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Ask The Salty Waitress: What are the rules for coat check tipping?

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: What are the rules for coat check tipping?em/em
Photo: Vladimir Zapletin (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty, I don’t encounter coat checks much anymore, but of course on the rare occasions I do, I never have cash on me, or I’ll only have a $20. I feel really guilty just smiling at the coat check person without any tip, but I also feel weird asking them to break a $20. What’s the going rate on coat check tips these days? And is it weird to ask them to break a large bill, or worse to just not tip at all?

Thanks,
Coat Confused

Dear Coat Confused,

Seeing as people are sporting fewer top hats and overcoats and silver walking canes these days, the coat check has phased out of a lot of restaurants. It’s mostly the fancy places that still do it, plus theaters or music venues.

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What a lot of people don’t realize about the coat check’s purpose is that it’s not just there for your convenience, but to help out the restaurant or theater, too. It’s easier for us servers to maneuver in tight spaces when there aren’t bulky coats on backs of chairs, or rogue umbrellas poking out to trip us. And some historic theaters’ seats are so small, I can barely fit my ass in them, let alone my ass plus my coat the size of a sleeping bag. So if you don’t need that coat to keep warm during the evening, everyone’s better off if you check it.

Now, how much you want to tip is your business. I’ve been told that anything from a dollar per item up to $10 on fancier coats is proper. That last bit of advice doesn’t sit well with me, because it’s not like a fancy coat takes more work to hang than a non-fancy one. I guess if your coat check attendant notices a Gucci label plus “100-percent cashmere,” they might expect more than a buck, but that’s up to you. (Of course, they’ll be very appreciative if you do hand them a 10-spot.) Most of my service-industry friends agree that $2 is a nice, friendly tip for a standard coat. If you have a coat plus four bags of clothes you just bought on your shopping spree, plus an umbrella and hat, cough up a few more dollars for the extra work. For two coats, a fiver is nice.

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But what to do if you only have $20? That’s complicated. Say you ask the coat check attendant with a smile: “Hey, any chance you can make change?” If they can’t, well, do you just shove that bill back in your pocket, or do you fork over the whole shebang? You’ll have to do your own cost/benefit math on that beforehand: Is it worth $20 to save yourself from feeling embarrassed? (Perhaps there’s a bar in the facility that could break your bill?)

The alternative is just not tipping at all. I hate to say it, but within our hospitality business, stiffing the coat check somehow feels less egregious than not tipping the car valet. Because, believe me, plenty of people don’t tip the coat check. If you’re truly cashless, don’t beat yourself too hard, because the coat check—sadly—is used to it. Still, not tipping = kind of lame.

If you do find yourself at a place with a coat check but no cash, it’s best to still check your coat. You might think you’re saving that attendant from a little extra work, but you’re really just making more work for your server, who now has to avoid your bulky coat or try not to knock your hat off the table.

I know we’re all guilty of running low on cash, but no matter where you’re heading for dinner, it can’t hurt to hit the ATM for $20 beforehand. Cash solves all kinds of life’s little emergencies, including mandatory valet.

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Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com

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DISCUSSION

I am fascinated by how certain occupations become deserving of tips while others do not, for no discernible reason. I understand why servers deserve to be tipped, but it has been argued on this site that servers would deserve to be tipped even if they were making minimum wage (or more).

Yet nobody would think of tipping anyone at a fast-food restaurant or the person who rings up their groceries. Are they less deserving of getting tips than the guy who brings back my car to the front door of the restaurant (do valets get a wage? If so, is it sub-minimum? I honestly don’t know. I’ve never been a valet).

If you want to talk about how difficult a job is, as if that should be the deciding factor, wouldn’t you think that working retail would be significantly more deserving of receiving a tip as opposed to someone who puts your coat in a cubby and then hands it back to you in a couple of hours? But it would never occur to me to give an extra 25% of what I spend at Target to someone stocking the shelves or bringing in the carts from the parking lot.

I typically tip 25-30%, regardless of service, so I don’t have any inherent problem with the tipping culture here in the US. It’s just that, whenever I stop to think about it, it really doesn’t make any sense why we tip who we tip except for the reason that we’ve always done it this way. And I’m just curious as to why that is.

So, anyone have any answers?