The bar business is a team sport. We can’t do it alone. Yes, putting smiles on guests’ faces is nice, but the team is in it for the money.

We’re all driven the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour need to earn that gratuity. It’s the hunger that keeps us sharp. Without that immediate motivation and reward, we might as well be earning a salary at a desk. Or feeding ourselves to a barrel of ferrets. It would be less painful.

The drive to earn individual tips is the best part of the hospitality business. Otherwise we’d never power through a hell shift like life and death were at stake. We’d just survive and earn our wages. We’d be the DMV, but with food and drinks.

What is Tip Pooling? (AKA Tip Sharing)

Tip pooling is a system of sharing gratuity among bartenders, servers, host, bussers, and perhaps cooks. Your employer may shake up your world by instituting a tip share policy. You may be looking at a job that practices tip pooling. Either way, make sure you understand what you’re getting into and the various methods of sharing tips. Here are the most common:

The Hourly Share

Individual workers don’t always work the same hours, so splitting tips in equal parts isn’t fair. You may have an opening bartender, a closer and some people in the middle. In this case, put all the tips in the same bucket along with clock-out slips for all the swimmers in the pool. The closer takes all the dollars and divides them by all the hours worked to determine an hourly share. Everybody gets one share per hour worked. Perhaps your bar-back can get half a share.

The “Overlap”

Some spots have a jammin’ happy hour between lunch and dinner that necessitate the day and night bartenders working together for a couple hours. Have the day guy stick around until the rush has settled and the bar is restocked. Then split guest and server tips using the Hourly Share method.

Sharing The Well / Rail

When servers are throwing drink tickets like ninja stars, it’s hard getting out of the well. It’s best to have one dedicated service bartender while a second handles guests at the rail. Sometimes the well is busier than the rail and sometimes it’s reversed. Work together. When the well digger needs beer, wine or other assistance, call for it from the rail jockey. When the well calms down, float over and help the rail guests.

At the end of the night, split everything in half.

A Pooled House

This works best for counter service, like a coffee shop, where one person greets guest and takes orders while others complete the mission. Tips end up in a jar and are split. But this can work for restaurants and bars, too.

Deploy your team based on their strengths. Who’s the best with big tops? Who’s the best with romantic deuces? Who’s your best drink maker? Then make all the guests happy. Step outside of your section to pre-bus, fill waters or get ice for the bar. Every guest is yours, regardless of who’s name is on the check.

At the end of the night, pool and divide evenly. The extra team work should result in better service and tips. However, this system can enable slackers to slack and disgruntle your best workers. Each team member needs to push to be the hardest working member of the squad.

The Kitchen Share

The wage gap between the front and back of the house is one of the biggest sources of tension in the industry. When the tables are full and the kitchen printer is making kite tails, waiters and bartenders are earning a bunch while cooks are making the same wage. A little cash at the end of the night takes the fuse off this bomb.

Give the back of the house a tip jar. You can base your contribution on your end-of-the-day tips or food sales, but choose a percentage for the kitchen. The lead cook is in charge of distribution.

A hearty thank you and a beer at the end of the day works wonders too. And make sure to know their names.

A Monthly Share

At private clubs often the members are billed monthly and gratuity is added to every check. All that money is pooled and divided by hourly share the next month.

The result is money on your check but none in your pocket. Nothing you can do today will notably affect your tip income. These places often move at a snail’s pace with the staff so distanced from the earning of each tip that they have no motivation. Everyone works for the time clock.

Potential Problems with Pooling

While the specific laws differ by state, tips for your service are generally considered to be your property. They do not belong to your employer. If you’re forced by policy to share your tips with coworkers in jobs that don’t typically receive tips (most commonly management), that’s illegal. A service charge does not count as a tip, and can be distributed in any way the business wants. (Automatic gratuities are a point of contention on whether they should be treated as a “service charge” or “gratuity”.)

Proposed national legislation may allow your employer to control all tips and distributed them at will. This measure could help balance the wage gap between kitchen and service staff, but allows management to obscure the disbursement and potentially keep a cut.

Keeping the Peace

Any tip pooling arrangement should be agreed upon by all participants. Management intervention may or may not be necessary, but there should be a written agreement. Leaders on the floor should monitor daily operations to make sure everyone is putting in full effort.

Tip pooling, when properly applied, encourages teamwork and is good for the customer. They are all guests in our house. When they leave happy, we all win. Any pooling system, however, needs to be a plan the team agrees on and works for your unique establishment. It requires hard work by all, trust, and responsible leaders to distribute the money honestly.

Happy swimming!

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.