March 5th, 2009

The tipping point

The tipping pointBy Scott N. Howe

Here’s my problem, and it’s what some would call a nice problem to have. I never know much to tip a bartender who’s given me a free drink.

Now, of course, the idea that a barman/maid would be doling out cocktails on the sly to a favored customer is the kind of thing that would send many a bar manager into a yelling, kicking, firing rampage. But let’s face it. It happens. And it’s great that it does.

Once in a while a regular customer, someone who tips well and isn’t a nuisance, is rewarded with one on-the-house or a little something knocked off the tab. It’s a reward. A low-cost, highly appreciated “thanks” for making life behind the bar a little nicer. And it goes a long way. A freebie reinforces good behavior and builds customer loyalty. Besides, it’s a nice thing to do, and what goes around comes around. Karma, and all that.

I’ve been very fortunate to have been, from time to time, on the receiving end of a free drink or two or a suspiciously skimpy bar tab. It’s a wonderful feeling. At first. Then the dread kicks in. How much do I tip? I mean, I must overtip, but do I compensate for the free drink’s price penny for penny? Do I figure out what the actual bill would have been, then split the difference? Do I need a calculator? An accountant? A clue?

So, I turn to you, readers of drinkboston. What’s the tipping point?

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15 Responses to “The tipping point”

  1. erik_flannestad

    Start with $5 and head towards 20% of the total bill without comps.

    If all else fails, leave $20, unless you have been particularly bad.

  2. Matt

    ah…have been faced with this dilemma for years. Sort of has to do with how much you were compted. Been on both sides of the bar with this one, and I’ve have had this discussion hundreds of times with restaurant folk.

    In general, for special service, we would do a healthy 30%ish tip (always upping it to the nearest 5 or 10). It is more than the standard 20%, and the extra shows appreciation for the gesture. Trust me, the server will get that you are giving a $ token for their effort….and it’s the *token* that matters more than the actual amount.

    Although, sometimes we’ve had *very* generous service to which we pay what we would have paid full price. Meaning, if the tab without a tip would have been $90, and we got charged $45, we’ll leave $90 — so, in effect a 50% tip. As we see it, we enjoyed the experience, did not refuse anything offered, and would have paid at least that amount anyway.

    Or, depending how many cocktails we have, and if we don’t feel like doing the math, we guess with a couple $20s or so and call it a day.

    Although, i have been “accused” of overtipping, but what the hell. Again, it’s about having a great experience…and if we can’t afford to play this game, we just don’t go out.

  3. Pete Lyons

    I thought I was the only one who worried about this. I generally start by calculating the tip on the actual bill and then throwing in enough extra to cover the price of the freebies and then finally adding in the bonus bucks for the intangibles like super friendly service, being really cute, great bar chat etc. So basically I wing it.

  4. k.

    a difficult question to answer after consuming the aforementioned bevvies. in general adding the cost of what the comp’d stuff onto the bill and tipping on that seems to work just fine — keeping in mind that if it’s a concern at all then the tipper is probably doing the Right Thing anyway (that being, as matt says above, rounding up).

    when i read the first paragraph i thought this was going to be about tipping bartenders at open bars. though i know better, i’m always surprised by people who don’t leave anything at all when the drinks are free. that’s just mean.

  5. matthew

    I have to respectfully disagree on open bar tipping. In many situations, the tips have already been worked into open bars. Even if it isn’t, if you are truly going to give your guests free alcohol, it should be free, and you should tip the bartender(s) at the end of the night.

  6. Sean

    Tip like nothing was taken off, at least.
    As far as open bars go, I usually ask the bartender what their tip situation is. I’ve worked for some people who don’t want to scare away the party, so don’t include the tip. Better safe than sorry. Nothing worse than working a party for $20.

  7. JG

    This has only really come up for me at bars where I’m not running a tab and already paying as I go, but in those cases I usually leave “most of the cost of the drink”, ie enough that I’m saving money and they’re making money over what I would have left. Example, if I’m drinking $5 beers and leaving $1-2 when I get one, I might leave $3-4 if it’s a comp.

  8. Robert Heugel

    When able to pass a free drink across the board, I do so as a sign of appreciation for the person, not their tips. You should tip based on service, not on the presence of a free drink in my opinion. I’ve seen way too many bartenders try and compensate for bad service with free drinks, and in the end, it doesn’t work. The establishment, bartender, and guest all lose.

    Moreover, I don’t know too many experienced bartenders who look at tips too closely. I throw all the receipts together in a bundle and enter tips at the end of the night all at once as fast as I can so I can leave. That’s just how the POS systems I use have always worked, so I’ve just got into that pattern. In the end, I don’t really know how much specific individuals tip me. Worrying about tips can really keep bar staff from enjoying their jobs, and worrying about tipping can keep guests from enjoying theirs. My advice? Don’t stress it too much because we probably aren’t. If you’re getting a free drink, we already love you being at the bar, and for most, that’s all that matters.

  9. Frederic

    Thank you for having a more positive view on the subject than Marganthaler did in his blog entry. And yes, it is a sticky issue but the suggestion of tipping ~ 25% on what total bill would’ve been seems like a good compromise. We have experienced bartenders getting upset when we’ve paid for the free drink (as part of the tip) perhaps annoyed that we did not take his kind gesture for what it was.

  10. ljclark

    Wow. This is like a conference of physicists, each describing their theory of dark matter. And the tipping equation certainly does become dark matter after a few cocktails, as k. points out. Robert, I love your advice to not “stress it too much … If you’re getting a free drink, we already love you being at the bar, and for most, that’s all that matters.” Awww. Sniff. Here’s a $20.

  11. davetender

    “It’s not tipping I believe in, it’s overtipping.” Steve Martin, My Blue Heaven

    An easy retort for being accused of tipping too much.

    I agree with Robert. My focus is on a good experience for the diner. And counting tips during a shift can shake that focus.

  12. MC Slim JB

    I’m not sure how I’d answer this question in NYC, where comping every third or fourth drink for regulars is pretty common. Not an issue for me, as I haven’t built up “regular” status anywhere in New York.

    My current formula in Boston goes like this: 20-25% on what the uncomped tab would have been (in other words, standard tipping rates), and then about another 50% of the value of the comped drinks. Not sure how I arrived at that formulation, but it seems like a nice way to say thanks, and still works out nicely in my favor on a cost basis.

  13. Joe

    For any comped drink, I’ll tip about half of what the drink cost.

  14. Randy H.

    “It’s not tipping I believe in, it’s overtipping.” …indeed. I generally tip the same as what I am comped not just because I think the bartender is doing me a favor, but because thats fair. I am careful to not tip over the price of the total bill, somehow I think that might raise issues. maybe thats silly, I should definately tip in cash more often. I tip well for the rainy day when I can’t. Thanks to all you great bartenders.

  15. Jacobeen

    I usually figure around $1 per drink and if there are freebies in there, estimate $2 for any free drinks (i.e. you tip double for the free one).

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