Happy Hour

Happy-hour tipping: Where market economics and servers' brokeness collide

Yesterday on this blog, Drunk of the Week columnist Drew Bixby posted a British Bulldog receipt with what appeared to be inflated tip calculations, sparking a comment lightning storm (here and on Digg) that lasted well into the night.

What we were looking at, of course, was a receipt from the Bulldog's happy hour -- on which 15, 20 and 25 percent were calculated using the full price of Drew's provisions rather than what he actually paid.

The comments, as they always do, jumped the tracks after a while, veering into debates over whether tipping is even a good system, whether tips should be calculated pre-tax or post-, and whether or not the service in Malaysia sucks. (Apparently, yes). But at the center of it was great debate -- especially in light of a feature in this week's Westword, which identifies our favorite happy hours in the city: When a restaurant offers you cheaper food and booze during happy hour, should you calculate your tip based on the regular price of what you're consuming, or the happy hour price?

Several people (including some on our Facebook page) sided with the calculations on Drew's receipt, suggesting that his server did the same amount of work he would have if Drew had paid full freight for his mac and cheese, so why not tip him the same?


Of course... the tip is before the happy hour discounts (and before tax, which is what you should tip on). When enjoying happy hour at discounted prices, isn't it standard to tip on non-discounted prices?


As a waiter ... do me a favor, tip me based on the original amount. I don't get paid more because it's happy hour. If I give you something for free, are you going to not tip me at all?

But while we can all agree that a good server deserves a good tip -- and that over-tipping when prices are cheap is an easy way to ensure good service -- most commenters who weighed in on the happy hour debate agreed that discounts or not, servers should expect tips to calculated on what the customer paid for the meal.

Why? Mantonat busted out his Intro to Econ book and broke it down:

Happy hour is there because bars and restaurants are trying to get customers to come in at times they normally wouldn't. If a customer is normally not there, that's 15-20% of $0. 15-20% of a happy hour ticket beats 15-20% of nothing.

This was on display at Lola last night, where I happened to find myself a little after 5 p.m. -- smack in the middle of their popular happy hour. As the staff prepped the dining room for dinner, bartenders served up $3 tacos and cocktails to a smattering of customers who -- under the threat of snow outside -- most likely wouldn't have been shoving down an early dinner if it weren't for the dirt-cheapness of the endeavor. I know I wouldn't have.

To assuage any guilt I might feel about tipping 20 percent on $20 ticket, I asked the bartender about his happy-hour expectations. He pointed to Lola's special happy hour menu, where the $3 tacos live, and explained that it consisted of things -- food items, cocktails, etc. -- that don't get made the same during dinner service. So there would be, in fact, no way to tip on the "full price."

"So I say just tip on what the bill says," he told me.

He said it so nicely, I tipped him 25 percent.

The point is this: Whether it's a special menu, a discount or a twofer, what a restaurant charges you during happy hour represents the amount they think will yield the largest amount of revenue for their business over time -- just like the dive bar down the street, whose prices always feel like happy hour, and the steakhouse up the street, where the prices never change.

So the only thing a server can expect is a tip calculated on whatever you paid for your meal. Now, what should you tip?

That's up to you -- and how good you want the service to be the next time you come around.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone