In the movie ``It Could Happen to You,'' waitress Bridget Fonda gets a $2 million dollar tip from an honest, lottery-winning cop played by Nicolas Cage. The premise, based on a true story, is a fantasy to most who juggle trays, time, complicated orders and customers of varying dispositions to earn a living.
As far as they're concerned, it couldn't happen to them.
Using more reasonable figures as a guide, River City patrons -- even those who give waiters and waitresses a hard time -- usually tip. And many tip quite well, according to those who depend on patrons' kindness to pay the rent.
Unlike most big cities, Lawrence lacks many of the ``other'' jobs in which it's often considered courteous to tip, such as parking garage attendants, sports arena ushers, guided tour drivers, train redcaps, airport skycaps and cruise ship personnel.
But Lawrence has plenty of cab drivers, hairdressers, hotel chambermaids and pizza delivery drivers.
But the largest population of typically tipped employees in Lawrence undoubtedly consists of waiters, waitresses and others who work in restaurants. So let's stick with them as our signal crew.
Following the guidelines
Etiquette experts today consider 15 percent the proper tipping amount for those who wait tables, 20 percent if they provide excellent service, for large parties or if you're dining in a four-star restaurant.
Letitia Baldridge, former social chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, longtime Washington social matron and author of the books ``Beyond Manners'' and the newly published ``In the Kennedy Style,'' said Americans borrowed the current system from the Europeans about 40 years ago.
Over there, 20 percent was added to the bills in most first-class hotels and restaurants, 15 percent for more modest establishments.
In the states, it was some time before the standard took hold.
In the early 1980s, a national re-education on fair tipping occurred across the restaurant industry when the federal government cracked down on taxing gratuity. Big businesses were deducting tips and waiters were not declaring them.
So, during the early Reagan administration, tipped workers had to start declaring 8 percent of their gross sales on their income taxes.
Also, the so-called ``tip credit,'' an exemption in minimum wage laws, allows restaurant owners to reduce labor costs by including anticipated tips in wages. Servers are often paid in the $2 range, which is allowed as long as they receive enough tips to equal the current minimum wage of $5.15.
If tips and hourly wages don't equal minimum wage, a restaurant would theoretically have to make up the difference, although that rarely happens. However, servers' small hourly wages are often only enough to pay taxes.
``Checks between void and $10 are common for a waiter,'' said Laura Marshall, a veteran server at Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass. ``Our income really is our gratuity. A lot of people don't think that way. Most people in Lawrence are on top of that.''
Though there are no hard and fast rules, most know the tricks of the trade.
``In Lawrence as a whole, I would say (15 percent) is probably pretty average, maybe a little higher,'' said Jim Taylor, general manager at BarbWire Steak House, 2412 Iowa. ``I think people pretty much follow their own guidelines, what they feel is fair.''
But one should never be expected to ignore poor service.
``We try to work off the premise that service is everything, and that's what builds your repeat business,'' Taylor said. ``Service is what produces the results.''
And service is what typically produces the good tips.
``People want to go out to eat to have a good time,'' said Chuck Magerl, general manager at Free State. ``Oftentimes they are willing to reward the person who provided that for them. It's where people in this business either shine or stumble.''
If all goes well at a table, the server should expect a decent tip, right? Not always. Hoping people know the standard is one thing. Predicting which customers do is another matter.
Kansas University senior Karen Larson, a server at Buffalo Bob's Smokehouse, 719 Mass., said that more than 80 percent of her tables tip.
``Working a six-hour shift, I usually don't get stiffed more than three or four times,'' Larson said.
Other than fellow waiters and waitresses, her best tips come from students, and from those who appear perhaps not as well off as others.
``I might be able to develop a little better camaraderie with students, '' Larson said. ``(And) I find that lower income people tip me better than upper
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income. I don't know if that's a reflection on society or what.''
In addition, Larson said the standards differ among age groups. For example, in many places 30 or 40 years ago the accepted figure was 10 percent, sometimes less.
``Older people, they might leave a dollar on the table for a couple,'' Larson said. ``For them, in their generation, that's a significant tip.''
Generally speaking, those in the Lawrence restaurant industry say there is no surefire way to forecast a tip.
``You can't predict it -- you cannot judge people by the way they look, the way they act or even the service you perceive to give,'' Taylor said. ``The only thing you can try to do is to exceed the customer's expectation of service.''
Some customers carry tip cards with them. Others tally it up in their heads. Still others just throw down whatever bills or coins are handy.
No matter what's left behind, many restaurants frown upon or downright prohibit ``tip talk'' in the seating areas.
Free State server Marshall first learned about tipping as necessity from her sisters, both of whom waited tables while trying to jump start theater careers in the Big Apple. And while she lived in Oregon, Marshall worked in a French formal service restaurant in downtown Portland.
She usually gets between 15 and 20 percent per table. In general, she said, Lawrence is generous but diverse in tipping know-how.
``Part of the community is behind national standards,'' Marshall said. ``And a great deal of the community is right with national standards.''
In the Midwest, she added, many don't feel that a tip should be considered part of the cost of a meal. Rather, it's just something nice to do. But most wait staff earn less than half of minimum wage per hour.
And many restaurants use what's known as a tip pool -- wherein the bartender or the busboy gets a small percentage of the server's tips, often 2 to 3 percent. In some places it's voluntary, others require it.
As for automatic gratuities on large parties, some establishments tack on 15 percent, others don't include anything. Taylor said he leaves it up to hosts of large parties as to whether they want a gratuity included in the bill.
Dick Reno, bar manager at Molly McGee's, 2429 Iowa, said tipping etiquette varies across the Atlantic Ocean.
``In Europe, it's automatic,'' said Reno, who came to Lawrence from Los Angeles nine years ago. ``Here it's considered a gratuity.''
And from service professional to corporate honcho to farmer, Reno has given up trying to guess who will leave what.
``It is a crapshoot sometimes,'' He said. ``The richest guy in the world could stiff you.''
However, one mistake people often make is blaming the server for slow food, which is the kitchen's fault, or no one's if the place is packed.
``They're going to stiff the person they're looking at,'' Reno said.
For bartenders the prospects are even more arbitrary. On a $10 tab a bartender might get $3, or 50 cents.
``But it's an average,'' Reno said. ``The restaurant business is a good average. Most of the time, it's pretty good. I've got no complaints.''
``You can't look at two really poor nights, or two really awful people ... as being reflective of the public or the job,'' Marshall said. ``If you do, you're going to be miserable, and you should consider working for Sprint.''
-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is email@example.com.