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In The Weeds: Dear CJ

September 21, 2010

Dear AbbyI’ve been learnin’ ya’ll on the proper tipping percentage for more than a year now.  When you receive a total for services received – be that from a cabbie, hairdresser or server – you should tip 20 percent on that total for competent service.  It tends to get a little dicier when there is no set amount for the service received, like when a bellman carries your bags or the mail man starts to linger and “chat” around the holidays (if you haven’t figured it out, he wants a tip).    I received a couple questions this week regarding various tipping protocols and I’m going to reprint them here because, well, I’ve always thought it would be sweet to have my own advice column like that scamming sister team of Abby Van Buren and Ann Landers.

Dear CJ:

Something I’ve always been curious about – what are the guidelines for tipping a concierge?

I’ve never consulted one for more than show tickets or a dinner reservation, but what is an acceptable amount for a straightforward request like that? What if I needed you to find me a Thriller jacket or a skywriter?



I can say that as a concierge, I never expected a tip for straight forward requests. How to find the elevator, directions to the airport, enhancing your self esteem with customary ass kissing, etc. Unlike a server, a concierge actually gets paid an hourly wage that is well above minimum and not some $2.13 per hour BS. When someone did throw me a bone for those simple things, it was a welcome surprise…like finding a five dollar bill in your jeans pocket.

It can be a little confusing, but most concierge services should be viewed on a sliding scale. The more outrageous or difficult, the more cash you should expect to shell out. Guests seem to fall into 3 categories when tipping:
1) Tip Up Front – This guest tips as soon as he arrives and says something like, “I know you are going to take great care of me this week. I will have several requests.” This is most certainly never good. He will produce $20, $50 or even $100, yet the reach of the requests always far outpaces the pay. And he will take every advantage because he feels you owe him something and because, well..basically, people who like to tip up front are just kinda douchey.
2) Tip As He Goes – The guest who tips as he goes is perfectly acceptable and appreciated. However, you can tell that he is a little torn each time about what to produce. I think it’s too stressful for the guest to always have cash and to try to calculate on the spot how much each request is worth.
3) Tips At Checkout – Luuuuuuvs it. The best guests usually write a small thank you note and include some lump sum for the total services provided. If the concierge made several dinner resos, booked some spa appts, gave advice and direction on the best things to see and do, etc….a perfectly acceptable amount would range from $25 to $100. If the concierge found a Thriller jacket along with a choreographer to teach you every step of the video, the expectation would be much higher.

Dear CJ:

I understand the tipping average is 20%, and I follow along with our cultural custom accordingly.  I always start with a base tip of 20% and adjust it higher or lower depending on the quality of the service.  I also know that a long wait for food is, 99 times out of 100, not the fault of my server.  The kitchen may be backed up on a busy night, someone with a death-inducing allergy may have ordered a special dish that requires the whole kitchen to enter slow-motion, or the cooks/chef may just not be paying attention.  So, things that are out of my server’s control are not included in how I decide to tip.

That all said, I don’t understand why tips are expected to be determined based on the cost of the food.  I know it is, and I tip that way.  Again, it isn’t my server’s fault that American culture is the way it is.  But, is there any sort of explanation for that?  If I go out to dinner with a friend, does the server do more work taking the order and delivering my $30 lobster dish than he/she does taking the order and delivering my friend’s $10 chicken sandwich?  Is my $5 dessert not as difficult as the $12 one my friend ordered?  From my, admittedly, inexperienced eyes, it seems that the server does the same amount of work for both me and my friend when we dine together, regardless of the price differential in our meals.

Again, even though I don’t understand why tips are, or even should be, calculated this way, I abide by the custom and do it.  I may not like how tips are calculated, and may not even be a fan of the cultural expectation that I have to tip just for going out to eat.  But, just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean that I am not voluntarily agreeing to abide by the social contract when I sit down and open the menu.

Your blog is great, and a very entertaining read.  I hope you can help shine some light on this subject for me, and help me understand why it is that I tip the way I do when I dine out.

Thanks for everything!


Dear Christopher:

As a rule, people who order a $12 dessert are just higher maintenance than those who order a $5 dessert, and servers must be compensated to deal with those pricks.  Just kidding.  I understand your question to be “why does a server get paid more to deliver a higher priced item?”  Or it could be taken as “why must I pay more to the server when I have a taste for kobe beef instead of vegetable pasta?”

I’d encourage you to view your dining experience as an overall production and not simply a collection of line item numbers.  For example, restaurants have a general price range depending on many factors such as location, ambiance, quality of ingredients, chef experience or talent, popularity, etc.  The higher the overall price range, the more you are going to pay in gratuity.  A place that serves $30 lobster and $12 desserts likely has servers who are not only very experienced, but have also proven that they can provide the level of service that a discriminating guest demands.  At higher price points, you’ve moved way beyond a simple order taker and into the realm of servers who must memorize thousands of ingredients in ever changing dishes, wine varietals and the best pairings among hundreds of bottles and palettes, and the all elusive ability to “read” a table, delivering the perfect guest experience unique to “that” guest and not just the routine steps of service taught by the corporate office.

For this reason, I would encourage you to decide on the overall range of experience you’d like to have before selecting a restaurant.  I, for example, would not pay for lobster at a certain place that has a graphic of a lobster in their logo.  Nor would I order a chicken sandwich at Nobu.  This is why servers at higher end restaurants tend to (hopefully internally) roll their eyes at the people who order the Caesar salad and grilled chicken (i.e. amateurs).  It’s not that we are upset about not earning the extra money, it’s just that the guest is clearly missing what the place has to offer.  Oh, okay, you’re right.  We’re also pissed about the extra money, but it’s totally secondary.

I might have gotten off track.  I guess that Dear Abby bitch did have a modicum of talent for getting her point across in 100 words or less.  Boiled down, I encourage you to first select the type of experience that you’d like to have on any given night.  Enjoy that experience for what it should offer and don’t sweat the few dollars of difference in gratuity within your chosen range.  And for the record, it is harder to deliver a lobster.  Beyond all the extra crap required (bibs, hot towels, claw crackers, lemons), those suckers are rather unruly both alive and recently deceased.

Thanks for your questions!


Dear CJ


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3 Responses to “ In The Weeds: Dear CJ ”

  1. nativenapkin on September 21, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    My advice is to seek professional counseling, tell “lover boy” to shape up or ship out, and unless your server spills boiling hot coffee on you, tip 20%…

  2. Amy J on September 24, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Servers also tip out at least 4% (chains) up to 6% (fine dining) for their support staff. Margins in restaurants are slim and that $2.13/hr essentially lets a server ‘rent’ a station for a night. The IRS now requires they declare at least 12% of gross sales – it’s not the same gig it was when you were in college.

  3. teleburst on September 28, 2010 at 9:29 am

    There’s another rationale behind a percentage based on the cost of the meal, and it’s something that most people don’t consider. It’s a matter of volume. A server at an expensive restaurant will wait on far fewer guests than a server in a less expensive restaurant.

    In my current restaurant of $75 per head, I’ll usually only wait on 6 -= 20 guests, while in my previous restaurant, I wouldwait on 20 – 60.

    The pressure of churn and burn vs. more “manageable” service has tradeoffs. For the churn and burn type place, the pressure to hit all of the marks is less than that in a “fancier” restaurant, but the work itself can be harder and more physical. Keeping the percentage the same tends to make things a little fairer for both types of servers and is logical, especially if you think of tipping as a variation of a commission. A Jaguar salesman will generally make more per car because of the price of the vehicle, but a Kia salesman might make the same at the end of the day due to the number of cars that he or she sells even if the commission rate is the same.

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