Sunday, February 28, 2010

'Just stay home!'

Why, why, why does this week's Complaint, about tipping, fail to distinguish between the restaurant tip, which everyone understands to be part of the quasi-official cost of the meal, and the coffee bar tip, which is a way to get the hipster barista, who already makes more than minimum wage, to like you?

A few thoughts:

-As irritating as the tip-jar phenom may be, what really needs to happen is for restaurants to go that route. Not literally, with sign-bearing tins at the register, but by raising prices by 17-18%, so that a tip returns to being just that. Which is to say, eliminating tips altogether has a certain appeal, but removes a perfectly harmless way for those who appreciate good service, or who want to show that they're big-shots, to increase the incomes of people in the service professions. A number of customers would tip what they used to regardless, even with a giant "Service Included" on top of the menu. Meanwhile, if an implicit twice-the-tax were part of the bill regardless, those who didn't want to tip beyond what fairly pays the server could do just that, and those who never cared about fairly paying the server in the first place are, at long last, forced to do so or not dine out in the first place. Problem solved.

-Why do we have the tip-based system to begin with? As one of the commenters points out, it makes things easier for restaurant management if the waitstaff fumes at individual customers, rather than at their own bosses. So that explains their reasoning. But why do customers put up with it? Is it the illusion of lower prices? Or (as I suspect) is it that we, Americans in particular, feel guilt at having someone do something for us we could do ourselves. Unlike Europeans, who see getting a coffee, meal, or drink out as just part of civilized life, we see these things as somehow shameful. Even if we ultimately pay the same as we would in a service-included system, we on some level like how the tip reminds us that we are indulging in a luxury. It's a sort of puritanical self-flagellation.

-The people who comment on articles like this claiming it's unheard-of to tip less than 30% in a restaurant, or classless to tip under $2 per drink in a bar, a) work as waiters or bartenders, and b) should get over themselves. Everyone knows that normal is 15-20% in restaurants, a dollar per drink in normal bars, assuming drinks at give or take $7. Given the number of patrons who comment with pride that a) they never tip, or b) they consider all tips as optional and for good service only, which is to say, they don't consider a baseline 15% or any % as part of the bill, it seems absurd to try to shame the 17-18% tippers into eating at home. If people who couldn't afford or didn't wish to tip 30% stayed home, good luck keeping restaurants open.

-Why are commenters so convinced the author of the rant has never himself worked in food service? What great miracle is supposed to take place if one has? I worked in a coffee bar, and that doesn't make me think $5 is an appropriate tip for a muffin and coffee to go, or that any tip is needed in that situation. Nor did I spend the years prior to that job oblivious to the fact that restaurant servers live off tips. And really, are we supposed to believe that the people who make asses of themselves in restaurants, snapping for waiters, not leaving any tip, behave this way because they grew up so wealthy that they never had to work crummy jobs? I have my doubts.


PG said...

I think the American tradition of tipping has less to do with guilt (though I've noticed in general that you're more likely to ascribe behaviors to guilt/ peer pressure than I am) and more to do with our price tagging habits. We don't expect a quoted price to actually include everything we are supposed to pay; contrast with Europe, where tax and service fees must be included in the posted price.

I am very much in favor of simply requiring restaurants to pay their employees a proper wage and then passing that cost on to customers. Tipping, especially in cash, greatly increases the likelihood of tax avoidance. There have also been studies on how it is affected by race, both that of the server (minorities tend to get lower tips than whites, even from minority customers) and of the customer (certain minorities may tend to have less disposable income and thus leave smaller tips, which encourages negative attitudes by the server toward people of that race).

Phoebe said...


No doubt my own neurotic tendency to see cappuccinos and the like in terms of guilt entered into my assessment. But what I'm trying to figure out is why it's different in Europe, and I'm not sure I follow your interpretation. "We don't expect a quoted price to actually include everything we are supposed to pay." Right. So is your point that because tax is listed separately, we are prepared for tip to be listed separately as well? This much makes sense, but doesn't explain the quasi-voluntary aspect of that part of the bill. It's the quasi-voluntary angle that makes it impossible to ignore emotional factors. I'm obviously far from alone in ascribing these to the question - why else the adage about how if you worked as a waiter yourself, once, however long ago, your tips will forever be gold?

Phoebe said...

And, one more thing. We're agreed, it seems, on the need to include service fees in the cost of the meal. How do you think this could be instituted? It's clear why restaurants don't want this, but how could customers make it happen? Obviously if everyone agreed to stop tipping at once, the point would be made, but there has to be a better way. Any ideas?

PG said...

I think the quasi-emotional factor comes from the American preference for an at least superficial sense of control and unwillingness to trust others to look out for our interests. Those who want to maintain the tip think it's best for servers to be paid based on how well they perform, and are implicitly convinced that the restaurant itself does not sufficiently police its staff to ensure that poor performers will be fired.

As for how, I would think that simply enforcing minimum wage laws (federal, state and local) on these establishments, instead of allowing them an exception on the understanding that tips will make up the difference, should suffice. At least then I won't be hearing about how I need to tip even for absolute horrible service in order to prevent the server from destitution. If a higher class establishment wants to ensure it gets a better class of server than minimum wage attracts, it of course can pay whatever wage the market requires to get such people. But I think enforcement of the minimum wage laws would be the first step to the eradication of automatic tipping, and from there the higher-class establishments will be pressed by the rest of the market.

Another problem with tipping: it creates all these administrative headaches with servers suing employers over how tips are taken away, divvied up among other staff, insufficient to meet the minimum wage, yadda yadda. I am a big fan of uniform enforcement of bright-line rules as a good way to avoid administrative costs. If everyone at the establishment is being directly paid by management in accordance with their contribution (and at a minimum wage), the hostess need not demand a share of the server's tips (now greatly decreased and provided only for the server's own outstanding work).

Phoebe said...


What I still can't figure out re: those who "think it's best for servers to be paid based on how well they perform" is where the implied 15% enters into it. If we were just to say, look, it's a harsh world, no one's owed a job, if those who find themselves making no tips can't make rent, they're in the wrong job, then the system would be cruel, yes, but would make sense. But most diners don't play that game. We assume that if the restaurant considers the waitstaff worthy of their job, they are by default. It's so recognized among reasonable people that waiting tables is tough work that short of the waiter cursing you out and pouring your dinner over the top of your head like so (in which case many customers would probably find this 'part of the experience'), you're inclined not to be part of a slow and painful quasi-firing process through low tips over a long period of time. Or, more succinctly, it's so known that people aren't using tips to reward good service so much as to finish paying the bill.

"simply enforcing minimum wage laws"

Yes, absolutely. But what would be the catalyst for the change? I wish 'PG and Phoebe actually agreed on something, and this is what it is' were enough...

PG said...

But what would be the catalyst for the change?

Well, the usual mechanisms for removing an exception to an otherwise generally-applicable law: start a letter-writing campaign to NYC council, NY legislation and Congress (in that order; I'm pretty sure there's a local minimum wage higher than the state and federal floors). Differentiate candidates for local offices by their stance on this issue. Patronize restaurants that do pay that wage (or more) and tell them why. Ask restaurant owners who don't to join your campaign to change the law so they aren't competitively disadvantaged by unilaterally raising wages (and thus prices) while their competitors don't. Pretty much everything favors doing this except the restaurant-owner lobby, which is smaller than the diner lobby -- once the latter get themselves organized as a lobby, that is.

Phoebe said...

Good points. I'll need to see if such a lobby exists before getting too excited about starting one...