Portugal: Tipping Abroad Resolved

Because I have an extensive business background, my curiosity on “how’s business” surfaces no matter where I go. On a recent visit to Portugal, that proved itself once again.   A local dinner place in this historic country was the setting. Making friends wherever we go is the norm. This place was no exception. Language barriers never stop us.

euroAs we sat there in food heaven ecstasy, the last few remaining morsels of dinner gently cascaded over our palates.  We engaged with a few young Portuguese business people, entrepreneurs conversing, sharing differences between America and Portugal. My question on tipping waiters and waitresses got the discussion started.

In America  wait staff makes a minimal wage.  Receiving tips for their service to patrons is the trade-off, the risk, if you will.  American wait staff risks the steady “salaried” paycheck in hopes for better rewards determined by the quality of their service, the generosity of human kind, and sometimes the cheap ignorance of haters, mean-spirited people. The wait staff hopes that the risk of no salary is outpaced by the reward, a large tip.

The American restaurant incentive system provides multifaceted goals. One is that servers should be motivated to offer excellent service in hopes of excellent tips. For the most part, I think that works. In addition, the benefits work both ways, a win-win, if you will. The system allows for more wait staff to be hired, as the wage structure offers the ownership more flexibility, less risk in a very risky business, giving the ownership more assets to hire more accomplished cooks providing better food quality.  The benefit is faster service for patrons and more money for wait staff.

In Portugal the wait staff is paid a good salary. It is the same salary as the cook, the manager, the hostess, and all who work in the restaurant. Their minimum wage is very high. So no tipping is the norm.  If you wish to tip, make sure you are satisfied, and the food, service, and in general the entire experience are off the charts. Should those qualifications be met, then the tip would not translate to a percentage, but merely as a rounded-up to the nearest whole factor of five.

Know this, the tip is then placed into a pot, jar, pool for every worker in the restaurant to split, as all are equal in salary and equal in tip receipt.

Know this, as the American tipping system is designed to promote higher quality service, the Portuguese system as well as most other European countries, produces some issues Americans have trouble accepting.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from Americans traveling abroad is the slow service when dinning. In my opinion,  it’s not the people. It is the system. When the establishment ownership must pay a high guaranteed minimum wage to each  waitperson, then the number of  wait people working must shrink. So while America might see a wait staff/patron ratio such as one to four, Portugal will see one wait staff per every twenty tables. The result is slower service no matter how hard the wait staffer works. One can’t be in twenty places at one time.

It is my hope that sharing these understandings might bring some acceptance of the differences in cultures, for it is the people who matter and not the broken system. Enjoy the people.