The ABCs of tipping in an expensive city

Gratuities have reached a tipping point

ILLUSTRATION: Alyssa Umbal / The Peak

By: Izzy Cheung, Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, I went out with a couple friends for dinner at a newer restaurant in our neighbourhood. The food was great, and service was amazing, but what surprised me the most was the numbers we saw on the bill. Prices for everything in Vancouver are through the roof nowadays, but shrinkflation wasn’t the reason for my shock. Before we paid, they made sure to inform us we didn’t need to add a tip to our bills. This was something I’d never seen before at a sit-down restaurant, and it comes to mind now that I’m hearing more conversations about getting rid of tipping system all together. 

Having worked in customer service, I’m all for tipping. It can be really difficult working in an industry that deals with all sorts of people during all occasions, for example, baristas working in the mall during Christmas. The amount of times I tried to work while someone was yelling in my ear about how their coffee wasn’t a specific temperature right to the degree truly made me wonder why I was even working as a barista . . .  although, those weekly tip bonuses made things worth it. The money I made off tips put me at a higher hourly wage drawing fun little designs in peoples’ coffees than what I now make working two salaried jobs.

That being said, tipping systems can be pretty unfair to servers, and with recent inflation, to the general public as well. Tipping doesn’t take different working conditions into consideration. For example, servers, kitchen staff, and delivery drivers all might heavily rely on tips, yet their work conditions vary significantly — servers are required to directly interact with customers, kitchen staff are heavily responsible for food safety and quality, and delivery drivers might brave challenging weather conditions or unsafe roads. These differences in work type might make the final total compensation from tips feel unjust to some workers. This isn’t just unfair to workers, but the expectation to tip when you yourself have a low income might feel like an additional punch to your finances. 

A: Are we always supposed to tip service workers?  

There’s no specific rulebook for tipping a certain percentage at certain establishments — all of that is based on your own decisions. Most don’t tip fast-food workers, but what about baristas? You might tip your Uber driver, but do you tip your tattoo artist? Despite there being no rules, for many service workers, tips make the difference between paying rent or not

When a service worker heavily relies on tips to get a livable income, then yes, gratuity is kind of expected. While tipping is seen as an optional gesture of appreciation, in the case of workers who depend on tips to make ends meet, a tip becomes a vital means of support — if your finances allow it, it’s highly encouraged that you tip them. A tip is typically given to workers who perform a service, such as bartending, hairdressing, or serving. Following societal customs, most people tip on bills at sit-down restaurants, at your hairdresser’s, or after getting a ride from an Uber — but other circumstances can be difficult to gauge, which takes me to my next point.

B: But who counts as a service worker? 

It’s hard to define who a service worker is without relying on using those same words in their description, but in essence, that’s what service workers are those who provide you with a service. This includes food service (waitstaff or delivery), transportation services (uber or taxi drivers), or beauty and aesthetic stylists (hairdressers, nail technicians, tattoo artists, etc.). But as of recent, tipping has been creeping into other type of services beyond the conventional scope of a service worker. Gilbert Mofleh, a mechanic from Ottawa, and Tudor Liquor Store in Surrey, are commerces where tipping isn’t usually expected. Both have the tipping option enabled on their card payment machines, though neither expect people to tip. 

C: Can you NOT tip at a restaurant? 

Realistically, no one can force you to tip when eating at a sit-down restaurant — but you’ll probably be treated to some glares on your way out. However, outside of gratuities, many service workers barely get paid a living wage, which is why some have suggested scrapping the tipping system for higher wages. This shifts the responsibility of providing a living wage from consumers to employers. 

D: Different ways of splitting tips among workers

For an individual service worker, a high tip-income often reflects excellent customer service. However, each establishment’s breakdown of gratuities is different. While I was working at a coffee shop, tips weren’t recorded for each individual worker; instead, we tallied up the total amounts tipped per week, calculated how many hours were worked in total (combining the hours of all employees), and split the money based on the average amount that was tipped per hour. So, if we made $500 in one week, the total amount of hours worked by all employees was 100, and I worked 10 of those, then the hourly tip count would be $5 — meaning that I would have made $50 that week. One of my friends, who works at a restaurant, does things differently; their establishment splits gratuities based on each day — part of the gratuities go to the kitchen staff, and the servers split the rest evenly based on their hours. Each place does things differently, but the gratuity system doesn’t have to be this complicated. 

E: Every area tips differently 

When it comes to tipping, different countries have different social expectations. Some countries don’t tip, while others tip around 10%. Canada falls around 15–20%, which is one of the higher values compared to the rest of the world. Québec, in particular, is infamous for having high tipping expectations, with the expected percentage ranging from 18–20%. 

F: Fast food = take-out? 

Is tipping on takeout orders a thing? You’re not directly being served, but the kitchen staff still have to make your order, and servers still have to package it — so really, even though it sounds different, it’s logistically not much different from fast food. Despite this, a survey by Research Co. shows that 53% of Canadians never tip whenever they take their food to go. This action might be slightly contradictory with other answers in that same survey, where 70% agreed that “Food servers cannot get by on their salaries alone — it’s important to tip them.”

G: Generalization kills the system   

Our gratuity “system” bases a lot of its factors on generalization. I’ve even been generalizing in this piece — it’s hard to go in-depth into every single customer service experience. Because of this, there are many things tipping doesn’t take into consideration. For instance, if two servers work a busy shift, but one of them does takeout, chances are they’ll take tips from the person who did most of the dine-in serving. In a similar vein, if you get excellent customer service at a fast food establishment, would you tip there? Most fast food places don’t offer tipping options on their machines, so you’d likely have to offer cash. And if you did, how would an establishment track that? If a server gives great service but has their tip physically stolen (which has happened to me before), then the server takes the financial brunt despite providing their labour. Tipping is an intricate, complex system that really has no specific rules — which brings me to the final letter of this condensed alphabet. 

H: Higher wages for service workers 

Tipping can be made simpler by increasing the wages of customer service workers. In fact, many have expressed a desire for higher wages instead of sticking to current tipping models due to inflation on food and menu items at restaurants. Scrapping the tipping system and implementing higher wages would make things easier for individuals who need a service done for them. Having the expectation to always provide a tip also puts other low-income people in an economic strain. At the same time, some might think tipping can act as a motivator for service workers to provide better service, but even if that were the case, it shouldn’t replace higher wages and should only be supplementary to a living salary.