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Tipped Employees Still Miss the Halcyon Days of the Late 1990s; Competent Service the No. 1
Predictor of What a Gratuity Will Be
By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Dec. 5, 2003 - If you're feeling good about the economy, leave a little something extra in the tip jar. 

Those who make a living off gratuities say that's what it will take to convince them the country is truly in an economic recovery. 

After three years of having to work a lot harder to make ends meet with fewer and fewer customers, restaurant wait staff, hotel bellmen and club bartenders say they have seen signs of better tips and customers loosening the purse strings a little more. 

But like the proverbial glass, the tip jar is still half-empty. 

That's because Americans have changed their personal habits to accommodate tighter wallets: Hotel stays are shorter. Haircuts wait a few more weeks. And a cheaper bottle of wine will do, if vino is ordered at all. 

But business lunches, where deals are made and nobody worries too much about the size of the bill, are showing occasional signs of picking up, service industry leaders say. Hotels, which have noted a falloff in business travel and tourist visits, are getting a few more rooms booked every day. 

Eddie Medja, a bellman at downtown's Sheraton Atlanta Hotel, said business has picked up in the past five or six months. He works hard for the money. 

With a nod of his head, he grabs a guest's bags out of a taxi and whisks them onto a cart to be carried inside. His smile is gracious. His hands are quick as he holds the door for a guest and maneuvers the cart inside the building's modern lobby of warm tan, red and brown tones. 

"The bellman's job is common sense," Medja said. "The guest has to feel more comfortable. When you give good service, the guest returns the favor with a good tip." 

Customers continue to tip, in some cases a little bit more than before. But those in the service industry say when the overall bill is smaller, even a 20 percent gratuity can't compare with what they cleared during the halcyon days of the late 1990s. 

Those were the days of the high roller, that customer you know by name and who pays big when the service is top notch. 

Dennis Rivera, a waiter who has worked at Chops/Lobster Bar for a decade, suspects those more generous customers are slowly coming back. One of his repeat guests recently racked up a $900 business dinner -- and left a $300 tip for Rivera. 

"That's what I haven't seen as much," said Rivera. "The high rollers would tip you crazy sometimes." 

The tip jar at Dailey's has more in it these days. But times are still tough, said Todd Tessier, a bartender at the downtown restaurant. 

"I'm seeing a slight increase from this time compared to the year before," said Tessier, who usually gets from 15 percent to 22 percent in tips. "If it is there, it is very small." 

The average gratuity for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, which includes such popular eateries as Pano's & Paul's, Veni Vidi Vici and the Atlanta Fish Market, is about 19 percent, up one percentage point over the same time last year, said Niko Karatassos, the company's operations manager. 

"It's increasing," he said, "but very slowly." 

Bellmen, whose job includes lugging guests' bags to their rooms, now have less to do and fewer opportunities to do it, said Brooke Gardner, director of food and beverage for the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown. 

Shorter hotel stays generally mean fewer pieces of luggage. And in this self-service economy, plenty of guests don't mind being left holding the bag -- especially if it has wheels. 

But even if a customer has so much discretionary income that he can't dispose of it fast enough, he will not give a substantial tip if the service is bad, said Ron Wolf, executive director for the Georgia Restaurant Council. 

Good economic times or bad, competent service is still the No. 1 predictor of what a gratuity will be. "The only impact the economy would have is the frequency of people dining out," he said. 

-----To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. FS, 


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