In re: The tipping debate

“Tipping didn’t take hold here until after the Civil War, and even as it spread it met with fervent public opposition from people who considered it a toxic vestige of Old World patronage. Anti-tipping associations were formed; newspapers—including the Times—regularly denounced the custom. Tipping, the activists held, fostered a masterservant relationship that was ill suited to a nation in which people were meant to be social equals.” (‘Check Please’)

The other night I was having dinner before going to the OSU/Mich St. basketball game at a restaurant/bar (Wendalls Alumni Grille) near the arena.  While sitting and eating (w/out napkins, silverware, condiments for our burgers/sandwiches) we got into a discussion on tipping.  My stance was and is that if I get bad service I will drop the tip (and I thought this was bad service), others – those who had worked as waiters thought that it might be busy (it was) and that it might be others faults, etc. and that you still couldn’t go below 15% (their baseline).

America is a bit different from some other places (continental Europe) where the service is included at a fixed rate (often 12.5% or some other interesting rate).  The tip gives us a bit of power, and also gives supposedly an incentive for prompt, courteous, service.  Of course the tip trickles down to those we don’t deal with – food runners, bus boys, bar tenders – but many of us don’t really know that or care as we basically deal with the server.  If the food is late, cold, or wrong we don’t know whose fault it is, and I blame the server – which may be unfair, but its the only person in a position that I see who can deal with it.  Others (specifically the former waiters/waitresses) argue to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Per se, Thomas Keller’s legendary restaurant did away with tipping and put in a automatic service charge – leading everyone in the restaurant to receive a fixed salary.  The reasoning?  Very legitimately I think was the idea to redistribute the income between the front of the house and the back – which according to Keller and others is woefully underpaid (although he could have just raised their wages some would say)

“Historically in restaurants, the service staff is awarded significantly higher wages than cooks and other staff who prepare the food on which a restaurant’s reputation is based,” said Per Se chef/owner Thomas Keller in a statement. “The gap in pay is so great that it is becoming increasingly difficult for young cooks to pursue their passion at the rate of pay restaurants are able to afford.” (CNN/Money)

See also ‘Mega Tips: Scientifically Tested Techniques to Increase Your Tips‘ Cornell Hotel School (PDF) and ‘Check Please‘ in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki (Wisdom of Crowds author) on the change Keller made)

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3 Responses

  1. I mostly agree with you. But just to add another thought, I think that specifically because the tip trickles down to so many employees the customer should expect it to represent his evaluation of the restaurant, not simply the server. I think your critics have a fair point if the tip goes to the server alone, though.

  2. Ed, I think you make some great points about the food preparation people (cooks, dishwashers, etc) being underpaid relative to the amount of work that they do, but it still doesn’t change the fact that waiters are paid significantly LESS than minimum wage and rely on tips to even make their jobs worthwhile economically. A waiter at Wendell’s (which is basically a mid-priced chain restaurant) is usually working 10 hours shifts, and often makes little more than minimum wage (including tips) when you factor in the amount of hours they put in. If they aren’t being tipped at a reasonable rate (minimum 15%), the customer is tacitly approving below minimum wage pay for that waiter. And I really don’t see how anyone who watches a waiter scrambling around taking orders, cleaning tables, and bringing out food on a busy Saturday night at a restaurant doesn’t think that person deserves at least minimum wage pay (if not much more).

    I understand your desire for prompt, courteous service, but sometimes there is only so much that a waiter can do. If the restaurant is understaffed, delays and mistakes are inevitable. No matter how poor you perceive the waiter’s performance to be, they still shouldn’t have to go home broke after working a 10 hour shift.

    Do dishwashers and cooks deserve a bigger piece of the pie? I am in favor of the idea, but am not sure how their situation is at all comparable to waiters (since they are paid on a fixed wage). I suppose the best solution to the problem is in your last comment about a fixed wage. It would create a fair wage for the employee and relieve the customer of the burden of having to arbitrarily decide on the waiter’s paycheck for the night.

  3. […] by ed on August 8th, 2007 So you may remember the In re: blog tipping debate.  Well if your interested in the subject (I always think its a really strange system, tipping wait […]

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