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The Tipping Point: When it comes to gratuities, Canadians might have an undeserved reputation for frugality

What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe?

Canoes tip.

Maybe you’ve never heard that one before. But that sentiment – if not the joke itself – is a familiar one to waiters and waitresses, bartenders and others who count on tips to make a living.

And no, they do not find it funny.

It’s a long-held complaint that as a group, our Canadian visitors – vital as they are to Western New York’s economy – skimp on tips.

“If you get 10 percent out of a Canadian, you’re floored,” said a waitress at a downtown restaurant, opening her mouth, widening her eyes and throwing her hands upward to mimic shock.

But before you think we’re being overly gratuitous with our gratuity digs, consider this too: The answer to the key question – “Are Canadians bad tippers?” – is that our northern neighbors may not be the cheap ones; the cheap ones may be us.

Tipping is taboo topic

Without Canadians, Western New York’s economy would suffer. Dramatically. Canadians make up 35 percent of shoppers at the Walden Galleria; just under 20 percent of the fans for Buffalo Bills home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium (the Sabres won’t release their number); and at least 43 percent of the flyers at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. (That’s based on cars parked in airport’s long-term lot. If it were possible to calculate the number of Canadians who stay at hotels and use shuttle services, the number would be higher.)

Of course, Canadians don’t just buy clothes, game tickets and flights. They also eat, drink and do other things that come with the expectation of a gratuity attached.

That’s where you’ll hear chirping about Canadian cheapness. What’s 15-20 percent to an American may be 10 percent to a Canadian, especially in restaurants located in busy shopping spots like the Galleria in Cheektowaga and the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA.

“While I can understand the wait staff concerns about low tipping, my personal view is we should appreciate the business,” said Jim Kling, chairman of the department of management at Niagara University. “They bring a lot of jobs and taxes to our area.”

That’s for sure, which is why the topic of tight Canadian tippers is taboo. Seemingly every server has an opinion, but virtually no one who’s currently employed in the service industry wants to touch it with a 10-foot-tray.

A bartender who works in the shadows of Ralph Wilson Stadium agreed to speak one night after work. She arrived at neutral ground – Starbucks – fully prepared to dish out stories of low-balling Canadian customers, but insisted her name and her employer’s name not be used.

“My boss begged me not to say where I work,” she said.

That script was the same everywhere. A waitress at a Galleria restaurant rigidly refused to help.

“If I talk to you, or I get anyone to talk to you, I’ll get fired,” she said.

A bartender at another Galleria spot, when just speaking casually with customers about the differences between Americans and Canadians, spoke quietly to make sure nobody could overhear. Even an exotic dancer, who already goes by a fake name, insisted a different fake name be used in this article when quoting her about whether Canadians tip well at her club, located near the runway of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

They don’t, by the way.

“When I know someone is from Canada, you know you usually aren’t getting anything more,” said “Ginger.”

Who’s listening?

Clearly, getting servers (of all kinds) to speak openly and on the record about the Canadian tipping question wasn’t going to happen. So to seek the unfiltered truth, three people – one of whom is a waitress herself – went on a mission: Hit several downtown and mall-area bars and restaurants, ask every server about Canadian tippers.

Try, they were urged, to find someone who says the majority of Canadians tip just fine. Try to find someone who wouldn’t understand the Canadians-and-canoe joke.

Try they did.

And they failed.

At a Galleria-area restaurant, a bartender looked around warily and said, “You never know who’s listening.” At a downtown restaurant near First Niagara Center, a waitress sat at the table and unleashed a passionate diatribe about Canadian customers who will leave a straight-up five-buck tip despite the size of the bill.

Back at the Galleria, another waitress explained at length how tips are vital to her income: After taxes are deducted from her $5-an-hour base pay, and after she tips out a percentage of her sales to the bartenders, hostesses, bussers and kitchen, she’s making pocket change.

“Tips are my only way of making money,” she said.

Servers from 10 bars and restaurants, as well as valets, hairdressers and, yes, “Ginger,” were surveyed. Social media were scoured. Experts in business, culture, etiquette chimed in. Nobody offered reassurance that Canadians are actually good tippers; nobody claimed that legions of Western New York servers are wrong. Not even a check-in with North America’s pre-eminent tipping expert, Professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, advanced the cause.

Lynn can tell you what types of servers get the biggest tips (30-something, slender, blond, big-chested women, according to his interview on Freakonomics radio); which ethnic groups his research shows to be consistently low tippers (African-Americans); what male servers can do to get better tips (squat at the table); and how restaurant management can help entice customers to open their wallets (play overhead music with empathetic lyrics).

But not even Lynn has studied the tipping tendencies of Canadians.

So what’s left? Loads of anecdotes and complaints from Western New York servers, who claim that as a group, Canadians fall short of any American tipping standard.

If the border between the United States and Canada is separated by the river, the difference in the two countries’ tipping tendencies is akin to a canyon. Even Canadian servers reported that, when in Ontario, Americans tend to tip better.

There are exceptions, of course. After a Sabres-Toronto game earlier this month, Ontario residents Rodney Harnock and his wife – clad in Maple Leafs jerseys – stopped in at (716) Food and Sport and left a fat $20 tip on a $9 bill. When told that his countrymen are known to be skimpy tippers, Harnock was surprised.

“Really?” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that. To me, it’s all about service. Service is everything.”

Clearly, Harnock – who owns a bar called Riffs Music Lounge in Woodstock, Ont.– is willing to pay for that service.

And clearly, the servers of Western New York wish more Canadian customers shared his definition of generosity.

Canada pays better

But take pause before you cast angry glares northward and call Canadians cheap. Consider this: Workers in Ontario who serve liquor earn $9.55 an hour, whereas New York servers earn a base pay of $5 an hour.

Adjusting for currency value, Canadian servers are earning $2.83 more per hour. Put another way: A bartender in Niagara Falls, Ont., who works 25 hours a week will earn about $3,680 a year more in base pay than a bartender in Niagara Falls, N.Y., who does exactly the same job.

That disparity will narrow beginning Dec. 31, when the minimum wage for New York servers rises to $7.50. (Ontario’s rate rises to $9.80 on Oct. 1). But the bottom line remains: Tipping is less important in Canada because the system pays the help better.

“As a server, yes, it’s frustrating,” said Ellie Grenauer, who has worked as a waitress in Buffalo, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Australia. “In Canada, servers are paid very well, so it’s not that Canadians are doing it to hurt somebody.”

Today, Grenauer is co-owner of the Glen Park Tavern in Williamsville and president of the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. In those roles, she appreciates the importance of Canadians to the Western New York economy, and points out that businesses in Williamsville are banding together to attract more Canadians there.

She also has to speak carefully on this topic. Greenauer gets it: Unless you’re in a pricey joint where high spending is an expectation, like her former (and now-closed) downtown employer, Lord Chumley’s, Canadians (and other foreigners) are less likely to tip like Americans. Why? They don’t know they should.

“Here we think, ‘They must know we’re only paid $5 an hour’ – I’m talking as a server,” Grenauer said. “But they don’t. They truly don’t know that. In their mind, they’re leaving a justifiable tip.”

Whose problem is it?

Canadians aren’t blind to having a low-tip rap, but they spin it differently.

Two summers ago, Ottawa business executive Robert Waite wrote a Huffington Post blog title “Are Canadians bad tippers?”

Waite, a Boston native who owns a communications firm and is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, got hundreds of comments on the blog, many of them from Canadians who believe Americans are the low spenders.

“A lot of people believed Americans don’t pay their wait staff properly,” Waite said. “Their thought is that it’s not a Canadian problem, it’s an American problem.”

That’s logical. Even with Canadian servers’ higher base pay, tipping is still an expectation. In fact, when you pay the bill at a Canadian restaurant, your server will likely bring a credit card swipe machine directly to your table, and you’ll be given the option of tipping in different increments that will almost certainly include 20 percent and higher.

But observers seem to agree the amount Canadians tip – even in their own country – is generally less than Americans.

“I’d peg it down by about 5 percent on what Americans tip,” said Waite, who has worked in Canada since 1986, when he was an executive with Ford Motor Co.

Which brings us back to Canadians’ reputation as 10-percent tippers in America, where 15 percent is considered the bare minimum for decent service.

“That’s the place where I’m like, ‘What’s up, Canada?’ ” said Anna Post, a writer and speaker from the Emily Post Institute, an etiquette-training organization in Vermont. “I’d like to at least see Canadians make up that 5 percent gap when they come to the States. That would be appropriate.”

But making it happen requires a change in both math and mindset.

Math + culture = issues

Tipping calculations that work in Canada won’t translate in the United States. Tax can be a reference point for tipping in both countries, but as Niagara University’s Kling points out, the formula is different.

In Ontario, taxes run 13 percent.

“Add a little bit to the tax” and you reach 15 percent, said Kling, whose wife and in-laws are Canadian. “Do that here” – where sales tax runs just under 9 percent – “and you’re at 10 percent.”

Still, this isn’t tricky math, and theoretically it’s not difficult to adjust your tipping habits when you cross the border. So there must be other explanations for Canadians’ apparent low tipping. One is a cultural sense of frugality that contrasts that of Americans.

“They tend not to be folks that show off their wealth,” Waite said, noting that Canadians tend to buy “one car size down from Americans.”

Another is the value of the currency. Currently, a Canadian dollar is worth about 82 cents of an American dollar, and there’s a foreign transaction fee on most credit cards, as well.

“Consciously or subconsciously, people may be trying to make up for some of that,” Kling said.

He also pointed out a psychological difference a Canadian friend shared with him: When people from Ontario come to shop in Western New York, eating here is a necessity, but not the centerpiece of their trip.

“Psychologically, they’re dining out for a different purpose,” Kling said – one that makes Canadian shoppers less likely to freely spend.

Cultural differences create a divide, too.

A significant portion of our Canadian visitors come from Toronto, which is a much more diverse than Buffalo. In other parts of the world, people tip less (England, France) or little to nothing (China, Japan, Australia). Grenauer’s former husband is from Australia; in restaurants here, he’d leave only a 5 percent or 6 percent tip.

“I would have to sneak back in and leave extra money for the server,” she said. “In his mind, it doesn’t make sense, because that is not what they do in their country.”

By most accounts, the American tipping system is the most expensive one in the world.

“I don’t usually hear about a culture that tips more than us,” said Post, the etiquette expert. In the last decade, she added, there’s a been an upward trend moving the minimum societally acceptable tip to 20 percent. “My only worry is in another 10, 15, 20 years, are we going to be tipping 30 percent? Then 40 percent?” she said. “When does it stop?”

For Western New Yorkers, that’s easy to answer: It stops at the border. Because right or wrong, regardless of reason or knowledge and overly gratuitous canoe-tipping jokes aside, the gratuity expectations change. But you need to fit the place where you are, not where you came from, Post said.

Even if you don’t like the pay-low, tip-high practice found in New York and most of America.

“I don’t think that it’s a very good system, personally,” she said, “but it’s the one we’ve got. So you need to pony up.”

email: toshei@buffnews.com