ASPEN - It's no secret that a large number of Aspen-area residents depend on tips to earn a living. As in any resort town with numerous full-service restaurants and quick-bite eateries, waitstaff and bartenders abound, and most of the cost of keeping them employed is usually passed on to customers.
But local service-industry folks know that exceptional service doesn't always equate to a decent tip. Getting stiffed by customers is a common occurrence; servers tend to put up with it, hoping that the next customer who tips above the usual 15 to 20 percent will make up for the penny-pinching jerk or the unenlightened foreigner who didn't believe a gratuity was necessary.
In theory, it all averages out over the course of a week, a month or a year - except when it doesn't.
"I do pretty well in the winter season; most people tip really well, and I always go the extra mile for them. The rest of the year is not the same," said one female server at an East Hopkins Avenue restaurant, who asked that her identity not be revealed. She was concerned that her supervisors wouldn't want to see her name in the article.
The young woman, who has been working in Aspen for three years, said that during the summer and fall seasons, it doesn't seem to matter how much extra attention she provides or how much the customer enjoys the meal and the dining experience. The tips just don't measure up, sometimes falling below 10 percent.
"I don't know that I would say that the customers we get in the summer and fall are cheap," she said. "Maybe they aren't as wealthy as a lot of the winter tourists. Some people I work with think that's the case. I have to get an extra job in the summer just to pay my bills. In the winter, it's not a problem. Of course, I save a good bit of money in the winter to help make it through the rough months, like most people try to do."
One issue that pops up regularly is the fact that some international visitors tip poorly or not at all. It has less to do with being frugal and more to do with a lack of understanding that in the U.S., servers usually are paid less than the minimum hourly wage and depend on tips for their livelihood.
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires a minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers with the expectation that wages plus tips will total $7.25 per hour or more. The employer must pay the difference if total income does not add up to $7.25 per hour.
Some states have raised the minimum hourly rate above the federally mandated $7.25 per hour. In Colorado, the state wage was increased to $7.64 per hour on Jan. 1. The state also increased the tipped wage rate to $4.62 per hour.
Of course, tipping isn't confined to restaurants and bars. Local coffee shops, convenience stores, ski-tuning shops - even the snack bar at the Aspen Recreation Center - have a tip jar that customers are expected to fill.
H2G2, a continually evolving online encyclopedia based in the UK that touts itself as a "guide to life" provides a list of various countries and how their citizens generally view gratuities.
For instance, Australians and New Zealanders are considered bad tippers. That's because they don't practice it at home.
"Tipping in Australia is basically nonexistent," H2G2's "International Tipping Etiquette" page states. As for New Zealand, "Tipping is almost always included (in the bill), as is the sales tax, so the price you see is the price you get."
In France, a tip of around 15 percent is always included in a restaurant bill. To many Germans, "Tipping seems strange," according to the H2G2 tipping guide. As for Italy, "No tip is expected in restaurants. ... If you're feeling generous, you can leave some coins on the table as you leave."
Conversely, tipping is expected for just about any kind of service in Mexico and Egypt. And the generosity is returned: According to multiple sources, the native Mexicans who work in the Roaring Fork Valley tend to provide healthy tips when visiting Aspen nightspots.
Though it might seem to be a racial stereotype, African-Americans also have been considered weak tippers. This information comes not from some far-right propaganda machine but from numerous sources in the black community, including the online lifestyle magazine Madame Noire, whose core audience is black female professionals.
Madame Noire blogger Charing Ball wrote a column last year titled, "Stuff black people don't like: tipping." She recalled her first job as a waitress at a middle-America restaurant. During training, her mentor, a tenured waitress, pulled her aside and said, "Whatever you do, don't take it personal. Black folks just don't tip."
Ball wrote that she was "stunned. short of offended, not only because she was brazen enough to say that to me but also because she was a black lady. Surely, this lady was suffering from some sort of self-hatred issues. Boy was I wrong."
During her college years, while working at different restaurants, Ball made a point of experimenting with different groups of customers to see if what everybody told her was true, even asking her co-workers for permission to set up a "blacks-only" section (unknown to the customers), where she could accurately gauge whether her tips would be worse than what the other servers were getting. She wanted to prove her mentor wrong.
But the stereotype rang true, aside from a few exceptions.
"All night I hustled through my tables, delivering trays and trays of ranch dressing, ketchup and a plethora of napkins," Ball remembered. "I also smiled and engaged the customers more, even offering suggestions for substitutes, which I felt might be more to their liking. At the end of the night, I counted up my tips and lo and behold, I still made less than what I normally did. However, each one of my tables tipped me something, even if it was just a dollar per person."
She concluded that the reputation was not one that blacks bear alone.
"After my little social-experiment that day I started really monitoring who would and would not leave a tip. I found that foreigners from countries where a livable wage is customary of service people, single white women with children and poor folks of all colors did not tip regularly or appropriately."
According to Casey Coffman, owner of Takah Sushi in the Cooper Avenue Mall, there's really no recourse if a customer gets good service and enjoys the meal but decides to leave a paltry tip - or none at all.
"There's nothing you can do about it," she said.
In terms of base pay, her servers make less than the federal minimum wage and rely heavily on tips to make ends meet. Coffman helps her employees out additionally by giving them free meals and beverages during every shift.
Takah Sushi draws many international visitors each year. Coffman said that although some might be ignorant of U.S. tipping customs, the majority are knowledgeable, "but they sometimes choose not to tip very well."
Americans can be just as frugal, she pointed out through an anecdote involving a former regular customer, an extremely well-to-do local man who sold real estate.
"It was many years ago," she said. "This is a very wealthy person, and he used to always tip 5 percent. My servers, for a time, used to have a contest to see if they could get more than 5 percent from the guy. Never. He used to say, 'Well, my dad used to always tip 5 percent, and if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me.'"
Visitors and locals in Aspen, Coffman concluded, tip about as well as anywhere else.
"Waiters generally can expect a tip at 15 to 20 percent. Bartenders often get tipped at 25 to 50 percent. It really depends on what your position is. Generally speaking, waiters in Aspen make pretty good tips."
Still, there are always going to be those times in which a server gets stiffed.
"It kind of stings when people at a table spend a lot of money and they only tip you 5 percent," Coffman added.