Gratuitous Advice; Tipping For The Math-Impaired

By Sheila Himmel, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, CA – 01/05/2001 – 12:00am


IF YOUR dinner tab is $82.19 and you’re leaving happy, what’s the tip? Do you first subtract the sales tax (yes) and the wine (no)? Double the tax to get a bit less than 17 percent? Get a headache?

When people dine with Maureen West, they usually have her handle it. West is the math and science coordinator for Santa Clara County’s 33 school districts.

Why are percentages so hard? As West sees it, ”People get confused because you’re talking about parts of a whole. How can 98 percent be less than one whole? And it involves a lot of language we don’t use very specifically. ‘You do this and move it over and do that.’ ”

Naturally, percentage-phobics whip out their calculators. ”Then, everyone’s sitting there in a dark, elegant restaurant with their solar calculators,” West says.

Tipping has changed. Not only are calculators welcome at the table, but you may also see gratuity guidelines printed on your bill. By the time the credit card receipt arrives, many people have forgotten that the total now includes the sales tax. No restaurant is going to remind them. And the expected tip, for years an easy 10 percent, is at least 15 percent. At least. The standard for excellent service is edging toward 20 percent.

Which may help with the math. It’s that pesky 5 that seems to baffle people.

Help provided by the industry has been slow to catch on. American Express offers laminated cards that explain tipping to international guests, whosehome countries probably have different customs. This started with the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, when restaurants noticed that many Europeans, particularly, didn’t understand that service was not included in the bill. The American Express tipping card explains in five languages: ”Quality service is customarily acknowledged by a gratuity of 15
percent to 20 percent.”

Wells Fargo is among the banks that offer gratuity guidelines printed directly on the credit card receipt, calculated for 15 and 20 percent. Gratuity guidelines have shown up in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and resort areas of California.

”We haven’t had a tremendous amount of requests for this,” says Debra Rossi, the Wells Fargo senior vice president in charge of these accounts. And restaurant insiders are convinced Silicon Valley would not appreciate the help. Here, nobody wants to be told what to do, even when it might clear things up.

”Tacky,” says Felipe Azoulay, general manager of The Grill in downtown San Jose. ”That’s a little presumptuous,” says Forrest Gingold, chef at La Pastaia, another business-oriented restaurant downtown.

”People are tipped out,” says Aimee Hebert, co-owner of Sent Sovi in Saratoga. ”Everywhere you go there’s a tip jar.” Hebert is concerned that more numbers on the bill, such as suggested tip amounts, would just further irritate consumers.

To John Dunlap, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, gratuity guidelines raise a freedom-of-choice issue.

”The tip is the one lever a diner has to control price,” says Dunlap.
Even though the guidelines are just suggestions, he adds, ”When you put some kind of service charge on the bill, it seems mandatory.”

Still, Dunlap says, when he was young and didn’t know how to tip, guidelines would have been welcome. Dunlap recently traveled to Europe. In the area of Italy he visited, service was included in the bill. In Switzerland, it wasn’t.

Neal Brast, physician in Palo Alto and a serious foodie, wouldn’t mind seeing printed guidelines. ”I would appreciate it,” Brast says. ”I wouldn’t have to do the math. Especially if I’ve had a glass of wine.”

Brast went to France this spring, and naturally made a pilgrimage to Taillevant and Arpege, three-star Michelin temples where the tip is included. There is no freedom of befuddlement.

In the United States, teacher West has noticed, people are almost proud of math impairment. ”People feel free to say: ‘I’m just not good at math!’ ” Nobody likes to say: ”I can’t read!”

Once those declarations are made, the bill gets passed around the table. As West sees it, ”People start getting out their wallets. God save you if you’re the last one it comes to.” Then you’re the one to figure out the fair shares, or swallow the difference. Leadership is called for.

People dining with West tend to say, ”Oh Maureen, you do the math.”
But what if Susan just has salad and a soda, while Bob has steak and a martini? Maureen has to glean the intentions of the group. Do they want to just split it?

If not, other problems arise. People look at the bill and say, ”I’ve got $18 worth of food here. I’ll add 15 percent.” They forget about the sales tax.

The final straw is that some pay with cash, others with credit cards. Do we now understand why restaurants commonly slap 15 to 18 percent onto the bill of large groups? ”It would be nice to have gratuity guidelines you could use if you wanted, or printed on other side of bill,” West says.

Gratuity guidelines solve the opening problem. On a base of $82.19, a restaurant in San Francisco that employs this software tells you that 15 percent is $12.32 and 20 percent is $16.43. Just a suggestion.

In that case, the service had been better than usual but not stupendous. Tip: $15. Simple. At A.P. Stump’s in downtown San Jose, manager Richard Toscano has mixed feelings about suggested tips. ”If you leave it off, they tip more.”

That is, unless it’s a large party, he adds. Then confusion reigns. Or, individuals feel less responsible because no one is looking directly at themfor the gratuity. A.P. Stump’s adds the common service charge of 15 percent to tables of eight or more.

And, says Toscano, ”Some people are just plain-out cheap.” Some, taken aback by how much they’ve spent on food and wine, will try to make it up on the tip.

Some use the tip as a threat. The server better do this or that or get stiffed. Patrons may not realize that servers make minimum wage, that the tip is really their salary.

Toscano says of the withholders, ”It’s like telling a lawyer, thank God you got that report in on time. I won’t have to withhold your pay. Lawyers would swallow their tongues.”

Hebert of Sent Sovi sees two categories of tippers: those who just about always leave 15 percent to 20 percent, and those whose tips reflect more their personality than the service. If they got something they didn’t like or the fish was dry, the server gets 10 percent.

Delfina in San Francisco has gratuity guidelines printed on the check. Co-owner Anne Spencer says, ”There’s been hardly any response. It saves people getting out their calculators.” Servers share up to 40 percent of their tips with bus workers, dishwashers, the bar, the kitchen. Oliveto’s in Oakland started a system of monthly tipouts that others have adopted. Usually, though, the servers decide what amount and with whom to share.

Azoulay, new manager of The Grill, is maintaining the restaurant’s two-person server teams. They pool tips and then pay the bus worker 15 percent and the bar 10 percent.

”Fifteen percent is still the standard tip,” says Azoulay. ”If a server is knowledgeable, attentive, particularly good, 20 percent.”

Sue Fox, Etiquette Guru of Silicon Valley, agrees.

”In a fine restaurant I’d tip 20 percent if I’m completely happy, minus tax,” she says. ”But if you’re not in a big city or a fine restaurant, you can get away with 15 percent.”

She gets the final word on restaurant tipping:

”If the sommelier is particularly helpful, tip 15 percent of the cost of the wine. That tip is in addition to your normal tip to the server of 15 percent to 20 percent of the cost of
the dinner, including wine.”

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