Updated: April 1, 2005

Few bartenders want to discuss tips rationally; the reason being that there’s only logic in tipping up to a point. So let’s call it over-tipping. Tipping per se only works for the guest up to about 15%, and then only if it’s directly related to speed and quality of food and drinks. After 15%, you may as well piss it up the wall for all the good it will really do you.

How can a bartender in a busy bar serve a 20% tipper better than a 15% tipper? Every bartender can bullshit about their unique service and recommendations and making a big tipper feel like a king, but in practise it rarely works out that way.

DogsWhy should guests tip bartenders at all? You’re not being served tableside: you have to go to the bartender, not vice-versa. OK, the bartender serves you counterside. Big deal. It’s the same basic premise as McDonalds, and anyone who’s seen the diner scene in Reservoir Dogs knows it’s bullshit that you tip one person but not another. Why not tip the cook? Or the manager?

Does the bartender hook you up? He might, but if he has any self-respect he’ll despise you for the rest of your life, if the ‘Hook it up’ thread on the FBA’s site is any guide.

Does the bartender make the drinks better? Depends on better. If you want more booze it’s much better and clearer, and less pathetic to pay for it than emotionally blackmail the bartender into stealing it from his boss. How can you make a drink ‘better’ otherwise? I have no idea. No-one who can’t serve guests in a friendly, timely manner with the drinks they order, made the way they should be made, can call themselves a bartender, tips or not. The more high-class the bar, the more high-class the prices and the better service (and drinks) you should expect.

While we’re on the topic, no bartender without a pocketful of Rohypnol tablets can hook one guest up with another who wouldn’t otherwise have been amenable to hooking up. Anything else is, literally, pimping it. That, plus other unsavoury ways of making tips such as selling drugs, just discredits our profession.

DonaldThen we have the refreshingly straightforward topic of guests tipping bartenders they find sexually attractive. This happens most often with male guests and female bartenders. What, no female guests tipping barmen, I hear you say? What? You say you’re a six-packed stud muffin and there’s a permanent line of panty-puddled chicas waiting patiently to tip you 20%? Maybe, but you’re abnormal, to say the least. A male guest typically throws money at a female bartender he finds attractive because he hopes it will impress her. Call it Donald Trump syndrome.

A female guest wishing to impress a male bartender will typically use flirty or even slutty behaviour and dress. Call it Paris Hilton syndrome. Neither of these two examples has anything to do with bartending or drinks. And it would be remiss to continue without mentioning that many a bartender, male or female, can attract guests for other reasons: being a good raconteur, having great product knowledge, being a party animal, etc. But sadly sex still sells

And finally there’s priority service. But that’s bullshit too. How fast can anyone be served if the bar is packed to the rafters? You can be tipping like Midas and still have to wait. Why do you think so many more people choose to sit down with a bottle and some mixers? A guest would have to have a heart of stone to order a round of mojitos in a jam-packed bar, even if the bartender is superb, even if you’re tipping him or her royally. At best, over-tipping for faster service in a packed bar will get you what I call a body-kit Ferrari. Buying a fibreglass Ferrari bodykit and fitting it to your rattletrap may make it look a little like Pininfarina’s masterpiece, but it won‚t drive like a supercar and it doesn’t have the interior of a supercar. Over tipping in a crowded bar doesn’t get you served significantly faster; it just lets you fool yourself that you are.

MoneyWhat’s the downside of working for tips? Well, you’ll usually be making shit drinks. You can make decent tips working in great bars, but typically the best tips are earned in busy places that make crap drinks: cheap booze, pre-mixes, no muddling, no fresh fruit or herbs, just turn and burn, shake
and churn, thanks very much, see you again chief. The reason shit drinks = great tips is because shit drinks = quick drinks and quick drinks = lots of tips, especially in North American where many bartenders expect to make about $1 per drink in tips.

Incidentally, this is seen by many bartenders, especially in the UK, as the reason why there’s far more cocktail creativity being seen in the UK than the US lately. US bartenders are focussed on that buck-a-drink mentality whereas UK bartenders tend to earn a max of about $95 per night in tips, no matter how good they are or how busy it is, hence their focus shifts to drink quality.

If no one is tipping, you can easily favour the people who do. But what if everyone‚s tipping 10% and you‚ve got a 15% guest? What can you do for him or her to justify the extra cash they’re laying on you? You can easily see this with just one plane trip: see what recognition you get in a large city in North America for tipping 15% (fuck-all bordering on indifference), then hop a plane to well, anywhere, really, and see what the difference is. And let’s be honest now: haven’t you ever had a moment where you just sat and thought and couldn’t work out why a guest or guests tipped you? After you’d given just-about-average service and drinks? In several of the bars I’ve worked in, the best-tipping guests were the sweetest, least-demanding regulars that we had. To be honest, we weren’t earning the extra tips they gave us. Damn, I said it out loud. Strike me down, Lord. (I‚m typing this on Easter Sunday)

Many countries have a decent basic wage for bartenders with healthcare and other benefits: as well as giving stability to the profession of bartending, it motivates owners to recruit, train and keep staff. It doesn’t mean bartenders don’t work for tips, they do, but they begin from the primary idea that they work for the owner, not the guest. Because a tipped employee in America is usually paid as little as the owner can get away with, they’re the first to jump ship, the last to see the business long-term, and the most likely to work Thursdays in Bar X, Fridays in Bar Y and Saturdays in Bar Z. This is not good: how good do you think the food would be if the chef did the same?

Philip_Duff_2There are many countries where the tipping habit is older than in the USA: Germany, Scandinavia and the Arab Middle East, to name but a few. A bartender in Holland, for instance, has a base rate monthly salary of about $1300 for a 38 hour week, including all insurance, healthcare, 21 days vacation per year, at least 14 sick days per year and a 13th month bonus, practically unlimited long-term sick pay or disability allowance (disability including stress burnout and chronic tiredness) AND can’t be fired: not for stealing, not for not turning up, not for fighting actually, can’t be fired at all. The better bartenders in the better bars can stick another $1000 per month on top of that in tips. That $2300 a month is cool, but it’s typically just between 5% and 8% of your sales!

Or go hit the islands or take a cruise. In many a resort (such as the Hedonism and Breezes chains) and on many a ship, it‚s all-inclusive. Choose a decent ship or resort and I can almost guarantee you‚ll get great service, food and drinks from people who aren’t making a dime in tips.

So what do I think of all this? It is a tenet of polite society that no gentleman should complain about something they aren’t willing to personally fix. In that spirit..


1. Thou shalt not tip for shitty drinks or service. You’re only encouraging them. In fact, while we’re at it, don’t even order in bars where the drinks or service is shit or where youre jammed in with another 8,000 people in space the animal welfare people would’t deem suitable for a fruit fly. There are enough bars making good drinks these days.

2. Thou shalt not over-tip. Because you’re setting yourself up for a fall. It may feel great being Mr Twenty Percent in your neighbourhood pool hall, but just wait until Mr Thirty Percent drops by you’ll be sidelined faster than you can say “first wife”.

Commandments3. Thou shalt tip. If you find a cool place with drinks you like and service that impresses, tip away: at least 10%. You shouldn’t have to tip more than 15% to get good service.

4. Thou shalt not ask the bartender to “Hook it up”. If you want more liquor, then order a double, you sad weasel.

5. Thou shalt tip directly. Fuck that “an optional service charge of 12.5% will be added to your bill”. That means the bartender who served you will be lucky to get even half of it: the rest will go to the cook, manager, bottlewasher, even the owner. Always ask for such charges to be removed and tip bartenders directly, in cash if you can.

6. Thou shalt not tip for things you should expect from a decent bar anyway. If only one bartender is working when it should be 2 or 3, feel free to tip him or her, but don’t over-tip. The owner should have scheduled more staff to maintain service levels. In the same vein, in Holland (where I live) it’s normal to tip a toilet lady 50 cents or so every time you visit the loo, and to tip the doorman a dollar or so on your way out (to say “thanks for a safe night” – seriously!) I think it’s bullshit. I expect a safe night and a free toilet anyway – that’s why I’m paying inflated prices for food and drinks. Duh.

7. Thou shalt tip as much as thou wilt in special situations. If you’re cruising a bar hoping to get a job, say, or if the bartender you’re over-tipping comes to your bar and over-tips you, or if you’re a drinks-company rep in a bar that’s a good client of yours, or if you’re visiting the bar whose bartenders came to your seminar earlier. That kind of thing’s fine, especially because with a bit of luck you’ll be able to stick it on company expenses.

Do you agree? Disagree? Email me: I might publish the best emails, if they’re well written with clear arguments and persuasive points. Comments of the “Bartenders deserve to be able to drive Hummers” vein may not make it!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Heads up! You are attempting to upload an invalid image. If saved, this image will not display with your comment.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>