Q: What is the right percentage to tip on one’s ever-increasing barbecue bill? Do you tip the same rate when going through a line with a tray as you do when getting sit-down table service at a non-barbecue restaurant? I want to make sure I get this right as I work my way through Texas Monthly’s Top 50 BBQ list.
Justin Schwartz, Austin
A: It’s always good to hear from a fellow BBQ aficionado. And this specific query is particularly serendipitous. One of the very first pieces of mail the Texanist ever received also pertained to the topic of tipping, and it arrived just in time for the inaugural edition of this advice column, which appeared fifteen years ago this month, in the July 2007 issue of Texas Monthly. The question’s author, one Julia S. Blackshear of Shreveport, Louisiana, had a similar question in mind, which had to do with the propriety of tipping at Sonic.
The Louisiana lady’s confusion was understandable. After all, it’s typically atypical to tip at fast-food establishments. But Sonic is a unique case, in that your foot-long chili dogs and cherry limeade slush are delivered to you not by a pimply-faced kid standing behind a counter, but by a pimply-faced kid who has made a special trip from the kitchen to the car on roller skates.
Surely, that young carhop with mad skating skills deserves a little something for his or her efforts, right? In his response to Ms. Blackshear, the Texanist, a big-hearted former restaurant worker (and former denizen of Skate Haven, then the premier rink in his native Temple), advocated generous tipping—though he also acknowledged that when he was a clueless young man, he was not particularly conscientious about tipping at Sonic or, really, anywhere else.
The fact, though, that a similar question has come up again, a mere fifteen years after the Texanist first addressed it, suggests that either (a) you folks are just not paying attention to the Texanist or (b) there exist a number of factors that can render the seemingly simple act of gratuity-giving quite complicated. Since (a) is a scenario the Texanist regards as highly unlikely, he will restrict his response to addressing the second option.
And as sometimes happens when he is in a state of cogitation, the Texanist’s mind turned to the subject of watering holes, where tipping is also a fraught topic. There is no question that a bartender who concocts a $12 Manhattan or an old-fashioned or a flaming Dr Pepper for a thirsty patron is deserving of a tip; that is skilled work and should be remunerated as such. But what of the barkeep who is called upon to do nothing more than reach into a cooler, pop off a bottle cap, and slide a frosty $3 longneck down a bar? Does that also deserve a tip? The same tip?
If that were the sum total of that person’s job, perhaps not. But when the Texanist considers the many hours that bartenders across the state have spent listening to him drone on and on about Farrah Fawcett and the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys and the indignities of the latest episode of 9-1-1: Lone Star and the merits of traditionally brewed tea versus sun tea and the usefulness of the “feels like” temperature in modern meteorology, he realizes that the barkeeps in his life simply don’t get paid nearly enough and is glad that he has, over the years, tipped them much better than he did the likes of those poor Sonic employees of yore.
Now, having resolved that question, which wasn’t actually asked of the Texanist by anyone, we come to the question that someone did actually ask of the Texanist. Namely: Do the hardworking hands behind the barbecue counter, the good men and women who take your order and slice the meats and scoop the beans and tater salad and slaw, deserve the same sort of tip that one would pay to a server who walks the restaurant floor, carrying trays and filling water glasses and replacing dropped salad forks and fielding complaints about portion sizes?
And to that question, Mr. Schwartz, the Texanist would say, yes, those counter attendants should absolutely be tipped in a like manner. To his mind, there is almost nobody in the restaurant industry as important as those working at our barbecue joints. They serve us delicious smoked meats, after all. They bring us an inordinate amount of pleasure, and they deserve to be rewarded for doing so.
Think of all the work that goes into serving up barbecue. At a busy enterprise, the counter person must take dozens of orders an hour, many of them quite complicated.
“Halfapoundbrisketmoisthalfpoundleanthreeribspintofslawpintofbeanspintoftatersthankya.” “QuarterpoundmoistbeefribhalfalinkspicysausagenannerpuddinBigRedhere’smycard.” “Brisketsammichandateapleasehadabigbreakfastthismornin’.” That’s a lot of earfuls to grapple with over the course of a workday. And though the preparation of many of those items is easy—a beef rib requires maybe one quick pass of the butcher knife—assembling a four-meat plate is quite labor-intensive.
What’s more, barbecue work is often hot work, done in proximity to a thousand-gallon smoker that radiates as much heat as the dashboard of the Texanist’s old truck in late July. And, as much as many of us love the aroma of smoked meat, it’s perhaps not so enjoyable going home every night smelling like a burnt end. (Which reminds the Texanist—at many joints it’s not just the servers who split the tips; the gifted artisans who smoke the meats sometimes get a cut as well.) Those who serve us our barbecue put up with a great deal so that we may enjoy our region’s most famous repast.
It’s also important to recognize that, like many employees in the restaurant industry, barbecue workers often earn an hourly pittance and rely on the tips they receive to pay their rent (and perhaps their bartenders). This is something to keep in mind the next time you reach the front of the line—especially at a moment when labor shortages have hit the dining sector especially hard, and workers need all the encouragement they can get. (Did you hear recently about the employees at a North Texas–based barbecue chain whose employer inadvertently shorted them nearly $1 million in tip disbursements? The Texanist sure did, and he’s glad the situation is being rectified.)
Interestingly, the point-of-sale iPads that just about every barbecue restaurant uses these days have radically changed the tipping game. Where not that long ago a patron who had made her way through the barbecue line might slip a couple of wadded-up bucks—almost certainly less than 10 percent—into an old-school analog tip jar, nowadays that same patron, who will have almost certainly paid with a credit card, will be presented with a tablet screen offering options of 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent, or “Custom Tip Amount.”
If the counter staff is efficient and pleasant enough, the Texanist will punch the 20 percent button. If the staff is efficient and pleasant enough and the meat cutter slices off a morsel of peppery, well-crusted brisket and slides it over to him, the Texanist will usually cough up 25 percent. It just seems like the decent thing to do.
Your letter does, though, allude to one more complicating factor, Mr. Schwartz. In recent years, barbecue in Texas has gotten a lot more expensive. These days, a pound of brisket at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue will set you back $34, more than twice what it would have cost just ten years ago. Is it fair for tip payments to rise accordingly, even though the counter folks aren’t working any harder than they did back when barbecue cost considerably less? It might not, on its face, make a lick of sense—though those servers are not immune to the rising cost of living themselves and could certainly use the extra cash.
And anyway, all of us understand that the server at a fancy big-city restaurant, which might charge a couple upwards of $150 for dinner, will get a larger tip than a server at the Blue Bonnet Cafe, in Marble Falls, which would bill that same couple maybe $40, even if the first server did no better a job than the second. Is that fair? Perhaps not. But your local barbecue joint is not the place to take a stand on this matter. A barbecue joint is a place to order delicious smoked meats, pay your bill (plus tip), and indulge in one of life’s greatest culinary treasures. We live in Texas, Mr. Schwartz, and have ready access to the best barbecue in the world. We should think of a generous gratuity for our barbecue workers as a chance to show our appreciation for that with which we have been blessed. All things considered, it’s really the least we can do.
Thanks for the letter, Mr. Schwartz. And bon appétit!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Texanist.” Subscribe today.