How and Why to Move to a Pooled Tip System

Giving all front-of-house staff a share can improve service — and morale.
Learn how to develop a pooled tips system for your restaurant. (Photo: Trudy Wilerson/Shutterstock)

Most servers work hard to get good tips (unless of course you’ve instituted a no-tipping policy). But other members of the front-of-house team — bartenders, bussers and runners — are also essential to providing good customer service. Should they get a share of the gratuities?

Nancy Batista-Caswell

“We wanted every guest to feel they were being hosted in our home.” -Nancy Batista-Caswell (Photo: Katie Noble)

Some owners say sharing tips among everyone in the front of house leads to a more seamless experience for guests — and higher morale overall.

“We wanted every guest to feel they were being hosted in our home,” said Nancy Batista-Caswell, who implemented tip pooling at her restaurants Ceia Kitchen + Bar, BRINE and Oak + Rowan (opening in October). “Pooling tips helps the restaurant staff work universally as a team to provide more genuine service.”

Giving other staff members a financial stake in customer service gives them a sense of duty to every patron, she added.

Restaurant consultant Angus Cameron Pride, who has spent 13 years in the hospitality industry, believes pooling tips strengthens the staff. He noted a server is only as good as his or her support and the effort from the rest of the team. “To not recognize this financially at the end of the shift would lead to catastrophic morale problems and a high turnover of support staff.”

If you decide to go with a pooled tips system, here’s how to develop one that works.

Explain the upsides to servers

On some nights, a pooled tips system may mean a server goes home with less. But it also protects servers on nights when they get stuck with a slower section or a run of bad tippers, for example.

Ceia has a chef’s table, and those guests typically leave generous tips — which a pooled system distributes, even to servers who didn’t work that table.

Finally, with pooled tips comes an emphasis that every customer in the restaurant is every employee’s responsibility. A pooled system encourages the support staff to be hands-on and helpful, which may allow servers to handle a greater volume of tables.

“A server is capable of serving many more tables and generating much more gratuity income with the support of a motivated and hard-working support team,” said Pride.

Make the system transparent

A transparent system that outlines how much gratuity came in and how it was distributed is crucial to getting your staff on board.

Start by determining who should be in the tip pool: staff who deal directly with customers and don’t make a high hourly wage. Then, figure out how the tips will be divided.

Batista-Caswell has devised a few tip-pooling systems for her restaurants. Servers at Brine split tips based on how many hours they spent on a shift. Ceia’s staff pools tips among staff working on the same floor. At Oak + Rowan, the lead server takes homes 60 percent of tips, server assistants get 20 percent and service bartenders and runners get 10 percent each.

Batista-Caswell uses spreadsheets that show gross sales, cash and credit card tips and other data, and staff has access to the spreadsheet completed for every shift. “People need to have a connection to where their money is coming from,” she said.

Lastly, management should stay hands-off with gratuities after the pooling policy is in place.

“My advice would be to appoint a tronc [tip pool] master,” said Pride. “The tip master is the person that is responsible for allocating the tronc on behalf of the management.”

Tell your customers

Customers usually assume their tips go to the server. However, if you have a tip pooling policy in place, you should let them know everyone takes home a piece of the pie.

“It’s really important to incorporate the policy into dialogue,” said Batista-Caswell. “We always let guests know we work as a team so they don’t have to worry about transferring tabs and tipping everyone out.”

This puts guests at ease in two ways. They will feel comfortable asking any member of the staff, not just their server, for a refill or another service, which leads to more efficiency. And they also know the money they leave will reward the entire team. Patrons no longer have to worry about leaving separate tips for the server and bartender (if they started off with a drink at the bar while waiting for a table) or slipping some cash to a busser who provided above-and-beyond service.

Train, test and recognize

Accountability is key to uniting the staff under a tip-pooling system. “A server can take umbrage to the system…if the support staff aren’t pulling their weight or are deemed incapable by servers,” said Pride.

Servers need to know their colleagues are putting in maximum effort on every shift. They also need to trust their support staff’s training and knowledge.

“[Tip pooling] definitely puts more pressure on management to be aware of staff and hold them accountable for their knowledge,” said Batista-Caswell. Staff at her restaurants undergo regular training and testing to make sure they’re performing at optimal levels. She also asks servers to evaluate each other.

“When we do menu tests, we incorporate hospitality tests where we ask about key team members and who’s pushing sales,” said Batista-Caswell.

“We make sure people are recognized for what they’re doing.”

Monthly staff meetings are a great time to get everyone on the same page and give shout-outs to deserving team members. Publicly acknowledge employees who are driving sales and tips or who’ve received great customer feedback. This will infuse a healthy sense of competition.

Said Batista-Caswell, “No one wants to be the person who’s draining the pool.”

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