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What's the best way to tip out bartenders?

pouring drinks bartender

Question:

Is it appropriate to tip out bartenders based on total sales, including food, rather than only the drinks they make?

– Kristen, Server, White Dog Cafe, Philadelphia

Answer:

Equitable tip outs for bartenders and other colleagues is one of this column’s most frequently asked questions. It seems to be a universal sentiment among servers that tip outs are too high. Bartenders often feel differently.

This is one of the many areas where our industry lacks standardization. That lack of consistency can breed resentment as well as a feeling that surely the grass is greener elsewhere, contributing to turnover.

As long as we continue to use our illogical and somewhat dysfunctional tipping system, lack of standardization is inevitable. And to some extent, lots of variation makes perfect sense: A casual restaurant where servers are responsible for preparing soft drinks at a service station and only use the bar for alcohol orders would need a different tip-out system from a high-volume bar or club with bites, which would similarly be different from a fine-dining restaurant with a robust wine program. If they all used the same system, take-home pay would vary significantly.

To your question, the answer is, “Sure, why not?”

There seem to be three prevailing tip-out scenarios in place:

  1. Percentage of beverage sales.
  2. Percentage of total sales.
  3. Percentage of tips.

 

Each has its complainers:

  • Tipping on beverage sales is the most accurate reflection of the work a bartender puts in to supporting servers, but it assumes tips are consistent with sales.
  • Percentage of total sales can be tricky, especially where alcohol sales vary—for example, a slow lunch bartender at a busy place can fare surprisingly well.
  • Percentage of tips helps build consistency in what servers take home, but tends to breed suspicion about honesty since there is no hard record in place in cash-heavy environments.

 

I spoke with a number of managers about the systems they use, and, as predicted, numbers are all over:

  • “Servers tip 5% of [total] sales to the bar; bartenders tip 25% of that to support staff” (gastropub)
  • “5% of beverage sales” (casual-dining chain)
  • “10% of beverage sales” (independent casual dining)
  • 20% of cash tips (service bar)
  • 10% of tips (independent fine dining)

 

Morgan Dillon, general manager of Strangelove’s in Philadelphia, says she prefers a system where servers tip “20% [of tips] for a more bar-focused establishment and 10% tip out for more of a restaurant.” She explains, “I think when the hands of servers tip out bartenders [as opposed to a percentage-of-sales system], it creates a sense of unity and teamwork.”

More on bartender tip outs here.

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