143. Gift card: great for diner, awful for server.

It didn’t help that at least two of the three paying factions were pretty pathetic tippers. One coupon user paid tip on the reduced amount. Another bill-payer left a 15 percent tip. And, well, that gift card user might as well have written “TIP” on a scrap of paper.

Gift cards and coupons don’t have to spell “no tip for you” for a competent server. Not if the diner is fair.

Some local establishments who offer special deals routinely encourage their customers to be mindful.

“We always encourage our guests to tip on any pre-discounted amount, or on whatever the retail price would have been,” says Jason Emmett, president of the Lake Worth-based Duffy’s Sports Grill chain of 32 Florida restaurants. “For me, that would be the right way.”

Whatever discount or deal a restaurant offers should not be held against the server, he said.

The Duffy’s chain makes it possible for its restaurants to offer a gratuity guideline on each check, listing amounts for 15 percent, 18 percent and 20 percent.

“However it’s at each general manager’s discretion as to whether their store will use the feature or not,” says Sandy Nelson, Duffy’s marketing director. “If they use it, then it will appear on all guest checks. Some find it useful when they have more tourists in their area.”

Those suggested tips are calculated on the subtotal amount, before any coupons or gift card discounts are applied, she notes.

Of course, we know tipping is optional. It’s a diner’s acknowledgement of a server’s effort.

Emmett knows this and offers that his company works to make sure service is on point by emphasizing training and encouraging exceptional servers.

“To be a good server, you have to have a passion. Servers are not motivated by the hourly wage. The great ones get that they’re in charge of their own income,” he says.

If the diners they serve aren’t pathetic tippers, that is.


The standard tip for good service is 20 percent, etiquette experts say. Gratuity for acceptable service hovers around 15 and 18 percent. A 10 percent tip should be reserved for buffet or some take-out spots.