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You Don't Need Laws to Figure Out How to Tip Me

I would make more money if there was a mandatory tipping policy, but there's a lot to be said about the benefits of some untaxed income when you’re working in the service industry.
Photo via Flickr user cafemama

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

We asked a San Francisco restaurant worker to comment on the recent move by five Bay Area restaurants to forgo traditional tipping and instead institute the addition of an automatic 20-percent service charge to each bill. In order to protect his current job, he's asked to stay anonymous.


Male, 29, San Francisco.

I read about the mandatory tipping thing a few days ago—actually, someone showed me at work. I have mixed feelings about it. Maybe its effect depends on exactly where you work. The thing is, the money that you get from that 20 percent tip, or whatever percentage it is—you count on it. That's your actual income. The only way that my fucking employer can even stay open is by paying us well under what we need to live in the city, but we make up for that income through tips. Independent businesses, like the one where I work, absolutely need tipping for their employees to be paid fairly. I split all of my tips with our cooks. It kind of drives me crazy, but honestly it is fair and in a lot of cases they are working as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the front-of-house.

I know that some restaurants add a surcharge to cover workers' health insurance, and I'm all for that. But it's a tricky question because then you ask yourself, Should these jobs just pay us more, and then raise the prices of everything for customers? Let's say I make $12 an hour, but in reality, I make $25 an hour if you add in tips. If my work paid me $25 an hour, I don't think the business could make money. Or, all of the food and drinks would have to be so much more expensive. The whole model is based around underpaying service staff but then having them make a livable wage through tips. The thing about tips is that they aren't really an act of generosity.


Think about bar service. You tip for a drink, and if you don't tip you don't get a drink, and the bartender will then ignore you. And that's OK—the bartender is allowed to be rude to you. It's a whole different dynamic, and I love that dynamic. It doesn't work that way in restaurants.

Right by the restaurant where I work in the Mission district is one of the city's densest areas of Airbnb apartments, where landlords basically turn their whole buildings into hotels. So it's a lot of tech people, and oftentimes European business people who also work in tech who are there for the weekend. In the Airbnbs, it's usually people with tons of money, because people who are here to do work in that industry typically have pretty high income. They're working, but essentially on vacation. To be honest, I can sense the difference when those people come in. The tipping is usually worse. I don't want to lump everyone into a broad category, but they do treat me differently. With these other people who are newer to the area, I'll often get called "bro" now. "Hey, man," or "Sup, bro?". They move here and try to be a part of the neighborhood, but there's a real disconnect going on.

I could give you a quick little example with a recent story. Where I work, we don't do reservations per se, but we will sometimes do it unofficially. This one company—a start-up whose name I won't mention—basically wanted to reserve our back patio for 20 guys. I asked my boss if I could put an automatic tip on their tab because there were so many of them. I had a feeling that they weren't going to tip well, but I didn't want to make it awkward, so I thought we should just add gratuity. My boss said, "Well, I'd love to, but we can't, because it's not our policy."

The group really couldn't have been friendlier, but just from a different world than me. They were all talking about their new iPhone 6s, and one guy was talking about his start-up, another guy was talking about his other start-up, which was an app that you use to auction off parking spaces. You can't make this shit up. But they seemed fine, so we were cool. They basically reserved the whole back of the restaurant, so I gave them a bunch of free beers, and was bringing them stuff all night. At the end of it, the guy who handled the bill tipped me six bucks—for everything, for all 20 of them. In spite of me hooking them up, reserving the whole area for them, chatting with them.

The problem wasn't that the attitude is bad; their attitude was really friendly. That's what makes it so frustrating, because it's not like someone came in and was an asshole; it's just obliviousness. The feeling I felt wasn't anger—it was total disappointment. A lot of people who come in just don't know the difference that a good tip makes, but it's not like they're malicious people who want to make your life harder. Mostly, they seem like they have just never worked in service before. A lot of times, I'll ID someone like that and think that they're 30—that they're about my age. But they're 24. And I'm like, damn, you're fresh out of college.

If mandatory tipping was instituted everywhere, I don't think people would be pissed at all; honestly, I think they would just pay it. But part of me feels like it takes some meaning out of it if you just know exactly how much you're going to get. It doesn't offer for surprises, although I guess technically people could tip more on top of the 20 percent if they wanted to. I would make more money if there was a mandatory tipping policy, but it would be taxed, and there's a lot to be said about the benefits of some untaxed income when you're working in service.