TIPPING: AN ORAL HISTORY

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Server, TRENDY SOHO restaurant 

Tipping where I work is pretty good because it’s a bougie Soho restaurant that's part of a broader corporation. We are a pool house, which is very common for a New York restaurant, so everyone’s tip goes into a grand total at the end of a shift. Then each person is tipped out of that money based on their position and the hours they worked during that shift. What people don’t know about tipping sometimes is that it’s not just the server their tip is going to. Where I work, the servers, the bussers, the runners, the bartenders, the baristas, the maitre d', the hosts, and the bar-back all get some of the money from your tip. So while we're associated with a major restaurant corp, we make the same amount money you could make at a much lower-end restaurant. 

We also get cash tips once a week based on the number of hours we worked the week before. One guy counts the whole thing up and divides it out on Tuesdays. It’s usually anywhere from $50-$100 depending on how busy it is and how many hours you worked. Other quirks include tourists who think that an American tip is 10% when it's 18-22%. That pisses me off. 

For taxes, we declare all of our credit card tips. We don’t declare the cash. 

I like the pool house system because it usually means that money is consistent despite having a bad day. You don’t have to rely on being the person in the room pulling all the weight every night. It also means you can go home before all your checks are closed and makes your schedule a little more flexible.

The restaurant industry is heinous, demeaning, and I hate it. But it pays pretty well!

 

Dancer, Underground "Gentleman's club"

The underground spot where I work is much like any strip club, only there are no poles. It’s just a regular bar setting with dancers waiting to chat with men before offering them a lap dance in the “dance room.” The fee is $20 per song, which the dancer keeps track of. We often explain that $20 is the set cost, but that the customer may tip in addition.

You may get a customer that you’ve met before who you have a relationship with – these are often the more generous tippers, but not always. The best tippers in my experience have been men I get along with extremely well who are there to entertain guests, and decide to spend their night chatting with me while getting a dance with a promise that the time spent with them would be worth it. This usually leads to the biggest sum made in a night while not having to deal with potentially creepy or annoying individuals.

The worst tippers are often men who took out a certain amount of money from the ATM and have decided that is the total that they will be spending that night, a.k.a. “the budgeters.” Often these individuals spend time talking to you and go back for dances for only one or two songs. They are also frequently cheap enough to claim that the song wasn’t long enough, something the dancer has no control over (and they’re all standard length anyway).

Often enough, these characters will also try to get as much for their money as they can by groping and being far more aggressive than other customers. This is incredibly annoying and disrespectful for the dancer, not to mention they’re already maxed out so they will likely not tip you on top of what they owe you. Older men are usually more willing to spend. Guys in their twenties think they’re hot shit and don’t feel like they need to spend money on dancers, so usually it doesn’t make sense to dance for that clientele. Typically they also make less (no shade).

 

server, manhattan social club & bottle SERVICE, Brooklyn nightclub

I work at member’s only social club – from what I hear, it used to be baller. I kid you not, a certain multimillionaire used to attend and literally pull Benjamins from his wallet and hand one to each of the staff working on New Years. And you don’t even have to tip for the New Years Party! It’s open bar! Sadly, I never got to experience this kind of extravagance – people were much more willing to ball out in 2007 (but people also wore fedoras back then, so that should tell you something about their judgement). 

The thing about a members club is that you will see these people over and over – you’re expected to socialize and befriend them. And sometimes you genuinely like them! But also, sometimes you genuinely think that you’re friends with a member and he brings in his friends for dinner one night and you do some customary flirting all night and maybe give them a few drinks on you – then they have the gall to split a $300 check and tip you FIVE DOLLARS EACH. Then every time you see him, you will know his secret: he is a Bad Tipper and a Bad Guy. 

But other times, it can be great! Sometimes a certain film exec will come in and tip you $100 on a $150 bill because his friend enjoyed talking to you. 

On weekends I also work bottle service at a club in Williamsburg! Here is The Rule for being a bottle girl: ALWAYS. ADD. AUTOGRATUITY. If you’re lucky, they’re so wasted that they don’t even realize that you already gave yourself 20% and tip you $200 extra and you get to finally buy those Louboutin shoes you’ve been eyeing. 

On the other hand, if you’re unlucky and forget The Rule on a Friday night – even if the bill is under $100 – they’re going be so wasted that they forgot that they even asked to pay and will only scribble in a measly $5 on an $80 tab. And then their annoying friends will think they can touch you and ask you out. Not for $5 you can’t! And then you have to call security on them. You’re worth more than that! At least 20% more – then we’ll talk.

 

Bartender, East Village Dive bar

As someone new to the U.S. and the culture of tipping at bars, when I first starting working in one I found the system very strange, not just that people would give you money, but that you would, without words, encourage them to give you that money through your actions – for example, when someone needs five dollars in change, you give them five dollars in one-dollar bills, rather than a single five-dollar bill.

The standard minimum to tip is one dollar a drink. Bearing in mind that I’m basically paid in tips, when someone tips two dollars a drink, I definitely really appreciate it and make the judgement that the person either understands what it’s like being behind the bar, or is intentionally being more generous than the minimum. It also makes me more likely to give them shots on the house or something to say thank you.

It’s definitely a psychological game. You play around with the change you give. For example, when I serve someone two drinks and they need six dollars in change, do I give them a  five-dollar and one-dollar bill and hope they have a one-dollar bill in their wallet or more, or ask you for change for the five-dollar bill? I used to do this, but sometimes people don’t have any other ones so they instead just leave the one-dollar bill I give them as part of the change. That annoys me, because they know that they aren’t tipping as they should. Recently, I have started giving six dollars in one-dollar bills, and it’s been working pretty well so far. Another element: when I know people have one-dollar bills – either because I have already given them multiple, or I see in their hands they have extra ones, do I still give them five dollars in ones to let them know I know they have money to tip and assume that they will? If I give a five-dollar bill am I discouraging them from tipping me?

I also remember feeling anxious, and still do, about when I should pick the money up and put it in my tip jar. If I take it straight away, will that make me seem too pouncy? Do I leave it on the bar for a little bit and worry about having money on the table, which leaves time for people to take their tip back or use it to spend the money on buying another drink if they don’t have cash left? That’s happened a few times. Is it sneaky to take it while they’ve gone out for a smoke or to the bathroom?

When people don’t tip, especially people from the States, or they tip two dollars on three drinks, that bugs me. People from outside of the States I have more patience for because maybe they don’t know how it works here. But Americans know the system, and an extra dollar to them wouldn’t make that much difference, but to me, those extra dollars make up my livelihood.

The other thing that bugs me is when people ask for cocktails – particularly young people  – and they tip one dollar or none at all. The time and effort and care gone into making someone a cocktail is much more significant than opening a beer bottle. I have more glasses and equipment to clean and I could serve two or three people in the time taken to make someone a cocktail, making two or three times more money, so to tip one dollar I think is cheap. If you’re feeling plush enough to have a cocktail, you can feel plush enough to pay and respect the bartender for making it for you.

Some people are really good at calling patrons out on not tipping. I’ve been told a few good lines, some more passive-aggressive, others just straight-forward, but not until very recently did I actually say something. I guess I didn’t before because I felt awkward fighting over a dollar or two, and question myself whether it’s worth saying something. Sometimes I think it is, because it lets people know that their actions aren’t cool, not just where I work but at other places they go to, too. The one time I did say something was to someone I know, a semi-regular, who had their drinks paid for by their partner. They had several drinks and cocktails over the night, I’d given them a few on the house as well, but they didn’t tip at all. If they were just having beers, maybe I wouldn’t have said anything, but cocktails as well… I couldn’t not, because it wasn’t cool. The person I told was super nice and apologized a lot and tipped me after. I did feel weird taking the money though.

The other etiquette that I feel people should know and act upon is to tip more when it comes to being in the bar late at night, say after 2:00 AM. The bartender is still working and probably is tired, and if the bar isn’t busy, they aren’t making money. It’s nice to make it economically worthwhile to still be serving drinks.