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Who Decides How Much to Tip?


An added service charge is a given in Europe. It's understood and expected in Singapore. The United States is one of only a few countries where restaurant tipping, and just how much is appropriate, is still a question. Some restaurants have gone so far as listing the amounts of "suggested gratuities" on the check--showing the customer how much 15%, 18% or 20% of the bill is--for the customer to simply choose from. Restaurateurs say it's intended to simplify the decision for the customer and that it gives servers a more stable income. Should service be rewarded when it is less than satisfying? Should customers tip according to a fixed guideline? MAURA E. MONTELLANO spoke with restaurant owners.



Chairman, California Restaurant Assn.; senior vice president of Lawry's Restaurants Inc.

The idea of putting a suggested service charge on a check will not fly in this country. It's been tried before and the customer has rebelled against it. We have a tradition in this country of tipping what we see fit. The term "tips" is an acroynm that stands for "to insure proper service." I do not believe that you will find any place in this country where mandatory tipping has worked. Some unique, upscale, fine dining places might get away with it but they are few.

Generally, in most restaurants when there is a large group, a service charge will be added automatically. Customers are advised beforehand and if they don't find it acceptable it can be removed. At this point, it's up to them to tip accordingly. But seldom do they object when it's a large party.

Most customers would be insulted by the idea that it's "convenient" for them to be told how much to tip. Customers are very sophisticated today and they don't want to be told what to do. It is one of the competitive elements of this business. The dining public knows good service. They expect to tip good service. They also expect to punish bad service by the size of their tips.

Once it becomes a service charge, it is no longer a tip. For tax purposes, now it's subject to sales tax and it becomes the property of the proprietor, not the server. The proprietor can then give it back to the server or dole it out as he or she sees fit.

Tips are part of the salary. California is in an extraordinary position because tips are counted as wages by the IRS. State law requires that servers be paid the minimum wage but this is not significant to a waiter or waitress in a upscale restaurant. That is part of having a job like this. The tipping element is very important and one of the reasons people get into this line of work.

The industry as a whole and most proprietors would not be in favor of imposing a suggested tipping charge. Most Westerners traveling in Asia will leave extra because the service charge goes to the proprietor not the waiter, so they know to leave extra on the table for the server.



Owner, Mexicali Cocina & Cantina, Studio City

I have seen suggested tipping in restaurants in Palm Springs, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. It is also popular in places that cater to a European clientele. Tips are not mandatory in this country; they are optional. Customers should tip what they think is appropriate for the kind of service they receieved.

I tell my servers when they complain about their tips that they should look at the kind of service they offered. I urge them to focus on that and not the tip. I have waiters and waitresses who do make about 20% on almost all their checks. It does happen. It's all about the service they offer.

Los Angeles has a reputation of having the worst service by waiters and waitresses. I have been to many restaurant shows and restaurants in other states and the service is far better. The problem with Los Angeles is we don't have professional waiters here; we have aspiring writers, models, actors, singers. They are not professional servers; this is not their career. There is a lot of turnover in L.A. We get many applications from out-of-staters who want to come here to try to get into the entertainment industry and many end up leaving when things don't work out.

I think there is some validity to the "gratuity guideline." It's convenient because some people might not know how to figure out tips. This might make it easier. Making it a mandatory thing will not work.



Owner, Lula, Jake & Annie, both in Santa Monica; and Washington St. Bar & Grill, Marina del Rey

We had a suggested gratuity for a time at two of our restaurants. But it was a result of a problem with our credit card processing machine. It would automatically print the suggested gratuities on the receipt. It certainly was not something we requested from the credit card company. It didn't last long, but while it did I did not hear any reaction from the customers.

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