Carroll: In search of the perfect tip | AspenTimes.com

Carroll: In search of the perfect tip

For all of the news stories about race relations, terrorism threats, immigration, the economy and sports doping, it's often the juicy little non-controversies that are the most relatable.

One of the front-running stories for most overblown news item of the year came out of Del Mar, Calif., where New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently left a $3 tip on a $74 bill. On a take-out order.

My, my — what a travesty. A travesty we all can discuss based on our own experiences.

In Aspen, service-industry workers heavily rely on tips to put the butter on their bread. And most people understand that when they sit down for a meal, 15 percent is an average tip for their waiter, but at least 20 percent should be given when they receive good service.

While leaving gratuity is not mandatory — there's nothing illegal about stiffing your server or leaving him or her 5 or 10 percent — servers greatly depend on it because they don't make minimum wage. In Colorado, for example, the tipped wage is $4.62 per hour. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for tipped workers.

But when it comes to tipping on take-outs, we all have our own standards. Over a recent dinner with my in-laws, the Brees story came up, which led to a discussion about our own tipping behavior. When I explained that I generally leave at least a 10 percent gratuity on take-out orders, a few looks of disbelief— as in, are you effing kidding me? — were flashed my way. My wife was in full agreement with her family, which wasn't a surprise to me, as she's been known to glance at our take-out receipts and tell me I've been too generous. Again.

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A big spender I'm not, although I've admittedly always had a soft spot for service-industry workers, maybe because I was once a bartender, waiter and busboy over the course of five or six years. And this is a service town. And we take care of our own, damn it.

So, was Brees, who signed a $100 million contract with the Saints, correct by leaving a nearly 4 percent tip, and am I just a naive pushover who wants to be loved by those who box my pizzas and ribs? (Full disclosure: The Saints are my favorite NFL team, and Brees is my favorite player, even though this tipping scandal could place him in the dubious company of Aaron Hernandez, O.J. Simpson and Michael Vick.)

I talked to two local restaurant operators to find out, although they didn't exactly clear the matter up for me.

"Probably 5 percent," said Earl Rodgers, co-owner of New York Pizza, when I asked him what I should leave when I pick up an order from the Hyman Avenue joint. "It's not like you got any service for it, and the cooks made the food, and they get paid to do that. And the counter person puts it across the counter."

Then Earl posed a question to me: "Are you going to tip at McDonald's when you get something to go?"

Well, no. And the same goes when I visit downtown Aspen's two gas stations, where those guilt-inducing tip jars sit on the counter like a homeless veteran at a busy intersection. Maybe I'll leave a dime or quarter here or there, but when I'm pouring myself gas-station coffee, I don't feel inclined to leave a monetary thank-you for a service I performed myself.

Meanwhile, Earl left me thinking that I've been wasting all of this money over the years. But Jesse Bennas, general manager at the Hickory House, had me feeling a little less stupid.

"Not 20 percent," he said about tipping for take-outs. "But 10 percent. You're basically getting half the service.

"You're not sitting at the table, but the food is prepared and packed up and brought to you. It's not always expected, but it's greatly appreciated. And it's definitely noticed when it doesn't happen and appreciated when it does happen."

In the end, this little exercise probably won't change my tipping habits at all. For every person who leaves 10 percent on their take-out orders, there are those who don't leave a cent.

Which means I'm picking up their slack. For once, I can relate with the tea party.

Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at rcarroll@aspentimes.com.