Social norms may come and go, but tipping is baked into American dining culture. At most restaurants, tipping on a percentage of the total bill remains de rigueur. But at bars, a $1-per-drink gratuity has remained the standard, even amid ballooning inflation and the ever-rising cost of living. In the Bay Area, where rent increases are a perennial concern, this contradiction can be particularly glaring for those who make a living pouring draft beer and mixing cocktails.
Despite housing burdens, inflation and a severely depleted restaurant workforce—and even as food workers have been lauded as “first responders”—it appears that local restaurant-goers have not changed their tipping habits. According to a 2022 study from point-of-sale platform Toast, San Franciscans rated among the lowest tippers in the country—only 17%, versus a national average of almost 20%.
Let’s do the math on that $1 tip. Dropping a buck on an $8 craft beer means you’re tipping 12.5%. A single dollar on top of that $12 glass of wine shakes out to a mere 8%. These calculations are even more dismal for craft cocktails, which can run to $15 or more in San Francisco. That’s a 6.66% tip—the sign of the beast, indeed.
Tipping, of course, is an unregulated norm that’s central to the social contract of dining out. Historically, it serves to supplement a minimum wage that hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation. As proponents of the anti-tipping movement have pointed out, the practice is rooted in racism. But tipping is more often than not left to the whim of the customer rather than the business to enforce—making it a matter of individual choice, something wages and economic conditions are not.
San Francisco’s minimum wage is $16.99, and it will rise to $18.07 on July 1—which still amounts to less than $40,000 per year. When the minimum wage fails to keep up with high costs of living, or an economic downturn is nigh, that $1 bar tip may be more tone-deaf than ever, according to two hospitality industry professionals and two Bay Area residents who spoke to The Standard.
Justin Dolezal, co-owner of Bar Part Time in the Mission, said his wine bar’s credit card tipping system is such that any drink under $10, like a beer, elicits a suggested tip of $1, $2 or $3. Any total above that defaults to a percentage tip. He said that the $1 tipping convention is within reason for a $6 beer, but any other drink requires more.
“One dollar for a well-made drink is insufficient,” he said. “Given the state of hospitality post-pandemic, rising rents, etc., people should be aware and tip more, always.”
Gabrielle Linhares, an Oakland bartender, said she feels the $1 tipping convention is wholly obsolete for craft cocktails.
“A dollar tip for a $15 cocktail just doesn’t cut it. All the R&D that goes into a cocktail, as well as the labor of making infused spirits and other components, not to mention preparing garnishes, deserves a more appropriate gratuity,” she said.
Of course, bartenders and other hospitality professionals are keenly aware of the costs and labor that go into conjuring your flaming tiki bowl in a way the average bar-goer may not be. Varun Sivakumar, a marketing professional living in San Jose, told The Standard he’s modified his tipping behavior as his income has increased.
“I used to tip $1 at bars for a drink when I first started working, but eventually started tipping two times the tax, so around 17% to 20%,” he said.
That doesn’t always include coffee drinks, Sivakumar added. “I still don’t get tipping at coffee shops for a $4 to $5 drink you’re getting to-go. I don’t always tip there.”
Robert Sternbach, a retired physician in Berkeley, said he no longer goes to bars. “But if I did go, I would probably try to stay close to the 20% rule.”
Tips may never make up for low wages. Still, despite trending expressions like “tipflation” or “tip creep”—a feeling among customers that they’re being asked to tip for things they never did before—or simple sticker shock when the bill comes, the $1 tip may have already become a symbol of inequality rather than an expression of gratitude.
Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]