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Pros offer tips on the eternal debate

In the matter of tipping, it often seems that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I know that those in the service industry depend on tips, but shouldn't they have to É um É earn them?

An irksome case in point: A lousy waiter delivers the check with an overly sincere, 'How was everything?' Ñ apparently an attempt to make you forget that until now he has displayed the warmth of Joseph Stalin.

It's enough to make a conscientiously savvy consumer want to know: What's the bottom line in tipping?

Michael Cronan, owner of Caffe Mingo and co-owner of Serratto restaurant on Northwest 21st Avenue, says that tipping is a pretty straightforward science in the world of fine dining.

'Good tippers are at the 20 percent level, and adequate tippers are at the 15 percent level,' he says. 'Below that, either the service was substandard and you're making a point of it, or you're cheap.'

Cronan, who travels frequently, gives Portlanders high marks for their tipping savvy.

'Portland is very generous,' he says. 'And if they like the place, it brings out the best in them. Even in this economy Ñ if people are spending a little bit less on a meal for two, they're certainly not diminishing the tip.'

Cronan also credits Portlanders' compassionate nature for their commendable tipping habits.

'A lot of people do have restaurant experience in their background, so they're cognizant of good service when it's provided,' he says. 'They understand how hard people in this industry work.'

Servers make minimum wage, so it's understandable that tips are critical to their livelihood. And the same tips are important to everyone else in the restaurant who helps get the food to the table.

'Servers 'tip back' through the whole house, from cooks to dishwashers,' Cronan says. 'The industry standard is that servers net about 85 percent of their tips at the end of the day.'

The tipping waters seem to get murkier for other areas of the service industry, such as hair salons and day spas. Patrons admit to being confused as to whether the same rules apply for a facial as for fettuccine.

Kelli Amico, a public relations consultant to several Portland area salons, says that in terms of tips, a salon isn't much different from a restaurant.

'The average salon tip is 20 percent, but that number can vary dramatically, from $2 to $20 for a $40 haircut.'

Amico says that her clients don't count on being tipped, a fact that will surprise those who've ever gotten a post-tip stink-eye.

'Tips are never expected, but any extra payment for a job well done is always appreciated.'

Most businesses seem to share this 'no-pressure' policy concerning tipping.

Caroline Hoof is the manager of the Common Ground Wellness Center in Northeast Portland, which offers massage, saunas and hot-tubbing in a no-frills, relaxed atmosphere.

'When people ask, 'Should I tip?' we say, 'It's up to you,' ' she says.

Hoof suspects that higher-end spas draw bigger tips because of the more sophisticated atmosphere. She draws a parallel between eating in a pub versus dining in a fine restaurant. 'You tend to tip more because of where you are,' Hoof says.

Nevertheless, some service providers actually discourage tipping. Blades Hair Studio on Northwest 21st Avenue and Aequis, a spa retreat in the Pearl District, both have a no-tipping policy.

'We're a wellness-based business,' explains Aequis owner Megan Klein. 'Our intent is to bring people back into balance, as chiropractors and acupuncturists do, and gratuity doesn't exist in those fields. We don't want to be tipped for what we think is our basic obligation to our guest.'

But Klein says this stance doesn't stop satisfied customers from delivering flowers and gifts. 'I've never turned a delivery truck away!' she says with a laugh.

The bottom line? Clarify tipping policies if you're unsure, but if you've had a great dining experience, a soothing massage or a killer haircut, then a 20 percent tip is a fair gesture of gratitude. It's also a smart way to promote great service the next time around.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..