Restaurant Tipping and Racism

"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 the police.

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 carelessly overlooked.

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 up.

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 State's 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 "Other."

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 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 therein).

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.

Just Desserts

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.


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.


  13. Lynn, Michael and Thomas-Haysbert, Clorice: "Ethnic Differences in Tipping: Evidence, Explanations and Implications" Journal of Applied Social Psychology, in press
  14. Lynn, Michael: "Black-White Differences in Tipping Various Service Providers," Journal of Applied Social Psychology, in press
  15. Restaurant Hospitality, March, 2006, Penton Media. Editor's page.
  16. The author's experience as a restaurant manager and owner.