Burning Question: Are People Tipping Less?

Some wag in some diner some years ago posted a clever reminder for guests: "Tipping is not a city in China"--which may have seemed funny, oh, about once.

Nowadays China owns a good chunk of American debt, as well as the power to let us topple into the economic dunking pool...if we weren't doing such a good job of that ourselves. Except for the rare Madoff, rich folk manage to cruise through recessionary times with little trouble. They can afford to beg for more tax cuts, fight any flow of federal funds to us lesser sorts and flip a coin to decide between dinner at Aurora or Al Biernat's.

How bad are things for the rest of us? Well, the Burning Question crew employs a different set of economic indicators than most. For instance, we knew things were really bad when Evan Wolfe, bartender at Vickery Park, told us he had switched to McCormick vodka for home use...when guests drop by--he tucks away a bottle of Monopolowa for himself.

OK, OK--he may have just said that to keep us from crashing a party.

But we would assume bartenders and wait staff experience the effects of a downturn long before the rest of us. So we traversed the city--well, just a few blocks of it, anyway; a question of gas versus another round of drinks was involved--to find out if this was true.

In other words, are people tipping less?

The answer seems to be a matter of perspective. "They really haven't," says Adam Kitchen--not a cook, but a bartender at Tom Tom in West Village. "I just haven't had as many customers."  Another bartender, who shall remain nameless because corporate dweebs at his, shall we say, Ritz-y establishment don't allow peons to speak with media drunks, agrees. Tipping remains the same, but business is tailing off.

But Wolfe explains this particular point of view may be skewed. "Even if a recession was not in play, people are more likely to be nice to their bartender," he says.

Wait staff indeed see things a bit differently. "They've been going down--into the 10 to 15 percent range," acknowledges Joel Lee of Tom Tom. The downward drift from 20 percent began only in the last few weeks, he adds. A stable of regular customers cushions the blow, says Sarah Ford at Fireside Pies--and it's hard to blame the noticeable slack on the recession: "the beginning of the year is always slower."

Still, says her Fireside colleague Catherine Needham, "I've seen some 10 percent tips. But it's really just that when people do come in, they're not ordering as much." Which, of course, means a dip in a server's overall take. Even Kitchen has noticed an upsurge in take-away orders from Tom Tom.

"With takeout people think they don't have to tip," he says.

The logic of that seems valid. But it doesn't apply to cocktails. Instead, the to go approach just starts a chain of events that ends when a big guy collars you in the parking garage, by which time you've sloshed most of the precious alcohol...or so we've been told.

So all of this leaves us at an impasse. Tipping has slipped from its 20 percent heights recently. How much depends on the type of restaurant and number of regular customers--who see continued value in cultivating a cash-for-better-treatment relationship. Guests still slip the requisite buck or two per drink to their bartenders, too.

But people seem to be ordering just a bit less, even at the bar. As Kitchen says, "fewer people want to pay $9 for a vodka and tonic."

True enough. But will they stoop to shots of grain alcohol from a plastic jug? We'll have to crash a party at Wolfe's place to find out.

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