Tipping Etiquette

In Career on January 7, 2010 at 11:07 pm

20%, baby, all the way. Photo courtesy of

Dear Yenta,

My friends come to my bar and I give them at least a couple of free drinks. Do they not realize that they’re supposed to tip me? What is an appropriate tip on a free drink? On a drink that’s only 2 dollars? On a drink that’s 10 dollars?

-Sucker Punched

Dear SP,

I was once an extremely generous tipper. I learned this habit from my restaurateur, bartender, barista and service-working co-workers. It was a revelation to me, how people who earned not a huge amount still were able to give so much back to other servers. No rich person of the many I had dined with had ever dished out so much dough. In the service industry there was a code of conduct and I learned to follow.

This meant, if you sat at someone’s bar and they gave you free drinks, you tipped at least 20% of the would-be price, or in our case, sometimes we would leave up to a hundred dollars on the bar. If you hadn’t been drinking for free, those bar stools would have been occupied by paying customers. While a bar seemed like a party to us on one end, our buddy behind the counter was earning a living from our good time.

My friends got free diner meals as managers and still left a twenty on the table every time. It was a way of saying thank you, of saying, “I know even though I am eating free that you are still working damn hard.”

Later, a rich friend of mine from childhood came into my restaurant and I saw that she tipped my co-worker 10%. This was after sitting and using a seat, asking for water, and taking up potential revenue space for hours. I was ashamed of my friend in that moment, and then realized it wasn’t her fault. If you never worked in the service industry, you never learned a number of things.

For one: what is a tip? A tip, in America, is not just a sign of gratitude for service. European customers often tipped a dollar or two for a forty-dollar meal. This wasn’t because they were rude, it was because they came from a whole other world of tipping culture where waiters were paid in full, and tips really were just an extra perk. In America, generally, service workers are paid around $2.75 an hour, expecting that the rest will be made in tips. This means, in theory, by tipping ten percent, after taxes, etc., your server ends up paying to bring you your meal.

It is standard to tip 20% everywhere you go. This includes a snack counter, where it seems like they aren’t working: but honey, they are. Tips, often unbeknownst to the untrained tipper, can make or break someone’s day. I had customers who left a twenty after ordering a $2 cup of coffee, and others who dangled dollars and lewd compliments in front of my face after ordering $100 worth of alcohol.

My boss on a farm once taught us that a customer’s bad mood is an opportunity to change someone’s day. He revolutionized how I saw rudeness, less as an affront, and more as an opportunity for change. Moral of the story? Tip, tip always, and tip well. If you are given a discounted meal, tip 20% of the original price. The server should never get stiffed because you were given a freebie.

If you order a $2 coffee, tip at least one dollar. Always round up. I would tip at least $2. $10 drinks: tip at the very least, $2. If the bartender is your friend, tip double. I would probably leave $5 for a $10 drink if I knew the bartender. Remember that bartenders often deal with horrible human behavior. Your tip is not just about money so much as about extra appreciation for not having to mix your own martini in your living room.

These tipping moments won’t bankrupt you; they will pass on the love. You don’t need to be as gung ho as servers are with each other, but you do need to give back appropriately upon receiving.

No matter what, it is still a deal. Money at a bar is less a payment and more like applause for a fabulous show. You want to applaud and give appreciation for the human busting ass to keep you drunk and happy. Also remember that a service worker serves everyone, the good the bad and the ugly, and that they deserve a little cushioning in gratitude for enduring the public and all that comes with it.

For more on tipping in other situations, go to

Have a burning question? Ask me anything by clicking here and sending your e-mail to merissag[at]gmail[dot]com.

  1. Very useful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: