Nina Rousseau

Is 10 per cent the magic number to leave as a tip?
Is 10 per cent the magic number to leave as a tip?

Tipping in Australia can be a confusing business. Do you tip at cafes or only restaurants? If so, how much? Is 10 per cent the magic number, or does that make you a “tight arse”?

And then what about "the shyster" who collects the tips from their mates, pays the exact bill amount on a card and pockets the change?

It happens, restaurant staff say.

Table setting.
Dining out ... Tipping can be confusing for the diner. Photo: Erin Slattery

Tipping protocol in Australia works on a loose set of principles, and diners are often baffled about how much to leave and when it's appropriate. Ask any hospitality worker and they'll say, “always, and at least 10 per cent”.

But has Australia reached a point where tipping is now seen as compulsory?

According to Tara Moriarty, secretary of the liquor and hospitality division of the United Voice hospitality union, “there's no requirement to tip in Australia”.

“It's just a discretionary thing if people feel that they've had good service,” she says. “It's the easiest way for diners here to say thanks.”

Melbourne restaurateur Simon Denton says some people tip, some people don't and there are “swinging voters” too. If people ask – usually travellers – he'll say to leave 10 per cent but reckons in reality the overall percentage people leave is usually about 7 per cent.

“That was in good places,” says Denton, who has worked at restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, and now owns Japanese cafe Nama Nama and upstairs bar Hihou in Melbourne's CBD.

Moriarty says there isn't a fixed amount – if you've been looked after well, leave an amount you're comfortable with.

“People use 10 per cent as a bit of a guide, but I think that's just from watching TV and that's what they do in the [United] States,” she says.

The tipping culture here has been heavily influenced by the US, according to The Sydney Morning Herald's chief restaurant critic, Terry Durack.

“I lived in England for 10 years where it's just a straight 12.5 per cent – well, I say straight, but when you've had a couple of drinks it's hard to work out,” Durack says.

“In the States it's often 20 per cent or higher, and if you leave lower than that they'll abuse you.”

Unlike the US, where waiters earn a measly hourly wage, or only work for tips, Australian waiters earn a fixed amount ($15.96 an hour is the national minimum award wage) and tips are seen as a bonus, although many managers and waiters will factor tips into their wage before accepting a job, or determining payment.

On average, a full-time waiter in a Melbourne or Sydney restaurant can average about $250 to $500 in weekly tips, more for really top-end places, where staff can earn closer to $600 or $700.

Durack doesn't believe tipping should be compulsory here – especially for a bad experience.

“In Australia we usually leave 10 per cent, I think because it's so easy to work out, but it should be up to you, it should be a reward,” he says.

The public perception may be that the tipping culture is growing in Australia, but according to Tony Percuoco, from Ristorante Tartufo in Brisbane, the amount people contribute as a tip is decreasing.

“I've been in the industry for 40 years. Tips have definitely gone down,” says Percuoco, who reckons waiters aren't making anything like they used to 10 to 15 years ago.

Restaurant manager Belinda Seager agrees. She attributes this in part to the fact that restaurants have become more casual, removing the perception of “fine dining”.

“I think it's less of a culture now,” agrees Seager. “When I first started [at Longrain in Melbourne] I was clearing as much as my wage in tips, that's going back 10 years, and it's just gradually dropped.”

In most places credit card tips are usually transferred to the communal pot at the end of the night – usually. But Moriarty from United Voice stresses that diners should tip in cash.

“If we are tipping, we want to make sure it gets to the people we mean it for,” says Moriarty.

Shifty customers can also be the reason why staff don't receive tips. Kirsten Dickie, front of house at Cicciolina in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, says it's not unusual for customers to stiff their mates.

“The worst one is when six people go out for dinner, everyone's put in a tip, but one person collects the cash and pays by credit card and doesn't leave a tip, so they almost get their dinner for free,” she says.

“It might be like $50 worth of tips. They always come up to the bar to pay, so no one sees.”

Seager also cites examples of this underhanded strategy: “It happens a lot. I reckon I get it a couple of times a week.”

“A lot of the staff get quite upset when people don't tip,” says Seager, “especially if they've gone out of their way to make sure the table has had a lovely night and a great experience, and taught them something about the food and the wine.

"Then the customer walks out and says, 'Thanks very much, that was amazing,' and that's all you get.”

TIPS ON TIPPING IN AUSTRALIA

Is tipping compulsory?

No, but it's a way to show acknowledgment and to reward good service.

What's the magic number?

There's no fixed amount. "I don't expect everybody to be tipping 10 per cent on their bill," says Seager, "but $20 a table wouldn't hurt".

Cash or card?

In most places credit card tips are usually transferred to the communal pot at the end of the night – usually – but recent reports have discovered that sometimes credit card tips can end up in the pockets of the owners, rather than those of the staff. The Liquor and Hospitality Union advises that diners should tip in cash.

Do you only tip in restaurants?

Simon Denton says that people tend to tip more in the evening and less so in cafes. Ultimately, it comes down to the service. That's what the tip is for, so if you have received good service in a cafe, the same principles apply.

Bad service? Should you still tip?

Not according to Tony Percuoco. "If you don't get good service, don't tip," he says. Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Terry Durack, agrees: "If you've had an awful time, I don't see why you should tip. It should be a reward."

Should big groups leave more than 10 per cent?

According to the Liquor and Hospitality Union's guide to tipping, "Tipping is discretionary, but if you have a large group you should probably pay a tip in recognition of the increased strain on staff."

Bad food, great service

"If you get average food but the waiter is trying his utmost, don't punish the waiter," says Percuoco. What you're tipping for is the service.

How do you approach tipping? Do you think it is expected in Australian restaurants? Jump on the comments and share your thoughts.