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Is the top tip a moving target?

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

By the time I was old enough to start picking up the check, the expected tip was between 15% and 20%, settling at a solid 20% not too long after. While there are plenty of people proud to stick with the 10% or 15% that went out of fashion years ago, most of us have come to see the higher percentage as the proper tip.

However, it seems we might have more adjusting to do, according to the New York Post, which looked at whether trends in tipping are pushing up the expected amount for people including restaurant servers, hairdressers and cabbies from 20% to 25% or 30%.

Tipping is a frequent topic of discussion and debate among restaurant pros and the public, but the system is set up the way it is for a reason — most of the time, it works. Restaurants depend on tips to offset payroll expenses and keep costs down, in turn keeping the price of a meal lower than it would be if every server’s entire hourly wage were paid. At least in theory, the system also gives patrons a choice and control over how much to reward service received and a way for top-notch servers to be rewarded accordingly.

No system is perfect, as evidenced by recent lawsuits over tip-sharing arrangements and compensation for time spent nontipped work, but as the timeline at the end of the Post story shows, tipping has been with us since soon after the Civil War and has become firmly entrenched.

The Post delved into psychological aspects and personality traits that determine where most of us fall on the tipping spectrum, citing research by Cornell University professor Michael Lynn, whose study of about 9,000 restaurant credit card receipts found that 37% of patrons put more than 20% on the tip line. Many people tip generously to feel good about themselves and gain the server’s approval, Lynn said, but their generosity eventually leads the expected tip to creep higher.

Some sources blamed New York City’s tip creep on demanding waiters and an increasing number of restaurants and hotel bars that add an automatic 18% to 20% gratuity. “This tipping creep is very real,” consumer advocate and travel writer Christopher Elliott said. People irritated by the charge “don’t mind tipping, but they would prefer to do it for good service, and not because it’s required.”

LA Weekly’s Besha Rodell took issue with the premise that more people are tipping better in response to greedy servers, saying that perhaps more patrons who can afford to be generous are doing just that.

Is the push for more and bigger tips only in big cities such as New York, or is it going on everywhere? Is a backlash brewing? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.