Everyone knows that most people in the service industry makes a living on tips. The base wage for most waiters and bartenders is barely above minimum. So, they depend on their tips to live. The debate on tipping is as old as the profession itself and as the cost of living in SF increases, it intensifies. It might help however to explain to the average bar-fly, how the whole thing works.
When you enter a bar, if it's pretty popular, or busy, there are at least two persons behind the bar: The bartender and the barback. Larger bars have floaters who are usually paid hourly to pick up glassware. They are usually not tipped. The bartender serves cocktails and depends upon the barback to provide ice, glassware, mixers (juice, triple sec etc.), fruit, and fresh bottles of liquor as needed. The barback is a necessary variable in the bar staff equation. Barbacks are some of the hardest working people in the business--as the bartender needs him or her to keep the machine working smoothly. (Ask you bartender some time about the benefits of a good barback). The bartender receives your tips and at the end of his or her shift, tips the barback anywhere from 15-25% of the gross amount. It does vary from bar to bar. The discretion lies with the bartender and is usually based on the amount of tips received and the barback's work performance. With all that said, you ask: "So what does this have to do with tipping?" My answer: "Everything!" Certainly, if you are seated at the chrome and silver with flashing lights bar of MECCA, where cocktails are anywhere from $5.00 and up, and you leave $0.50 and slither away to the lounge area, at the very least, you deserve to spend at least one sleep-less night for each quarter you've left. Does this mean that you should leave more at MECCA and less at say...the Albion? Certainly not. I chose to explain the tip breakdown because A) most people don't know how it works, and B) it might make you think twice about leaving that $0.50. Yes, we all hope that you'd think twice about undertipping, or worse, not tipping at all. Look at it this way, the average cost of a bottle of domestic beer is about $2.50.
According to my little Tip Guide, the proper or acceptable tip on a tab of $2.50 is roughly $0.62. Try leaving that at the bar. Yes, the bar marches to a different drum and does not subscribe to this logic. Could you really leave a sixty-two-cent tip on a bar? Some bartenders have come to expect a dollar tip minimum on anything including a glass of water and my tip guide says that $0.62 is well above the recommended 15-25%. It's actually 25%. But we're not going to tell you what to tip, as tipping is the combined product of the quality of service received, amount of the tab, and certainly your financial situation. Try to look at it this way: of the dollar you leave, $0.75 goes to the bartender and the rest to the barback. At places where the bartenders pool tips, that dollar is divided by 3 and sometimes 4. You do the math. By all means, leave whatever you can and while we all know that tipping is optional and not mandatory, it is generally accepted that it's bad bar etiquette not to tip. Bartenders remember tippers, but they also remember non-tippers as well...even more so.
One bartender puts it this way: "I was working one night when this guy I'd been serving gin and tonics all night came up and ordered yet another. All night, he'd been leaving me a quarter here, a quarter there, and sometimes nothing at all. I made the drink and he told me that he didn't have any money. I took the drink back and told him that maybe it was time to go home. He reasoned that since he'd been leaving me quarters all night, he'd probably left enough to buy one more drink." Please, don't let that be you.
So remember this tip next time you're at a party or a club and let's keep our bartenders happy!