Bob Knudson gladly leaves a 15 percent tip when he dines out — 20 percent if service is exceptional. But he wants 100 percent of his...

Share story

Bob Knudson gladly leaves a 15 percent tip when he dines out — 20 percent if service is exceptional. But he wants 100 percent of his tip to go to his server.

“When I leave a tip, my expectation is that all of it goes to my server, as an expression of appreciation and thanks for a job well done,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t like the idea that the tip is divided up and going to staff that I had little or no contact with. Am I just being old-fashioned? Would it be acceptable to ask the server if tips are being pooled? Might I request that all of my tip go to my server?” Good questions, all. And funny he should ask.

I also received an e-mail from a server who’s been waiting tables for more than 20 years — let’s call her “Oh, Miss!” Citing job-security issues, she wouldn’t divulge her name or where she works, noting it’s a “higher end” restaurant. “I wish people knew about tipping,” she wrote. “Not so much how to tip, but where that tip ends up.”

And here’s what she wants you to know:

At the end of each shift, Oh, Miss! computes her sales (the amount of food and drinks sold), before tipping a specific percentage of those sales to her co-workers. All of those tips are taxable income. By law, they’re considered wages, and subject to employment and withholding taxes. The IRS requires her to report all gratuities along with her “tipout” amount — the monies she’s shared with fellow workers. Who, in turn, are responsible for reporting what she’s given them.

Oh, Miss! offered a sample equation regarding who gets what — an evening’s proceeds, if you will. It looked something like this:

Total sales food/beverage = $1,000

$150 gross tips (assuming a 15 percent tip)

• $10 (6.7%) to the expediter (who controls the flow of food)

• $20 (13.3%) to the busperson (who clears and sets tables, and, hopefully, keeps your water glass full)

• $15 (10%) to the bartender (regardless of whether Oh, Miss! had a large number of teetotalers that evening)

• $8 (5.3%) to the hostess (who may or may not have seated you near the bathroom door)

• $1.80 “tip charge” (1.8 percent of her total charged tips, paid back to the restaurant to cover the fee they’re charged for $100 of charged tips. Note: This practice is common though not widespread)

$95.20 (63.5%) net total

“Remember,” she wrote, “this is if I get a 15 percent tip from every table. I have seen servers get 8, 10 and 12 percent on a regular basis.” Or worse.

She had an example of “worse,” too. One she relayed later, when we spoke by phone.

“A party of five came in for dinner and spent $200. Grandpa paid. He left my friend a $6 tip,” she said, before doing the math: “Four bucks to the buser, $3 to the bartender, $2 to the expeditor, $1.20 to the front desk,” plus the 1.8 percent credit-card tip-out on $6. In sum, she said, her voice rising noticeably, “It cost her four dollars and 20-odd cents to wait on that table!”

Come again? Oh, Miss! and her cronies certainly hope not.

As a former waitress speaking from nearly two decades of experience, I’m well aware that, back in the day, tip income could easily be hidden from the raised eyebrow of Uncle Sam. (Don’t look at me in that tone of voice! I’m just dishing the details.) Today, however, with computer systems tracking sales and credit-card tips, and the majority of patrons paying with credit cards, John Law has more and better ways to ensure that tips are properly reported.

What’s more, stern tip laws, a multitude of regulations and the potential for serious penalties put restaurant owners in the difficult but necessary position of policing tipped staff.

“As a restaurant owner or a corporation, we have liability, too,” says Jeremy Hardy, co-owner of Chow Foods, which employs approximately 150 tipped staff. “If a server does not declare their tips, they put the whole company at risk for an audit. Because it’s usually not a single person doing this, it’s a ‘culture’ of underdeclaring tips.”

At Chow Foods restaurants (Coastal Kitchen, 5 Spot, Atlas Foods, et al.), even the kitchen employees get a cut of the tips — 1 percent of servers’ sales. “Every kitchen employee gets tipped, based on the number of hours worked,” says Hardy.

Who gets what where varies wildly from one restaurant to another.

“There are so many different scenarios,” says Sue Emerson, a career waitress of 35 years. While working at Place Pigalle, she says, she tipped out approximately 40 percent of her tips. “We didn’t have a busperson. We had a maitre d’ that acted as host and buser, taking drink orders and running drinks [out to the customers] if we were busy.” Having that kind of support, she says, allowed her to take a much larger section — as many as 10 or 11 tables during the busy summer season.

Today you’ll find Emerson at Barnaby’s in Tukwila, where she tips out approximately 15 percent of her total sales to a buser, 10 percent of food sales to the cook and about 5 percent of bar sales to the bartender.

At the Olive Garden in Kirkland, servers tip out to their buser and the bartender — or not. “It’s very much on an honor system,” said a server there who doesn’t want to divulge her name either, perhaps because, as she admits, “If I have a crappy, cranky bartender, I’m not going to give him 10 percent.”

Over in the pooled-tip deep end, at Canlis, a server’s tips are funneled into “one big pie,” according Director of Service David Kim, who — how’s this for a small-world story — got his start at Barnaby’s in Tukwila.

At Seattle’s landmark restaurant, known for its four-star service, “different positions get different portions,” he says. “Accounting will calculate how much [money] has been received,” dividing it according to a specific tipping structure. Servers get the largest piece of the pie, sharing it generously with expeditors, server’s assistants and the host/hostess.

“Initially, I had a hard time transitioning to a [completely] tip-pooled house,” David says. Now he swears by the scenario whereby waiters put all their tips in one pot. “Let’s say you work in a non-tip-pooled house,” he explains. “Your gratuities can fluctuate. It’s a slow night in one section, a busy night in another, and it causes a competitive vibe in the restaurant: ‘Why is she busier than I am? Why are they seating them and not me?’ In a tip-pooled house, we’re here to work as a team.”

But back to Bob’s question, “Might I request that all my tips go to my server?” He might.

According to a representative at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, there is no state law governing how tips are divided at the end of a shift, as long as employers ensure that their workers are paid at least the minimum wage: $7.93 per hour.

And while the Washington Restaurant Association provides restaurateurs with detailed information regarding tip-pooling, their advice comes with the written caveat, noting the WRA “must make it very clear that we are not advocating or recommending any particular mandatory tip pooling, nor is WRA itself offering legal advice.”

Which brings us to the question, should Bob request that all tips go to his server? I posed that query to “Oh, Miss!” who said when all her tips are counted, here’s the bottom line:

“Although my table may not know who the buser is, or who made their martini, or who the hostess was who seated them, I wouldn’t be able to perform the job I do without all their help. For me to give excellent service, I need people behind me giving me excellent service.”

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

More columns available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.