Monday, April 09, 2012

Eating, reading

-Consider this Social Qs dilemma:

When picking up takeout food at a restaurant, and being presented with the credit card bill, I leave the tip field blank, on the theory that no service was provided. Am I correct, or should I consider a minimal offering?
Jon, Montclair, N.J. 
You are correct, but why not consider a teensy tip anyway? Restaurant folk work hard for the money, as Donna Summer crooned. True, no one’s ferried your plate back and forth to the kitchen, or whisked away your crumbs. Still, someone had to package your food and get it ready in time. So maybe a buck or two is in order, if you like the joint and feel like being sweet.
This is a new one. Isn't the reason you tip in a restaurant not that restaurant work is hard (it is, but so are thousands of other jobs that don't get tips; the adage about how everyone ought to work in food service so as not to be bratty as a patron refers to people who had it easy their whole lives, not to retail or factory workers on a night out), but that restaurant workers get paid below minimum wage, with the expectation of tips, making it so that bad service, unless criminally so, gets 15%? If the person packaging your food is not in that category, why tip that individual (or, for all we know, the owner of the restaurant - why do we even think the tip goes to the food-packager?) and not your cashier at the supermarket, or the factory staff behind your frozen dinner?

If Jon has a guilty conscience and money to spare, so be it, I'm sure whoever receives the $2 won't complain. But the issue more seems to be that this is an ambiguous norm. I'm frequently in groups in which I'm the only American, and am constantly getting asked about how one is supposed to tip. And I'm forced to explain that I, a native of both this country and this region, have no idea. Restaurants between 15% and 20%, drinks at a bar get a dollar each, unless it's one of those $20-cocktail establishments, where evidently you're meant to tip as you would at a restaurant, but I don't know what actually goes on. I don't know why the fish shop in Chelsea Market has a tip jar, or what's supposed to justify tip jars in coffee places without seating, or in places whose "decor" consists primarily of signs admonishing you to bus your own table.

But the takeout tip seems especially odd. Isn't tipping in a restaurant part of the theater of a night out, a tradition that's as much about an exchange of funds between customer and server as a show being put on for the other patrons? Isn't that what allowed for the new trend of people tipping a dollar or more bills in coffee shops, places where the staff are paid at least minimum wage, and where the drinks themselves are priced such that these are nearly 100% tips on each beverage? Tipping on delivery, especially in places where someone likely biked through horrendous traffic if not weather to get you your food, and where there's an expectation of tips, makes perfect sense. But I'd always assumed that the tip option at pick-up was because there's just one receipt form restaurants use, whether for takeout or restaurant service, and they have no particular incentive to remove the option. Whatever the case, I'll just add this to the list of reasons I prefer to cook at home.

-Yet another entry into the genre of parents (mothers) airing their kids' (sons') dirty laundry on the Internet. My own guess here is that the kid isn't reading because his reading is something observed and celebrated by his mother. Both of those elements make reading undesirable. The latter, obviously, because many (most?) kids don't want to do as they're told; if mom was anti-reading, this kid would probably be further along in the Rougon-Macquart cycle than I am. The former because the very point of reading-as-escapism is escapism. If mom is breathing down the kid's neck, reading over his shoulder, experiencing every sentence alongside him, even if her goal isn't to censor his literary consumption, his own imagination is less fraught. Or maybe the kid is simply growing up in the age of the Daily Mail Online, or maybe he likes staring at a wall.


Jeff said...

A tiny tip may be worse than nothing at all, a bit of an insult. If I'm picking up for instance Thai food for 3 or 4 people that could easily be $60. I feel like I should either tip nothing, or $12. Tossing two buck onto that is awkward - like when someone gets a $2.95 cappuccino and tosses the nickel into the tip jar.

Phoebe said...

It's certainly true that small tips can be worse than none, because they acknowledge that the customer knows a tipping norm exists, suggesting the customer is either cheap, unsatisfied with the service, or both. If a group visiting from another country, say, or a bunch of folks from the region but who are too old/square to have experience with tip jars don't tip, the staff might be annoyed (and might, as can happen, vastly exaggerate what the norm is in that circumstance), but they won't feel insulted.

But I'm not sure what the problem is with the last example you give, assuming this cappuccino isn't happening in a place with table service. Why is "keep the change" not an appropriate tip, in an establishment where you've paid in full without tipping at all? I see that a penny or even a nickel might get an eye-roll, but that's how "keep the change" works - it's about the assumption that people do not necessarily keep piles of change with them at all times, on the off-chance that rounding up fails to exceed 50 cents. And assuming coffee-drink tips ought to be in the 15-20% range (which I wouldn't assume), the average would come out to about 50 cents per drink, making the bill tips appropriate only when multiple items are being purchased. Getting a $2 coffee to go and not adding a dollar to that purchase hardly seems as if it should constitute a violation of norms, but we might be getting to that point.

As for tipping at pickup, I can't imagine anyone doing this, let alone adding $12 to the bill. Why would you tip the same for pickup as for dining out or delivery? Why, in that case, wouldn't you just sit in the restaurant?

CW said...

In Minnesota (and some other states), restaurant employees do make at least minimum wage. However, the 15-20% tip is still the norm here. So even the rationale you provide doesn't seem to explain tipping. I'm used to tipping and don't have a problem doing it, but it doesn't strike me as particularly rational. As you note, plenty of other low-wage workers providing services under difficult conditions are not tipped.

Phoebe said...


That's interesting. Does anyone ever not tip in a restaurant - if the service is bad, for example?

In terms of being "used to" tipping and not minding it, that's certainly my own feeling in restaurants, getting food delivered, or in a cab - I don't mind it, in a sense, although the added cost helps explain why I'm not in restaurants, ordering in, or taking cabs more often.

But I'm never sure with coffee shops, whether tipping is just a way for the customer to show off, or actually a social norm. I know - from common sense, and from having worked as a barista - that tips are appreciated, but who doesn't appreciate unexpected extra money? What about a tip jar in a grocery store? How cynical is too cynical? Is it best to assume that if there's a tip jar, the person on the receiving end is probably worse off than yourself? What if that's not the case? Is it being a gullible push-over not to stand up to the ever-increasing tip expectations, regardless of your own income? And so on.

Sigivald said...

But I'd always assumed that the tip option at pick-up was because there's just one receipt form restaurants use, whether for takeout or restaurant service, and they have no particular incentive to remove the option.

For that matter, the point-of-sale system (or, if they're old fashioned, just the credit card machine) may well not have any easy way of knowing "take out" vs. "normal service", or any facility for printing a different slip even if the restauranteur wanted to.

CW said...


I'm sure some people don't leave a tip if they get really bad service, but my sense is that in most circles here not leaving any tip is not acceptable behavior. Based on my experience travelling outside of Minnesota or living elsewhere for short periods, I can't detect any difference in tipping behavior between Minnesota and parts of the country where servers make less than minimum wage.

I was thinking about this post and it occurred to me that I'm most comfortable tipping those people who provide services that in another time and place might have been provided by personal servants. Cab drivers, hotel maids, restaurant servers, and people carrying bags for me. I don't like tipping people who seem like retail clerks or salespeople. The tip jar at a coffee shop confuses me because it seems to be on the border between those two worlds.


Phoebe said...

Huh. I'd happily see the end of tipping altogether, and yes, I realize this would mean adding whichever percentage to the cost of various services. Someone providing a service should be angry if not paid, but if not paid and then some? And one shouldn't get better service just because one can pay whatever the amount is, plus X. It's interesting to see what goes in in Minnesota, because it's kind of far from how it goes in Europe, where you can leave an extra coin or whatever, but you don't have to, because everyone knows servers are already compensated (and there are of course social programs absent in the U.S.). I wonder if the issue in Minnesota is that it's not commonly known that servers make at least minimum wage? Is this something that changed recently? Because my usual stance on this - we should get rid of the below-minimum-wage exception, then if people feel they must add to the bill, perhaps not prohibit tipping - kind of changes if the norm would continue to be 15-20% tips, despite prices that already include those.