It seems like everyone has a hand out. Tip jars have sprouted in Starbucks, Subways and service stations. But restaurant servers have reason to watch you sign on the dotted line: they make less per hour than minimum wage.
Usually an expression of gratitude, tipping is such a part of American culture that it is built into our tax system. In most states, employers use a “tip credit” that reduces a tipped employee’s minimum wage to $2.13 an hour.
But Lindsey Belcher likes it that way. The 23-year-old Augusta State University honor student and server said that she believes service quality would plummet on any other system. Working for tips encourages employees to pay attention to their customers’ needs.
“I used to manage a video store, and it was hard to get these people who made minimum wage to give good customer service. No matter what happened, they made $5.15.”
Servers often never see their hourly wage. After taxes are withheld, they often get $0 pay stubs. Stiff a server and you’re not only denying her regular pay but making her pay taxes on it, too.
“A lot of people don’t do it because they don’t know how to tip,” said Ashley Sheehan, a 19-year-old restaurant server and Augusta Tech student. Like many students, Sheehan serves because of the flexible schedule and cash-in-hand. But the job has its share of frustrations.
“I hate when you bust your butt, and you do everything right and everything is perfect and they still don’t tip,” she said.
The good news is that while it might not be the recommended 15 percent, most diners leave something even when the service is terrible, according to Michael Lynn, professor of consumer behavior in Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. In fact, there appears to be little correlation between how well people tip and how well they were served.
Instead, people seem to tip based on how they feel about their server and the world on that day. Tips increase when the weather is good, when patrons they dine in pairs and when they like their server.
That increase can make a big difference in server pay. According to the Georgia Department of Labor, servers average about $18,000 a year. That breaks down to nearly $9 an hour – far above the minimum wage but below the $16 an hour average for this area.
In addition, servers do not take home all of their tips. Bussers, bartenders, hosts and wine stewards get a cut. If customers skip out on their bill, employers take it out of a server’s pouch. Eateries may charge an employee for wasted food if a customer disputes their order. Finally, many places deduct uniform fees, broken dishes and credit card transaction fees from a server’s tips.
Sheehan said the system may sound harsh but it separates the wheat from the chaff. Immediate feedback in the form of cash speeds the learning process for new hires, as it did for Sheehan during her early experiences.
“I messed this table all up. Everything came out at the same time and I was like, ‘Wow.’ The tip was so bad and I couldn’t say anything because it was my fault,” Sheehan said.
Not everyone is a fan of tipping. Studies show that poor tippers have spent little time working in a customer service capacity. But the current system has some benefits for diners: it keeps menu prices down. According to Restaurant Research LLC, labor costs make up a third of menu prices.
TOP YOUR TIPS
Michael Lynn’s studies show that servers can increase their likeability by personalizing their relationships with their guests. His recommendations for maximizing tips.
• Crouch at the table when introducing yourself.
• Lightly touch guests on the arm.
• Personalize your appearance to stand out – wear a funny tie or a flower in your hair.
• Introduce yourself by name.
• Recommend appetizers, wine and other extra items to increase your sales — and resulting tips.
• Tell a joke or play a game with customers.
• Thank customers.
• Draw a picture on the check.
• Use credit-card tip trays.
• Call customers by name.
• Give customers after-dinner candy.