Tipping in Australia: To leave or not leave a tip?

"WOULD you like to leave a tip?"

No phrase has ever made me feel quite as anxious as this one, when the handsome young man proffered the eftpos machine with an expectant smile on his face.

Yes, he'd brought me a chicken wrap with chips (which is without a doubt the most efficient way to earn my appreciation), and yes, it was delicious.

My friend and I sat at the tiny cafe table for about half an hour, and between us, we'd already spent close to $50 on quick weekday lunches with a takeaway coffees.

I couldn't help but feel his judgment as I awkwardly hit the "no" button, punched in my PIN, and scuttled out the door.

Since when have Australians tipped for food and drink?

I'm not talking about the kind of restaurants with white linen tablecloths and fine wines, frequented by sophisticated business people wearing expensive suits.

I'm talking about my local cafe, where sandwiches and wraps are prepared early, stored in a refrigerated display cabinet, and hurriedly toasted and served as customers not lucky enough to snag a seat queue out the door during the lunchtime rush.

According to new research from Open Table, 80 per cent of Australians feel confused about whether or not they should leave a tip.

I grew up in a rural town, lived in Melbourne for five years and now call Sydney home, and have never been asked for a tip until the beginning of this year.

Now, it seems every second place I go is expecting me to cough up a little extra, and I can't help but feel slightly resentful.

The thing is, food in this country is already incredibly expensive.

You only have to listen to the likes of Bernard Salt, who in October last year wrote for the Weekend Australian: "I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more" to know how seriously pricey it is.

"I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this?" he wrote.

He suggests food is so expensive millennials could make serious headway toward buying their first homes if they opted simply to not eat out.

Coffee is expensive enough in Australia without having to shell out a tip as well. Source:Supplied
Coffee is expensive enough in Australia without having to shell out a tip as well. Source:Supplied

I'd watched enough Hollywood movies to know tipping is customary in North America, but I had no idea how much I needed to pay.

When the bill came, I remember thinking it was absurdly cheap, and I asked the businesswoman sitting in the booth behind me for some advice.

"Usually 10 per cent is the minimum, then most people probably pay 15 per cent or you might want to pay 20 per cent for really good service," she said.

Tipping quickly began to feel like second nature, and when I come home I remember thinking for a split second it seemed rude not to leave a little extra on the table.

That was until I looked at the receipt, and realised the price of food in Australia is exorbitant compared to almost every other country in the world.

The difference is Australian hospitality staff are paid a living wage, in line with federal minimum wage standards, and penalty rates on top of that.

That cost is reflected in the high price of food when you're eating out.

It's a stark contrast to, say, American restaurants where food is cheap and employees are paid a base wage as low as $4 an hour, expected to make their living from tips.

From my observations, it's a cultural difference that stems from the fact that Australians tend to value collective well-being, while Americans prefer to reward individual effort.

The exception to the rule is fine-dining, where hospitality staff have specialty skills and expertise that can add significant value to a diner's experience.

Kate Pearson, from the Lotus Dining Group in Sydney, told news.com.au the best practice is simply for customers to use their discretion.

"You could have someone who treats you like a king and you might think that person is deserving of gratitude because they've changed your experience.

"I think tips are to be earned, and they're not necessarily a must. I've worked in hospitality for a long time, and if I don't get good service I won't leave a tip."

Lotus operates five restaurants specialising in Asian-inspired dishes, and they serve a typically corporate clientele that tends to leave generous gratuities.

However, she noted the issue of tipping can be taboo in Australia.

"It's really difficult to discuss, but I think that good service should be acknowledged, and that's becoming increasingly rare," she said.

"But it's a completely personal preference".

kirrily.schwarz@news.com.au

News Corp Australia

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