Amy Dickinson, the voice of reason behind the syndicated advice column "Ask Amy," has a practical view on restaurant tipping.
"Some people think of tips as a reward for providing good service, but I think about it as a way of compensating people for just doing their job," she said. "There's a difference."
Angelyn Davis has a different perspective. Davis runs Etiquette, Et Cetera, a Twin Cities consulting firm that offers, among other services, classes in the social graces at the St. Paul Hotel.
"It's a pleasure to reinforce good behavior and reward service people who go out of their way to show their customers a good time," she said. "Don't we all respond to behavior that is rewarded?"
I know I do, which is why this diner falls somewhere in the middle of the reasons-why-we-tip continuum, and view tipping as both a necessary cost of dining out ("Restaurant owners are passing the responsibility for fair compensation to patrons," is how the authors of the 2011 edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette: Manners for a New World" bluntly put it) and an opportunity to express gratitude for a job well done.
My tipping starting point is 20 percent. That probably places me in the minority, which is why I turned to the sage counsel of Laura Barclay, president and founder of the four-year-old Minneapolis Civility and Etiquette Centre in Plymouth.
"My particular range is 15 to 20 percent," she said. "If the server goes above and beyond, that's 20 percent and sometimes more."
That seems reasonable. But what if the service, well, stinks?
"I think 10 percent is just fine, and then ask to speak to the manager," said Barclay. "Don't stiff someone, that is not appropriate."
Such drastic action might also send the wrong message. "Leaving no tip could be interpreted that you just forgot to tip," said Davis.
Determining the starting figure, calculations-wise, can be tricky, so listen up: "You tip on the pre-tax amount," said Davis. Oh, and that's the total tab: Food and beverages.
What about the ubiquitous tip jar? "It's a touchy issue, the tip jar," said Barclay with a laugh. "That's probably the tipping etiquette hot spot, primarily because people don't know how to respond. If you feel like it, toss in your change, bless your heart. But it's not necessary."
Davis takes a different approach. "At a place like Starbucks, where I get extraordinary service every time I walk in, it's a pleasure to leave a little something behind," she said. "We want to reward the places that thrive because they treat people well. After all, 'tips' is an acronym for To Insure Prompt or Proper Service."
Dickinson breathed a sigh of relief when her go-to Dunkin' Donuts outlet removed the tip jar from its drive-thru window.
"Yes, I contributed to it, but only out of guilt," she said. "There's nothing like starting the day with a cup of coffee and an apology. It's like when the collection plate at church goes past, you've forgotten your money and you're, like, 'Sorry.'"
That said, she appreciates creativity, and rewards it with, naturally, a tip.
"My local Starbucks has found a fun way around the tip jar issue," Dickinson said. "They put tipping up to a vote. You know, one jar for 'Star Trek,' the other for 'Star Wars.' It's adorable, and they find clever things to vote on. You forget that you're putting change in a tip jar, so it takes the naked solicitation out of the process."
No high rollers
By the way, if diners are thinking that the average Minnesota server is rolling in tip income, think again: Minnesota minimum wage is $6.15 per hour, and $5.25 per hour for employers with less than $625,000 in annual sales.
Federal law permits states to reduce that wage to as little as $2.13 an hour for employees who make more than $30 a month in gratuities, a difference known as the "tip credit." Minnesota eliminated the tip credit in 1986, and is one of seven states (joining Alaska, California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) that does not permit a minimum-wage discount for most tipped employees.
According to December 2011 data from the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota's 172,876 workers in food service and drinking places earned an average $10.64 per hour. Hardly a six-figure income.
And that's another incentive to adopt Dickinson's point of view. "I grew up on a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere, and we were not taken out to eat," she said. "So I've always felt that my idea of making it in life is being able to pick up the check and leave a nice tip. Honestly, a great way to feel good about your own position in life is to tip well. It feels like a generous act, as long as you're not being showy and extravagant about it."