The Tipping Economy

We Are the 20%: What Tips Mean to Servers, Bartenders, Doormen, and Baristas

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

In this week’s issue of New York, Adam Platt tried (unsuccessfully) to go gratuity-free, as he wondered if it were time to topple the institution of tipping. Here we talk to some of the estimated 20 percent of workers who rely on tips — bartenders, servers, doormen, and baristas — about the difference gratuities make to them, why you should tip for coffee, and how they work their customers.

You’re Welcome: What a Tip Looks Like to Servers

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Ryan Viramontes, 22 (left)
Bareburger Chelsea
$125 in tips per shift

Tips are our entire wages, really. If someone doesn’t tip at all, we’re working for free. Customers don’t realize quite how far it goes sometimes. All the restaurants I’ve worked at, you can’t talk to the guests about the tip. It’s so weird that it’s something we do depend on and it’s treated like a little secret gift. It’s the worst when you have a table that you’ve been laughing and joking with and get nothing in return. Super-nice people with a 15 percent tip, it’s like, whatever. We’re aiming for 20 percent.

Senami d’Almeida, 37 (center)
The Little Owl
$300 to $400 in tips per shift

In August and certain holidays, New York clears out, so you notice the change in your income. I have had nine-to-five jobs where you make a good living, and it’s bored me to tears. If they said, ‘We’re going to make you salaried and you would make what you make now,’ I would consider that. But there’s no way you would make as much.

Jane Muller, 47 (right)
$80 to $200 in tips per shift

Getting tips is an art. A lot of that is making them laugh once or twice. I have sort of a New York sense of humor. When it’s obvious that you are understaffed, you get great tips. When I was pregnant, forget it! I got the best tips.

The Diner Waitress
Your server is most definitely judging you.

Donna Lillis, 56
Kellogg’s Diner
$300 in tips per shift

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Being a waitress is like being a psychiatrist. You have to treat every table differently. Most people ask me to recommend, and I never just straight sell the most expensive item. I ask them what they want, what they are in the mood for, and slowly guide them from there. Don’t jump right to it. You have to work it. I watch for the leader—that’s the one who is paying the check, and I’m always right. I’m using reverse psychology. You go for jaws: That’s the big one. That’s the one who has the money. He’s usually the loudest. I focus on them, but they don’t even know that I’m pinning them down, that’s how dumb they are. I love men, but they are so fucking stupid. I use my looks, but then I also use my mouth. I’m a well-dressed, clean woman who looks nice but also has good vocab, so they can’t figure out what the fuck is going on.

With tourists, I ask where they are from right away. The French are the fucking worst. I say, “Listen, I want to let you know”—I look at everyone at the table, because eye contact is very important—and I say, “Listen, guys, you have to know this is how it goes.” I tell them the tip’s not included.

I work hard dealing with kids. They make a mess. They rip up the sugar packets. Terrible. But when someone sees you catering to a child, they will tip well. I make fantastic money with the families.

I recently served a sweet young couple. They had rings in their noses, real Mohawks. I was wonderful to them, and then I go over and see that they didn’t leave anything! It was a $75 check. Oh, no way. I go outside and say, “Excuse me, guys, I saw what you left. Was my service bad? I’m so sorry!” I say all this bullshit but what I’m thinking is, “Why didn’t you tip me, motherfuckers?” He said he didn’t know. I said, “That’s okay, I’m letting you know for the future.” But he gave me $50 out of his pocket. If you don’t tip me, I will go after you, and I will get it. I know who has and who hasn’t got money. I said, “You two are very sweet, your parents did a wonderful job.” That’s my line. See, a lot of yuppies—I call them “money”—I make them laugh. I like these kids, and I get the rapport back, I think, because they don’t get it from their mother. They give me a $20 or $15 tip for a $20 check.

Someone left me 35 cents. I was watching, and as he got up, I say, “You forgot your change; you need this more than I do. Have a great day.” What the fuck am I gonna do with 35 cents? Get the fuck out of here, and that was on a $30 check. You make me feel like an asshole, I’ll make you look like a triple asshole. The ones with the ‘Wall Street Journal’ under their arms, I call them the martini guys. They are the ones who give you 35 cents. Don’t tip me at all if you are gonna leave change.

The Doorman on What He Expects
Angel Morales, 54
Biggest tip: $350

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

I know who doesn’t tip at the holidays. We distribute the cards on the door of each unit on December 12, and through New Year’s I total what we got and what apartment gave me more. Some other doormen are nicer during the holiday season because they want the tips, but the tenants know who does their job all year round. Sometimes I get things other than money: gift cards, bottles of wine. One woman once gave me a box of socks she had designed. The smallest tip I ever got? Two dollars. It was from a little old lady and she gave me $2 in an envelope. Her writing was so shaky it was like she was in an earthquake. You look at her walking and you are like, I don’t know how she does it. I didn’t mind that she was a $2 tipper.

Baristas on Why You Should Tip for Coffee

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Gregg Butler, 23 (left)
Joe Grand Central
Tips undisclosed

If someone gets a regular coffee, they think that they don’t need to tip. I think there’s an understanding that if you get a complicated coffee you need to tip. We have two separate tip jars; sometimes people will tip right after they order and pay, and then sometimes they will tip when they see the drink and it looks beautiful. Music plays a big role in tips, oddly. Slow, sad music isn’t going to get you good tips. The only time I get annoyed is when people order coffee for their entire office and don’t tip. I’m making six large almond cappuccinos and it’s like, “Ugh.” If you are sending an intern to get your coffee, give them tip money.

Ariel Pang, 22 (right)
Van Leeuwen, East Village
$30 to $130 in tips per shift

My co-worker was serving a sweet couple, and when they left they kept saying, “Thanks, thanks!” Then they just left and my co-worker was like, “That thanks was in lieu of a tip.” I think the over-the-top thanks annoys me more than no tip.

The Veteran on Who Tips Worst, and How Not to Embarrass Yourself at a Bar

Paul King, 33
Owner, Boobie Trap

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

I get the classic rookie quote all the time: “Yo, make it strong,” or ”I can’t taste the liquor,” and they leave like $3 on the first drink just to say, “See, I’m tipping you, where’s my free drink/strong drink/attention?” even though there are 20 people who want a drink as well.

Other bartenders will always be the best tippers. Tourists aren’t the worst tippers, rich kids are. You see, tourists just need to be told to tip; rich kids don’t know the value of money. To them, the bill is a joke, but that line under it that says tip is for the peasant. I’ve heard of bartenders putting what they call asshole tax, extra money on the total, on them. If someone has made you a drink that took some time and took them away from making other drinks, then you need to tip more than a dollar. If someone has made you a communal drink like a pitcher, $1 is not cool; tip like a meal, 20 percent, on those. Oh, and people, please, stop with the change in the physical form or on your credit-card tips. You’re embarrassing yourself.

How Bartenders Work Their Customers

Elijah Miller, 32
$150 to $350 in tips per shift

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

To get good tips, you have to quickly become an expert at noticing what people want … whether they’re lonely and looking for a connection, or whether they are trying to get away from their family. I don’t think people know that bartenders often put their own money into the register for free drinks. This takes a lot of prejudging and educated guesswork about the person you’re serving. There’s a certain kind of person who will tip a whole lot, exponentially more, if they’re tipping on free drinks. When they tip you $40 on $15 worth of beer, the bar and the bartender make out really well.

Niral Shah, 27
Baby Grand
$300 in tips per shift

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Some of my best tips come from tourists, which is odd. They don’t know the norm, so maybe they overdo it? The drunker they are, the smaller the tip in general. Very big tips make me feel uncomfortable. For instance, when I get $20 with every drink and the customer is drunk, I feel bad, but, to be honest, the longer I do this the less bad I feel. People who tip a bit more will sometimes make an effort to make sure you see the tip. Like, they will hold their check back a bit if they are in a group and all are paying by card to make sure I know who tipped more. The most demanding customers tend to tip less.

*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Related: Is It Time to Topple Tipping? Adam Platt Tries (and Fails) to Go Gratuity-Free
How Service Charges Could Fix America’s Tipping Problem
Tipping: The Art of the Money-Flirt

What Tips Mean to People Who Depend on Them