Six months waiting tables at the local Red Lobster when I was in college turned me from “Black people do tip! Don’t spread those stereotypes about our people!” to “Please don’t seat anymore Black folks in my section. My rent is due this week.” We weren’t the only ones to violate the unofficial tipping laws, but over time, I found that it seems many of our folks simply don’t understand why they are expected to tip. And there were some noteworthy infractions that found me quitting the job altogether during the hellish promotion that is “Endless Shrimp” (more on that later).

In most restauraunts, from your local cheapie Thai spot to the casual (i.e. Red Lobster or TGI Friday’s) and the casual plus (think places with white tablecloths that still aren’t “fancy”, but a cut above Applebees), the waitstaff is paid well under the national or local minimum wage rate per hour. In fact, the hourly rate (as low as $2.00 in some places) is designed to cover the taxes on the tips that the waiter earns, not to be paid as a salary. The restaurant culture of this country is ordered in a way that patrons, not owners, pay the waitstaff.

While the system sucks, it is what it is. If waiters don’t make 15-20 percent on their tables, they aren’t bringing much home. And as waiting tables is physical and sometimes difficult work, it’s not fair for someone to go home with $6 for an hour’s work because you didn’t like the chicken. Unfortunately, many people simply don’t know that tipping is part of the cost of going out to eat, not simply something you do out of the kindness of your heart.

Also: sometimes you need to do a bit more than 15%. Back to my Endless Shrimp story. Red Lobster has a yearly all-you-can-eat shrimp promo so that we can all get our UGK on and enjoy iodine poisonin’. It costs somewhere around $15 and you get a salad, a side dish and an initial plate of two shrimp offerings, after which you can order as many small plates of shrimp as you’d like- one at a time. When I worked this promotion, people came in, ordered the special and a water (with lemon!) and nothing else. No Lobsteritas or sodas to make the check any higher. So two people could literally park their as$es at one of my tables for hours, have me constantly refilling both their water and their shrimp plates and have a final check of about $34.00. Now, one would think that folks would know to tip based on the fact that they ran me ragged for a long period of time AND prevented me from taking new tables, right? Hell no. I was getting tips of $4-6 dollars on a lot of those two party checks. No bueno.

If you have $20 in your pocket and your friends invite you out to dinner, make sure that your meal is no more than $14-15 before tax and tip. There is nothing that says “I have no class” like going out to eat and claming to be too broke to pay the tip. If you can’t afford to tip, stay at home and cook. Otherwise, tip at least 15% for average service, 20% for good service and no less than 10% for marginal service. If you had some sort of serious issue with the waiter (out and out disrespect, for example), speak to a manager.

When at the bar, tip about 15-20% on your check or at least $1 per drink.

What about ordering delivery? Do you have to tip then? Yes. While drivers tend to make a slightly higher wage than waiters, they also have to use their own car, gas and insurance to get you that pizza piping hot in 20 minutes or less. The delivery fee charged by restaurants does not go directly to them. Tip a driver 10% of the pretax bill, no less than $1.

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