The Tipping Point(s)

Mimi, my coworker, looked flustered as she shoved a wad of bills into the valet’s outstretched palm.

“What did you just do?” I asked as we slid into the car and pulled away from San Francisco’s Grand Cafe.

“I tipped him $15,” she said. “The sign said free valet—what do you tip on something that’s free?”

I stared, not because I didn’t hear her but because I suddenly questioned my own years of gratuity-giving. I pondered whether I have gone through my adult life seriously under-tipping the valet. Suddenly the basic couple of bucks I’d been handing over with confidence didn’t just seem paltry; it seemed cheap. For a brief moment I wondered if tips could be like back taxes. Perhaps I could make up for past indiscretions and do a little reworking of the cosmic books by re-tipping the valets at my favorite haunts.

Although I recognized that the $15 tip was merely a reflection of my coworker’s own uncertainties on the matter (particularly when the service rendered was free), the incident sparked animated conversation with friends, family, my hairstylist, and the rest of the staff here at the magazine: What do you tip?

Faced with this apparently not-so-simple question, the aforementioned big tipper and I decided we’d try to cut through the cloudiness once and for all. Yet just as inquiring about another’s salary is considered gauche, we found asking people how much they tip erects either nonverbal cues to change the subject—awkward laughter, shifting, darting eyes—or verbose answers that sound more like a defense attorney’s summation than a simple sum.

In our about-town research, we gathered that people are willing to tip, and they certainly don’t want to under-tip, but how much is considered the right amount to tip is still unclear. One of our most surprising discoveries was that it’s wrong to assume people know to tip 15 to 20 percent in a restaurant. Even research by Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University who has written more than 40 papers on tipping, shows 30 percent of Americans surveyed weren’t aware this amount was de rigueur.

Steve Dublanica, a former server following up his New York Times best seller Waiter Rant and an appearance on Oprah with this month’s release of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity, calls tipping a relationship skill. “Tipping is something that happens between people, and it can throw a monkey wrench into our relationship with each other,” he says. “Tipping is completely voluntary unless it’s a service charge. You are under no obligation to tip if it’s lousy service.”

True enough, but even if the service received was arrogant, rude or just plain bad, people we surveyed admit they usually still leave a tip, whether out of habit, reluctance to be labeled a bad customer or general fear of the server chasing them down the street. With that much settled, we hit the streets of Marin to find out what’s considered a minimum, fair or generous tip from industry folks on the receiving end.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to restaurant tipping, says Buckeye bartender Jeff Burkhart. “It is assumed by the government (IRS) that servers receive at least 8 percent of their sales in tips. So some portion above that is always appreciated because they’ll get taxed on that percentage even if they were stiffed on a tip. Which means that the server is technically paying to wait on a non-tipping customer.”

Burkhart also reminds us that most servers and bartenders don’t keep all their tips. “In some restaurants there are bar-backs, busboys, food runners, expediters, back servers, bartenders, sommeliers and hostesses—some of whom or all of whom share in the tips.”

The biggest tip he has received? Two hundred bucks, along with half of a leftover bottle of $600 French Bordeaux…and an invitation to join the couple for a threesome. “I took two of the three.”

What do servers in the industry tip? Dawn Agnew, a waitress for over 18 years at Gary Danko, says if she has great service, “I tip 20 to 30 percent. If it is just okay service I tip 15 percent and if it is horrible, horrible service then I may leave a couple of dollars.” The industry veteran and Stinson resident says she takes everything into account: “how many tables are in the server’s section, how many servers are on the floor and whether or not the manager is helping them. If they are still giving bad service with me giving them all these outs then they don’t deserve what little I give them.”

Hair Salons
One of the most hotly debated topics during our opinion-gathering was whether or not to tip the owner of a hair salon. As tipping author Steve Dublanica has found, “a lot of people don’t tip the salon owner, and I understand why, but there are still some salon owners who like to be tipped—my own barber, he wants a tip.” It’s a sticky situation, he concedes. “There’s no tried-and-true answer, but if it’s been your habit to tip the salon owner, you’re stuck and should keep tipping. What are you going to do, turn to the guy and say I’m not tipping you anymore?”
For the owner’s side, we went to Christopher Downs of Christopher’s Salon in Tiburon. “Should an owner be tipped? That is an age-old question; everybody likes to be acknowledged and feel appreciated,” he says. Still, “I feel tipping should be left up to the discretion of the tipper. One should feel comfortable about the amount (one is) handing out. I think the value should lie upon the service that was rendered,” he adds. “Yes, the general rule of thumb is 20 percent of the service, but if the service was not up to your expectations, why encourage less-than-perfect performance on your (subsequent) service? On the other hand, if you walk away feeling amazing and elevated, than maybe you want to acknowledge the wonderful service with a 20 percent tip or more.”

Lili Shahabi, who owns Lili S. Salon in Sausalito, agrees. “Twenty percent and up for a tip, but it depends on how much they liked their service and what’s in their budget.” Shahabi says some people think the hair salon owners make more money than non-owners, but that isn’t always the case. “Sometimes the owners make less money than the other people there. It shouldn’t matter if they’re the owner. If you like something then you should tip for it.”

Postal Workers
Delivery workers like letter carriers tend to get tipped most during the holidays, but be careful what you give—some companies have policies about receiving cash gratuities. The United States Postal Service’s James Wigdel says letter carriers are not permitted to accept cash or cash equivalents such as a check or money order of any value as a gift; however, they are allowed to receive items valued at up to $20. Items can include coffee shop or retailer gift cards.

Garbage Collectors
Mill Valley Refuse manager Jim Lavarone says tips for a garbage collector tend to vary depending on the relationship a person has with the collector: “People just give what they can and the guys really appreciate it.” He says tips can be non-monetary like personally baked cookies, fruitcakes, six-packs of beer or a bottle of wine. As for cash, it depends on what people can afford. “It’s not something where you can say it’s a percentage of the bill like at a restaurant.” He’s heard of collectors in Belvedere getting $100 in tips for the holidays as a one-time bonus—but also notes that collectors may have made more in tips back when there was just one
collector per house. “Things have changed now because there’s a green can man, recycling man and garbage man. If (people are) going to tip one they’re probably going to tip three now.” That means workers are “probably making less in tips than they used to.”

Clean Air Lawn Care’s Mill Nash says tips for gardening services depend on the level of service. “If it’s a simple mow-and-blow I’m probably not getting tipped. If I’m giving a lot of service throughout the year sometimes I’ll get a nice card and $100.” Nash says the tips are never expected, but if you have a regular garden or lawn service provider, tipping one or two services’ worth during the holidays is pretty standard.

Newspaper Delivery
That morning paper comes perfectly protected from the elements due to the hard work of paper delivery people. Charlie Longer, a home delivery manager at the Marin Independent Journal, says tipping varies, but some customers tip between $5 and $50 for the holidays. Others tip with every payment, usually rounding to the next $5 or $10 level.

It’s always a good idea to show generosity to someone who is caring for your child. At Town & Country Resources, a household staffing agency, owner Jens Hillen says he’s heard clients are paying household staff anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to 5 or 10 percent of the nanny’s annual salary for a holiday bonus.

At Piatti in Mill Valley, which offers free valet parking during lunch on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, valets average $3 to $5 per tip, and most patrons do tip on pickup. The biggest tip a valet has received: $20.

Still not sure what to tip? Tipping guru Steve Dublanica suggests picking up an etiquette book or just remember, “like not peeing in a public pool, tipping is a nice thing people do for each other.”

What the experts say …

Phil Bronstein, newspaper editor
Tips to news delivery people should try not to reflect the decreasing weight of the papers themselves. You used to have to give the Sunday New York Times guy about $25 toward his hernia operation. Now (the paper is) almost a feather. But if it’s worth all the money we’re paying these days to still get news on newsprint—I like it despite my own heavy iPad use—it’s worth acknowledging the people who have to schlep it to you.
I should be religious about this myself, even though I give at the office. But since I’ve probably been delinquent and cheap in the past, let me just say that this year I plan to tip all newspaper deliverers $25.

Karl Hoagland partner, Larkspur Hotels
Meal? At least 15 percent but I usually round up to 20. For great service and positive attitude at inexpensive restaurants (like a pizza place) I will go well above 20 percent to make a statement—for $5 extra you can really make someone’s day.
Tip on the tax? Yes
Subtract the wine? No—if I’m drinking I’m usually in a more generous mood anyway.
Tip on takeout? I usually round up to the nearest $10. Working a busy takeout business is probably harder and more hectic than waiting tables.

Peter Schumacher, local restaurateur
Valet? $3 to $5
Meal? 20 percent for good service, between 20 and 25 percent for outstanding service.
Tip on the tax? Yes
Tip on the wine? Yes
Tip on takeout? Yes, 5 to 10 percent of total bill.

Michael Mina, local restaurateur
Valet? $5
Meal? At least 20 percent
Tip on the tax? Yes
Subtract the wine cost from the tip? Never

Sammy Hagar, musician, restaurateur
Valet? Because I have special cars I tip $10 to $20.
Meal? 20 percent minus wine always—because I buy expensive wine—and no on tax.
Tip on takeout? Most times
I tip $10 to $20.

Tolan and Tyler Florence, Food Network host, restaurant and retail entrepreneur
Valet? $5
Meal? We always tip minimum 20 percent depending on service, sometimes 30 percent if the service was phenomenal and yes, we tip that on top of tax and wine.
Tip on takeout? Yes.

Larry Mindel, founder of Il Fornaio
Valet? $5
Meal? 20 percent
Tip on the tax? Yes
Tip on the wine? Yes
Tip on takeout? Yes

Joseph Humphrey, Michelin-star chef
Meal? Usually 20 percent unless treated terribly.
Tip on the tax? Usually not on the tax.
Tip on the wine? Yes, unless I go really big.
Tip on takeout? Usually a couple of bucks.

Hotel Tips

Jon Kimball, Tiburon resident and general manager, Westin St. Francis
Has hotel tipping changed? Yes I’ve been in the business for 25 years, and I believe guests are more generous and appreciative of exceptional service. Restaurant gratuities are moving from what was once 15 percent traditional to 20 percent. More and more guests are carrying their own bag, utilizing roller bags. Bell service is less utilized.

What are some standards?
Bellhop: $1 to $2.50 per bag based on how outgoing bellmen may be in showing guests around the hotel and guest room.  
Maid service: $1 to $2 per night
Valet: $2 to $5, depending on how quickly the car is retrieved and how service-focused the valet is (just tip on the pickup).
Concierge service: For truly exceptional assistance $5 to $20 per request or after the entire stay.
Doorman to hail a taxi: $1
If you need something like a toothbrush or sewing kit and a hotel worker brings it up are you supposed to tip? It is not necessary but always appreciated, $2 per delivery.
If there is something missing from the room such as hair dryer or towels and a hotel worker brings it to you do you still tip? No, I don’t believe this is necessary.

Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.