We always love tipping questions, and yesterday Michael Bauer tackled a good one: How do you tip on free food? He pretty much hit the nail on the head by pointing out that you basically need to tip on what the meal would have cost. You’re getting the same service and same product, so the server should get the same compensation, despite how nice the establishment’s being. Fair enough.
But what if the server is hooking you up, either without the consent of the establishment or as part of some discretion with which he or she is imbued? What then? You’re not only getting the stuff for free, you’re getting it for free as a direct result of the server’s decision making. You have to tip higher, we think.
Not that they’re any kind of reliable source, but the question reminded us of a very practical piece of advice published in Vice Magazine a couple years ago: “If a bartender friend gives you a free drink, give him at least a dollar tip per drink and then give him an extra $5 every four drinks. That’s still only $8 for four drinks, so what’s your problem?”
That seems like a reasonable way to handle the free drinks question. As for free desserts/food/drinks hooked up by your friend the server in a restaurant setting, it might be a little more complicated. You definitely need to tip more, because your friend is hooking you up.
We put it to Dan Powell, who spent two years waiting tables at, and three years as a manager at Sparky’s restaurant. He pointed out that freebies can come in the form of a server not charging you for something you ordered, or sending out something free that you didn’t order. For striking an order from the bill, Powell said, “I’ll tip them 50 percent of what that Item would have cost me, on top of the regular tip.”
For a freebie sent at random from the kitchen, Powell said, “If they just bring me something for free, I usually do a hefty amount just to show I appreciate that they’ll do that for me. I just want to throw something back at them for doing something nice for me.” There’s no set rule, he said. The principle is the thing.
Then again, most restaurants pool tips between the kitchen, servers, bussers and dish washers. Maybe this is jerky, but none of those other shmoes in the kitchen or the floor risked their job to get you that free brownie, so you should figure out some way to give an extra reward to your friend the server.
We though dropping a scratcher or two into the server’s apron pocket might get a smile. Scratchers are always fun, and hey, they may pay off. Plus, they’re pretty cheap, and they can’t be pooled. “It would definitely add a minute of novelty to the night, doing something like that,” Powell said. “Any kind of novel tip that still has the potential for monetary value is going to make your server’s night so much better.”
You’ve got to keep your server friend happy, if not for your own friendship, then to keep those freebies coming. We can’t all dine on an expense account. Though something tells us a scratcher, while a hit at Sparky’s, won’t fit the vibe at Michael Mina or someplace, so you may also keep some cash on hand.
[Photo: via bookish in north park/flickr]