"Blacks don't tip well."
— Hiromi "Toni" Takarada, owner, "Thai Toni,"
Miami, Florida, USA
October 23, 1999
Charles Thompson and his wife, Theresa White, decided to
head to Miami's hip South Beach to have supper. Their meal at the popular "Thai
Toni" Asian fusion restaurant was quite good. The well-dressed couple fit in
well at the upscale restaurant, filled with locals and
tourists enjoying the peaceful and chic atmosphere and critically-acclaimed
cuisine. The finale to their meal was not a sweet dessert; in fact it was
terribly unpleasant for Thompson and White, and a bitter wake-up
call later for the restaurant.
Mr. Thompson noticed that a fifteen per cent service charge had been
written onto their bill. Nowhere on the menu did it say that a gratuity would
be added by the house. There were no signs to that effect anywhere
in the restaurant, either. Thompson asked the diners at the next table, who'd
also received their bill, if he could look at it. The bill at the neighboring
table did not have any gratuity written in. Thompson telephoned 911 and summoned
Why was Thompson compelled to call the police?
After all, it's the same
restaurant, the bills were both for parties of two, and the amounts were
similar. Perhaps writing-in the service charge for the other table had been
What made the difference is that Thompson and his wife are African American,
and the diners at the table next to them were white. This alone made Thompson's
"blood boil."1 Worse, when asked by
Thompson about the discrepancy, restaurateur Hiromi "Toni" Takarada responded
that he added the service charge because, in his words, "blacks don't tip well." Takarada actually
reiterated these words to the officers who arrived on the
scene to investigate Thompson's complaint, thinking the officers would back him
The State of Florida filed suit against Takarada for discrimination. Some
residents of South Beach, where gratuities are routinely added to the bills at
the area's expensive restaurants, claimed the lawsuit was overkill. The
attorney in charge of the case, Bob Butterworth, said it was one of the most
flagrant examples he'd ever seen of discrimination.
A Brave Researcher at Cornell Stirs Things Up: March, 2006
"Although the topic is sensitive, the restaurant industry
needs to openly discuss and deal with ethnic differences in tipping. This study
contributes to the dialogue by providing evidence that black consumers are less
familiar with the restaurant tipping norm than are white consumers."
— Michael Lynn, Ph.D., in "Ethnic Differences in Tipping: A Matter of
Familiarity with Tipping Norms"
Dr. Lynn is an associate professor of marketing at the Cornell University
School of Hotel Administration. He mentions the story of Mr. Thompson and Thai
Toni restaurant at the beginning of his report. Lynn's study has elicited both
positive and negative comments in the restaurant industry and among civil
rights advocates. The biggest fear is that the results will reinforce the
negative stereotype of blacks being poor tippers.
The negative stereotype and resultant discriminatory behavior on the part of
restaurant servers will not disappear if restaurateurs fail to acknowledge this
admittedly sensitive issue. Indeed, Lynn posits that if his recommendations are
heeded, restaurant servers will reap the benefits of better tipping. More
importantly, blacks will enjoy an enhanced quality of life if restaurateurs are
no longer hesitant about opening restaurants in communities with a high
percentage of black residents.
The Meat and Potatoes of the Cornell Study
The firm of Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch was hired to collect the data.
The actual interviews consisted of questions asked on behalf of multiple clients
of the firm. This is called an omnibus survey and is a far more economical way
to collect data than to attempt to interview subjects for one study alone. The
firm utilized Genesys random-digit-dial sampling, which allows researchers to
sample people with unlisted telephone numbers.
Just over a thousand interviews were completed; 788 with whites and 99 with
blacks. The remaining respondents were from other ethnic groups, and their
responses were not utilized for purposes of Lynn's study. Of calls answered, 71
percent of households refused to participate.
Those households choosing to participate were asked: "Thinking about tipping
overall, not your own practices, how much is it customary for people in the
United States to tip waiters and waitresses?" The answers to this open-ended
question were categorized by the researchers into six classifications: "Less
than 15%," "15% to 20%," "More than 20%," "A dollar amount," "'Don't know'" and
Just under a third of blacks said that the customary restaurant tip was less
than 15%. Nearly forty per cent answered "15% to 20%." Just over twelve per cent
said they didn't know. Fifteen percent said it was a flat dollar amount.
Over 70% of whites said that the customary restaurant tip was "15% to 20%,"
and only two and a half per cent said they didn't know. Fewer than 20 per cent
of whites responded that tips should be lower than 15%.
Although a tiny difference, it's interesting to note that while 3.7% of
whites said that tips should exceed 20 per cent, three-tenths of a percent more
blacks (4.0%) said this. At first glance, one could conclude that blacks are
ahead of whites among the category of generous tippers. Given the small
population of respondents to Lynn's survey, this conclusion is rendered moot.2
Lynn's report was silent with regard to whether or not the preponderance of
white responses garnered were intended so as to duplicate U.S. population statistics.
Most commercial market research attempts to do so. Lynn's survey results, as
reported, were adjusted for the respondents' sex, age, income, household size
and whether or not the household was located in a metropolitan area.
Additional Support For Dr. Lynn's Hypothesis
The Cornell Study also cites another survey conducted by Dr. Lynn but not
published. 51 servers in a Houston restaurant were interviewed on the subject. A
whopping 94 percent of those servers described blacks as poor tippers.
There are several studies yet to be published that also affirm the
hypothesis. Data collected from telephone surveys, servers and exit interviews
indicate that blacks tip, on average, 20 per cent less than whites do.
Finally, the study cites www.tipping.org
and quotes anecdotes from the website's forums.
Communicating What People Don't Know
Lynn's most important conclusion is that, assuming his hypothesis is correct,
efforts should be made, via a public relations effort, to communicate correct
levels of tipping to all restaurant customers. This involves informing
customers with signage, on menus, on table devices. He even goes so far as to
say that a reminder should accompany customers' meal checks.
Lynn admits that he's not certain how to undertake
this task. However, he advocates involvement of the National Restaurant
Association in a nation-wide program of advertising and public relations to
spread the message. Lynn also suggests that, in areas of heavier minority
populations, local minority advocates should get involved in spreading tipping
information. The payback to these groups would be the placement of more
full-service restaurants in these areas (therefore enhancing quality of life
As part of the solution, a peculiar method for addressing the problem was
suggested. Lynn, a professor of marketing, came up with a restaurant "game" that
he proposes be open to play only by those who'd tipped their server 15 per cent
or more. These "sufficient tippers" would be offered chances at prizes or given
a coupon to use on subsequent visits. From a restaurant owner's standpoint, such
a carnival atmosphere being used to promote proper tipping is at best awkward
and could embarrass both patrons and waitstaff.
Consequences of Failure to Address the Problem
Blacks comprise about 12 percent of the nation's population, representing
buying power, as a demographic, of more than $646 billion annually. Restaurants
that fail to embrace blacks as customers are missing out on a considerable
amount of potential sales.
Restaurant operators will suffer the burden of high employee turnover should
they venture into neighborhoods with high concentrations of blacks without
properly addressing the needs and concerns of residents, and their own staff.
Restaurants who continue to stick their heads in the sand and attempt to keep
the status quo also may expose themselves eventually to discrimination
lawsuits. The Denny's restaurant chain settled a class-action discrimination
lawsuit for $46 million in the 1990s. Although Denny's has made significant
efforts to change its policies, the image of the company still remains
tarnished. There is also an on-going class-action discrimination lawsuit
against the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants that will be quite costly for it
regardless the outcome.
The Perspective of the Restaurant Industry Media
A March, 2006 editorial in the restaurant industry magazine Restaurant
Hospitality addresses the Cornell study. Prior to the publication of the
editorial, Restaurant Hospitality editor-in-chief Mike Sanson blogged:
"It all boils down to this crazy Catch-22. Many black customers (regardless
of socioeconomic status) don’t know that a customary tip for good service in
restaurants is 15-20 percent. In turn, waiters don’t want to serve black
customers. When they do, waiters often deliver poor service believing their tip
will be poor. And black customers believe they are getting inferior service
because of their race."
The comments posted under Sanson's blog entry, "When Good Customers' Tips Are
Bad," were mixed. One commenter mentioned that she'd never experienced
under-tipping by African-Americans. Another called Sanson a racist and an instigator.
Feedback received by Cornell's Lynn was similarly diverse. Lynn openly
discusses both sides of the issue in his report.
The coda to Mr. Thompson's story is that Thai Toni restaurant settled the lawsuit against it, paying
$15,000 to Mr. Thompson. Additionally, the restaurant must now write-in a fifteen percent
gratuity on all bills, and explain to customers that the figure may be raised or
lowered. The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors' Bureau has removed Thai Toni
from its visitors guides, and from the Bureau's website. Finally, Mr. Tarakada
agreed that he and his employees would agree to receive sensitivity training
from the State.
A NOTE ABOUT STYLE CHOICES:
The issue of race as expressed in writing is also controversial. The Chicago
Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook both agree that
"African-American" should only be used to refer to persons of African descent.
AP currently uses "black" or "blacks" as accepted style. The NAACP, however,
uses the convention "African-American" as well as "black," and is
inconsistent. Thanks to Bitriot, skybluefusion
jessicapierce and izubachi for their comments and guidance.
Thanks to Rootbeer277 for raising the point that Thompson dialed 911 to voice his complaint, and didn't bother to secure the local police number. 911 is for emergencies that endanger the safety, lives and property of persons. Thai Toni's not gonna run up the block, down an alley and vault over a fence trying to escape. The article cited in footnote 1 herein asserted that 911 was called. This in no way diminishes the validity of Thompson's complaint.
1. Bragg, Rick: "Restaurant's Added Gratuity Leads to Discrimination Claim,"
The New York Times, November 10, 1999
2. This observation was not included in Lynn's report, but is the observation
of the author of this article.
Lynn, Michael and Thomas-Haysbert, Clorice: "Ethnic Differences in Tipping:
Evidence, Explanations and Implications" Journal of Applied Social
Psychology, in press
Lynn, Michael: "Black-White Differences in Tipping Various Service Providers,"
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, in press
Restaurant Hospitality, March, 2006, Penton Media. Editor's page.
The author's experience as a restaurant manager and owner.