Thursday, November 12, 2015

Suggesting a tip

I was a terrible waiter. The summer of my freshman year in high school I took a job as a waiter at a higher end restaurant. I figured if I was going to be a waiter I might as well do it for a place where the total bill was high – and therefore the tips would be high too. How delightfully na├»ve I was. The ultimate insult came not from being stiffed on the tip – there were plenty of justifications for that (“they forgot” “they didn’t like the food” etc.). It was when they would leave $0.10 or $0.25 or $1.00 on a $150 bill. It was a clear memo: we know we should tip but you were so horrible that you only deserve a few pennies. I think I lasted six weeks and spent most of them bussing tables rather than serving. Today I make it a punchline: I tell people this was when I learned that I preferred to be served rather than to serve! There’s a movement on that would change all that.

Danny Meyer’s Restaurants (which runs establishments like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe in New York) announced recently (10/15/15) that they were instituting a “no tipping” policy starting in November. “Meyer’s group plans to increase menu prices and raise hourly wages for kitchen employees to $15.25 from $11.75 at The Modern. The increase will fall in line with the new state minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers. Menus will make it clear that prices include “hospitality”, and checks will not provide blank lines for a tip.”

Part of the justification is that the wage difference between kitchen employees (cooks to dishwashers) and wait staff has continued to grow disproportionately. (Various laws prevent tips from being pooled and shared.) Will it take away an employee’s incentive to provide excellent service? I would doubt it since they’ll likely be fired if they provide bad service.

Cruise ships are a good example of this policy. Many years ago at the end of your week envelopes would magically appear in your stateroom, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, etc. seeking tips. Woe is those who traveled without cash. At some point in the past decade that switched to a daily convenience fee being billed to your account. You can still add a cash tip at the end for those who have done exceptional service. There hasn't been a noticeable change in the quality of service in my experience. 

In many parts of the world wikitravel warns about tipping: “Giving a tip is not expected and offering one would be considered at best odd and at worst condescending or demeaning.”

A few years back when traveling in Sweden my friend and I had a lovely dinner and got the bill. We couldn’t tell if the tip was included or not – so ingrained in our being was it to tip the waitress. We ultimately asked her and she laughed at our Americanism and explained it was all included. It was quite convenient not to have to do the calculation and determine if we were going to be boorish or over-the-top in our tipping.

Evan Horowitz of The Boston Globe wrote an analysis about the policy. He wrote: “Abandoning the long-entrenched practice of tipping is a major departure from the restaurant norm, but in virtually every other industry, it’s management — not customers — who decides what employees should be paid.”


Moving wait staff to a regular employee status provides stability to the employee, additional funds to shore up Social Security and appropriately requires the establishment to price their product based on their actual costs. As Horowitz says: “Even if there were no tips, waiters and waitresses would still need to get paid. And the money would still come from customers. It would just appear on a different line of the bill, be it higher menu prices or an automatic service fee.” It’s a suggestion that is more than a tip!

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