How do tax rates influence restaurant tipping?

Here’s an interesting behavioral economics question I just thought of. In California, sales tax in restaurants is either 8.5% or 9.5% (I think it depends on the local taxes of the city you’re in). So it wasn’t until I moved to California that I heard “just double the tax” as a common formula for quickly computing a 17-19% tip. And apparently SF has one of the lowest tipping rates in the country at an average of 18.6%.

Sacramento and Seattle also are on par with SF for tipping, and sure enough, Seattle’s combined state+local sales taxes are also around 9.5%. So does “just double the tax” actually serve to relatively depress restaurant tips because most people in other states are using other methods to do the tip computation?

UPDATE: It turns out that the lowest tippers of all are in Honolulu with average tips of 18.4%. Honolulu has a complicated excise tax in the 4.5% range – could Hawaii’s tippers be “quadrupling the tax” to compute their tips? The highest tippers are in New Orleans (19.7%), followed by Detroit, Denver, St. Louis, and Ohio. Could something else like cheaper food prices be leading diners to tip more generously in these places? Or is Zagat’s data just off?

UPDATE 2: Even the low end of 18.4% seems rather high to me for an average. It makes me suspect that the sample is probably coming directly from Zagat’s well-heeled reviewer base instead of some more general survey of tippers.

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