Illustration by Julia Terbrock
Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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Petworth cocktail bar Dos Mamis has altered its tip strategy several times since it opened just over a month ago with the goal of providing its staff with increased financial security. At first, co-owners Carlie Steiner and Anna Bran-Leis presented customers with a standard check with a line for a tip and a place to sign. But after a couple of weeks, Steiner says her employees told her customers weren’t always leaving 20 percent tips.

“I saw three separate checks which were over $85 with a $5 tip,” Steiner says. Groups ordered five or six cocktails each, according to Steiner; drinks at Dos Mamis cost between $9 and $14. “Twenty percent is standard,” Steiner continues. “If you can afford an $85 check, you should go in knowing there should be another $16 on top.”

Dos Mamis then tried adding suggested tip options at the bottom of bills. Patrons could check off whether they wanted to tip 18, 20, or 25 percent as if it were a multiple choice question. There was also the option to write in a custom amount. Patrons continued to undertip, according to Steiner, who made one final tweak at the end of July. Dos Mamis now includes a 20 percent service charge on each bill.

Service charges are typically considered part of a bar’s revenue since, in most cases, they’re not optional like gratuity. Customers have to trust that bar owners distribute money obtained through service charges to their staff. 

“The most important thing to an owner is my staff,” Steiner says, noting that neither she nor Bran-Leis accept tips even if they work behind the bar. Whatever tips they earn go directly to staff members who worked the same shift. “I know if I take care of them, they’ll take care of the clientele.” 

A note on Dos Mamis’ menu explains the new fee: “A service charge is included in every check in order to protect our staff and 100 percent of that goes directly to our staff. You always have the right to opt out of the service charge. Please just politely ask your server or bartender to remove it and we will happily oblige.” 

Steiner used the word “protect” purposefully. “It’s the job of owners to make sure the staff is safe and part of that safety is financial security,” she says. By including a service fee, she knows her team faces pressure to provide the best possible experience. “Expectations will go up and we’re ready for that.” 

Whether or not it was intentional, the customers who were tipping $5 on $85 checks were essentially leaving $1 per drink—a societal norm that may or may not be outdated depending on who you ask. A range of D.C. bartenders weighed in on when, if ever, it’s appropriate to leave just a buck behind in this era where some cocktails are as complex as dishes coming out of fine dining kitchens and beer and wine lists are increasingly creative. 

“I feel like a dollar a drink is only appropriate if you’re drinking a $5 or $6 beer,” says Faith Alice Sleeper. Others echoed this sentiment. $1 is, after all, 20 percent of $5. Sleeper is the general manager at Left Door on S Street NW where the majority of cocktails cost $15, and has also worked at more casual haunts including Satellite Room, Black Whiskey, and Rock & Roll Hotel

“When you’re talking about craft cocktails, there are multiple steps,” Sleeper says. “We’re touching multiple bottles and it takes longer than pulling a draft line or cracking a can open. I think tips should reflect that.” 

There’s labor involved in cocktails that customers don’t see. On some mornings, Sleeper is at Left Door making flavored syrups that will make their way into drinks after dark. “Some people are unaware of the different moving parts that go into providing someone with a great time and being hospitable,” Sleeper says. 

Once, when Sleeper was working at The Passenger on a busy Friday, a patron pressed her for whiskey advice. “I spent time talking to him and guiding him through different kinds of whiskey and bourbon,” she says. “He bought rounds for his friends. The check was over $80 and he tipped $7. I spent time trying to educate you and teach you based on what you told me you liked! It’s a little bit of a slap in the face.” 

Sleeper wonders if the suggested gratuity options some bars offer on bills would help steer customers toward tipping more, even though Steiner didn’t have luck with that strategy. “I love that you just check it and write the total and you don’t even have to do the math,” she says. “It’s a little in your face—this is a guide to how much you should be tipping.” Suggested amounts are rarely below 18 percent, so a customer has to go out of their way if they want to tip less.

Left Door doesn’t currently have the capability to add suggested amounts on checks, nor does Service Bar, where Glendon Hartley works. But he too is interested in that option. “I’m a huge fan of people putting it on the receipt,” says the co-owner of the Shaw cocktail bar. “Our [Point of Sale] system won’t allow it.” 

Hartley recalls going to dive bars when he first started drinking where he says he felt comfortable leaving $1 tip on any drink that was $10 or less, especially since cash was a far more common payment method 13 years ago, when Hartley turned 21. His thinking hasn’t changed. “My thing is $10 is my threshold—if someone tosses me a dollar that’s fine,” he says. The cocktail prices at Service Bar range from $7 to $19.

He agrees with Sleeper that more intricate cocktails call for a higher tip than a dollar. “If someone’s picking up four or five bottles and making it look beautiful, to drop them a dollar is an insult in a way,” Hartley says. “It should be 20 percent across the board. I’ll never be upset with someone leaving me 20 percent.” 

At casual or dive bars where patrons might sip drinks at a lower price point, a dollar or two might actually be equivalent to 20 percent. But even then, some bartenders argue that tips shouldn’t solely be based on the quality of products being utilized, the type of establishment, or even the labor involved. Bartenders are expected to be hospitable no matter what they pour, and the art of bartending transcends menu prices.

“The tip isn’t always based off the can of beer or draft beer,” says Michael Haresign. He bartends at Blaguard, a neighborhood bar serving totchos and local beer on 18th Street NW. “During the week when we’re managing the room and talking with patrons, we spend more time with them offering tender loving care. Guests tend to tip more because we’re doing a different type of job. We’re not just dispensing beer.” 

When they’re packed on Fridays and Saturdays and can’t shoot the shit, Haresign says it’s normal for customers to tip a dollar or two per drink. Though, he says, “Generally it’s gone up to $2 a drink.”

At The Tune Inn on Capitol Hill, bartender Stephanie Ann Hulbert makes another case for tipping more than $1 per drink even at a place as relaxed as the D.C. institution that’s been around since 1947. “I call all my bar stools real estate,” she says. Sit on one and “pay rent” or Hulbert will deem you a “camper” whose welcome has worn out. 

“They got a $5 beer and they sit there for an hour and sip on it and watch the game,” she explains. “You ask them two or three times if they want something else. I run people off like that if I have a full bar and people waiting. Once the drink is done, I’ll grab the can and take the coaster just to give them an idea that this is how I make my money … I made a dollar from you and I need someone else to sit there now.”

That said, Hulbert believes the social norm of paying $1 per drink is still going strong. “Tip appropriately,” she says. “Whether you’re in a dive bar or somewhere like Del Mar at The Wharf. They have $20 cocktails and people tip a dollar sometimes.” 

ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar bartender Jade Aldrighette echoes her industry brethren when she says there are still people tipping $1 a drink no matter what. “If you get a $3 or $4 beer, sure, but even then I would still tip two dollars because why not?” she wonders. “You’re getting cheap as fuck beers.” Aldrighette finds people tip the least when they’re ordering rounds for friends because of the sticker shock of paying for a full tray of drinks at once.

“I don’t have a solution,” she says. Adding the suggested tip amounts on the bottom of a bill may pressure some imbibers into opening their wallets wider, but Aldrighette thinks it’s a little cheesy. “Like a TGI Fridays kind of thing,” she jokes. “But at the same time, it could be helpful if a lot of places do it.” 

Aldrighette doesn’t let a dollar-per-drink tip set her back emotionally. “It evens out, that’s my philosophy,” she says. “I don’t let that stuff bother me.”

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