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For waitstaff, 20 percent is the new 15

Nick Checchio, behind the bar at Grafton Street in Harvard Square. complains that many tourists “won’t leave you anything.”

CHARLIE MAHONEY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Nick Checchio, behind the bar at Grafton Street in Harvard Square. complains that many tourists “won’t leave you anything.”

Imagine, for a second, that every job’s salary is determined by a tip. How much would people tip the car mechanic, a child’s teachers, the Red Sox? It’s likely that service (and maybe even games won) would improve. But who would want to put up with that kind of pressure to make a living?

Luckily, most people don’t have to worry about giving perfect service in order to earn a salary. And people only enjoy the privilege of determining someone else’s income on a few occasions: most commonly, when they dine out, like most Americans do an average of nearly five times a week. Fifteen percent has long been considered a healthy tip for waiters, but many now say they expect closer to 20 percent for satisfactory service. Meanwhile diners are trying to cut down on check costs. That makes a tricky situation for servers, who are 9 percent of the state’s workforce.

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For John Delathouwer, 65, a 26-year veteran waiter at Ristorante Lucia in Winchester, service has been his career. But that doesn’t mean things are any easier now. He says he brings home the same amount in tips as when he first started out. “In 1980 I used to make around $600 a week as a waiter,” he says, “and today I make the same thing.”

Delathouwer, who came to Boston from Brussels in 1968, says many customers used to have expense accounts and were less thrifty about ordering. Today, prices might be higher, but diners are often more reserved when ordering. “People watch what they spend when they go to restaurants,” he says. That translates to less food, less drink, and eventually less tip. This leaves waiters in a precarious position.

The minimum wage for a tipped employee in Massachusetts is $2.63 an hour. Thirty-three states have a higher wage, with some, such as Washington State, legislating upward of $9 an hour. If you start low and don’t get good tips, it’s increasingly hard to get by.

Nick Checchio, a server at Grafton Street in Harvard Square, says his management encourages employees to consider 20 percent “the minimum they should be looking for.” Says Checchio, “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 14 and that’s what I always thought, and whenever I go out to eat that’s the minimum I always give.”

Harvard Square sees lots of tourists and Checchio says that because of some cultural misunderstandings — restaurants in Europe and elsewhere often include a gratuity in the bill — sometimes waiters see no tip at the end of the evening. Some diners feign ignorance, says Checchio. “Usually what happens is, [tourists] just won’t leave you anything,” he says.

Devon Frampton, a waitress at Max Brenner in Back Bay, says a 20 percent gratuity confirms “you did your job,” although she once encountered a customer who thought tips should just be double the bill’s tax. That can work in states with higher tax rates, such as New York, but can leave Boston waiters with almost empty pockets. Like most servers, Frampton has to share her take with the bartenders, food runners, and people who bus the tables. On a slow night, that can mean going home nearly empty-handed. She would prefer a system similar to California’s $8 minimum wage. “Servers [here] only get paid $2.63 an hour,” she says, “so if you don’t tip them fairly, we’re paying you to come in, and our job is, in essence, meaningless.”

Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of the Marblehead-based etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith.com, thinks 15 percent is the “new minimum.” No tip, she says, is a serious statement about performance. “People should be aware that if you’re giving less than 15 percent at a full-service restaurant, what you should be doing is speaking to the management,” she says. She recommends a 20 percent tip if the server is “ever-present but not nosy,” adding that she’s not looking for them to be “her new best friend.”

Former longtime waiter Steve Dublanica, author of “Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity” and the best-selling “Waiter Rant,” says he discovered how much customers tip goes deep into their psyche. It’s more than just evaluating the service, with guilt being a big motivating factor. He wonders if diners can remember the last time they stiffed a waiter; he thinks it’s likely that many cannot. “Statistically no more than 5 percent of people actually put [service] to the equation. They tip for a lot of reasons: peer pressure, societal norms, what will a waiter do to me the next time I come?” Dublanica says. He believes 18 to 20 percent is a fair compensation.

For servers to expect anything higher could set off a tipping backlash. “When you get waiters saying, ‘Now I want 25 percent,’ then I can see people getting agitated,” Dublanica says.

Rachel Zarrell can be reached at rachel.zarrell@globe.com.
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