Is A Revolution Underway In How Much We Tip Waiters?

waiter tipping changesThe story of the Tower of Babel is understood to be a parable on humanity's disparate nature. When the species coalesced pridefully around the construction of an imposing tower, the higher being made the decision to divide humanity. And so humans began speaking distinct languages. Along the way we've diverged on countless other practices, like tipping.

When it comes to gratuities, the United States of America outpaces its peer nations. Tipping in developing countries is especially fraught with fears over whether the funds actually end up with the intended party, among other issues. And so in some places tipping isn't necessarily expected. The same is even true in First World locales like Italy and Spain. In America, however, a reverence for hard work and "rags to riches" Horatio Alger stories, bolsters a generous tipping culture. It's not uncommon for 15 to 20 percent to be a norm for tipping for good service in an eatery.

But a movement is afoot to both protect tips and increase their amounts.

Management's practice of dipping into the tip jar prompted the summer 2010 case against New York restauranteurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, and Babbo, the highly acclaimed Manhattan-based Italian restaurant. According to the restaurant blog, Eater, Bastianich had this to say about the suit: "We're going to fight this to every inch of the law, because we know we're right." In so doing, Bastianich defended the practice of having the wait staff tithe between 4 and 5 percent to management. But this week comes word that the operating group, Pasta Resources Inc., has agreed to pay out $5.25 million in the class action settlement.

The victory for the wait staff comes at a time when high priests of the restaurant establishment have spoken out in defense of a culture of healthy tipping -- even for well drinks. A figure no less than the chief restaurant critic for TheNew York Times, Sam Sifton, used a farewell Q&A, to make that emphatic point. "[T]ip well on every round of drinks you purchase. Seriously. Every round," he wrote last June in defense of gratuitous gratuity.

Two years earlier, his predecessor, Frank Bruni, waded directly into the debate with a discussion about actual figures. He felt the 20 percent figure used for table tips should not necessarily carry over to the bar. "I don't think there's been any consensus on 20 percent as the default tip even for table service," he wrote in March 2009. "So I'm not sure why it should be the default tip for service at a bar, which is more straigthforward and usually involves a whole lot less walking."

For their part, 67 percent of respondents in a 2009 poll conducted by Down By The Hipster felt $1 was a perfectly adequate tip for a drink.

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