When it comes to tipping there are basically 3 types of people: those that tip decently pretty much all the time (15% ish or more), those that tip 10% (seriously people, 10% is so 1970's) and those that tip anything less than that, which frequently is about the equivalent of throwing pennies at h00kers. Oh, wait, sorry, there is a 4th type - the person who when this sort of conversation comes up claims to be around the 15% mark but is really a 7-10% sort.
Now, giving my lovely readers credit, I shall presume you all are in the "15%+" category, but in case you know someone who isn't this post is for them, please pass it on. I think that most of the people who are in the 10% or less category think that servers already get paid to do a job, and they don't get tips at their job so why should they have to tip, blah blah blah. I will do my best to explain why (dad, I hope you are finally listening!)
Their job probably offers some sort of security in the form of a guaranteed number of hours per week. Servers don't get that. A "full-time" server probably averages 30-35 hours a week, often taking 6 days to reach that many hours, or numerous split-shifts that essentially make their work day 11+ hours as there isn't really enough time to do anything in between those shifts. Servers only get raises when minimum wage goes up. Imagine if after years and years of service you were at the exact same wage. Servers don't get health care. I know not all other jobs do either, but servers almost exclusively do not. Servers, with few exceptions are not "allowed" to call in sick. Many restaurants will demand that a server fill their own shift if they want to call in sick - you try doing that while exploding from both ends.
Servers, particularly in chain restaurants have very shaky job security. As corporate almost always tends to err on the side of the customer being right, even the most untruthful complaint can cause a server to lose their job, god forbid that lying customer come back and see that that someone wasn't fired for the supposed injustice. Thankfully I work at a pretty decent place now, with good management that trusts their staff, but I have seen this sort of thing happen at other places many times.
A big thing that you may not realize is that most servers have to pool their tips, so you are not just subsidizing their wage, but also that of the cooks, hostesses, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers and expediters (the people who put the finishing touches on your plate before it hits the table). I love when I have a table that hands me my tip (usually a really sweet senior citizen type) and says "now, this is just for you dear, don't give any to anyone else". If only it worked that way. I always take the opportunity to explain it to them and usually they are quite surprised.
Restaurant owners underpay almost all of their staff because, in theory, etiquette in Canada dictates that customers will tip 15-20%. Let me give you an example, it is a bit of an extreme, but I want to make sure everyone understands just what I mean...
Flo (as that is such a fantastically stereotypical server name) goes into Chainy McChainigan's for her Friday night shift. She sees that she has a party of 10 coming in for dinner as well as a couple of other tables in her section. The timing of everything goes well that night, the party is in celebrating Grandma's 75th birthday and everyone is having a good time. Food comes as ordered, refills on drinks are prompt and Flo even makes a special birthday moment for Grandma*. Number one son picks up the tab for the whole table, joy! One bill is so much easier and means that service doesn't suffer for Flo's other tables while she processes multiple payments. The bill is $439.61. Flo quickly calculates in her head that the host should probably round that up to $500 even** The host hands her the billfold and tells her to keep the change. There is $450 in it. Oh yes, this happens far more often than you would think. Especially at the holidays.
Thankfully Flo has other tables tonight, some days aren't as lucky. This table just cost her money out of her own pocket to serve. What? How you ask? Well, let's break Flo's table down, using tip out at my restaurant. Their bill was $386 before tax, Flo will have tipped out $4.82 (1.25% of all sales) to the host/cook/dishwasher tip pool, $3.86 (1% of all sales) to the bartender, the expediter gets a minimum of $2 (however, on a Friday night, $5 is generally the amount given) and there are 3 bussers on so at a minimum of $2 each that is $6. So, the $10.39 tip that Flo received does not cover the $16.68 that Flo is tipping out (minimum), if this was her only table for the night she would have gone home with $6.29 less in her pocket than she came with.
Obviously with this example it is a bit extreme, and yes, servers usually have other tables and it mostly balances in the end, but how would you feel if you came to work and your wage for the day was at the whim of the patrons? Serving is like a form of commission sales, but without a guaranteed rate. At least if you sell cars you know exactly what commission you are getting, the customer can't lower the price of the car by deciding that they don't want you to get commission on that sale.
So if it's so horrible, why don't we all go get "real" jobs? Well, some people genuinely enjoy serving and they are very good at it and why would they not deserve to earn a living wage? Sure, if you're a good server, serving is pretty easy and can be pretty good money, but most certainly not everybody can do it. Yes, a trained monkey could physically bring you food, but when it comes down to it, that's not what serving is. Just because an engineer finds their job easy (as it is a skill set that may come easily to them) does that mean that they should only be paid minimum wage? A bunch of you just piped up with "but they went to school for years for that!". Please don't underestimate the humble server - many of them have university degrees as well - perhaps serving is just what it turns out they are best at. Plus, if we all went out and got "real" jobs - who would serve you dinner?
So, and I promise this will be my last "world's colliding" post for a while, if you are out for dinner, please keep this post in mind. If someone else picks up the tab, don't be afraid to discreetly pull the server aside and confirm that they received a proper tip; don't use an open ended "did my friend tip ok?" that is very awkward to answer, a better question is more specific - "did my friend tip at least 15%", and top up if they didn't. And on the off chance that you genuinely received poor service (remembering rule #1 from my last post - Intend to enjoy yourself) speak to a manager. If it was a food issue rather than a service issue, again, speak to a manager, chances are they will adjust the bill accordingly and then you would still tip for the service on the amount of the original bill.
*Do not make your server do this. No one likes birthday songs/announcements/moose antlers etc. If you just want whatever is free for a birthday the server will still be obliged to bring you the dessert, and seriously, so long as you tip well, they don't care if you ask for the free dessert, it doesn't come out of their pocket. Just don't ask for the damn song.
**I believe that in theory tipping occurs on the before tax amount, however in practice I think that most people, myself included, tip on the after tax amount as it is the number in large font at the bottom. On smaller cheques it is sort of neither here nor there. With Flo's large table it means the pre-tax was about $386, so a $58 tip would be 15%, on the after tax amount it would be almost $66. When this happens, I am okay with rounding to whatever makes sense, in this case $500 total would make sense.