Tipping: is 20 percent the new 15?

It’s the moment of truth at the end of a meal: your server hands you the bill and the line at the bottom is blank. What kind of a tipper will you be? Typically I leave 20 percent, sometimes more for exceptional service. I think of myself as a “good tipper,” but does the server feel that way?

“I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I did something wrong if I don’t get at least 20 percent,” says Mark Holman, a server at Champps in Minnetonka. “After waiting tables for 15 years, I’m okay with getting a 15-percent tip, but I expect 20 percent,” says Ryan Ecklund, an excellent server at The Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul.

There’s not a ton of research on this, but a 2007 Gallup poll revealed that about a third of those polled tip 20 percent; a little more than a third tip 15 percent. Zagat’s 2012 poll of more frequent diners puts the national tipping average at 19.2 percent, up from 18 percent in 2000.

“Twenty percent is the new 15 percent if you had great service,” says Sarah Stodolka, a server at Ansari’s Mediterranean Grill in Eagan. “I feel like I’m pretty good at my job and certainly welcome those at my table to tip me 20 percent,” she adds, pointing out that a chunk of her tips is shared with the bartenders, food runners, and people who clear the table.

But, really, what’s the point of quibbling about percentages when the whole tipping system is messed up? Unless you’re a regular, you don’t really get any direct benefit from giving a generous tip. And it’s too easy to blame servers for a kitchen screw-up or reward them for something they didn’t really do.

“It takes a team for a restaurant to deliver excellent dining experiences,” says Naomi Williamson, a former server and the owner of Sanctuary in Minneapolis. Williamson says her customers tip at least 20 percent, which means servers average $25 an hour. “Everyone’s performance enables this, but the reward gives the server the highest per-hour pay in the restaurant: higher than the chef, manager, and owners,” she says.

I wish we would be like Europe in this regard, where restaurants pay everyone a decent wage and the cost of providing good service is included in the price of food. That isn’t going to happen. Imagine the freak-out if menu items suddenly went up 20 percent in price!

I’m okay with 20 percent being the new 15—just so long as 25 percent isn’t about to become the new 20.

Jason Derusha is a morning anchor at WCCO-TV. Have a dining mystery you want Jason to solve? E-mail him at DeRushaEats@gmail.com