Friday, September 26, 2008

Let me offer you a tip

Frank Bruni recently posted a piece in his New York Times dining blog about a letter he received from a waiter. The waiter complained about receiving low tips from foreign tourists who do not understand the American tipping system (read it here). Bruni asked the readers of the blog to weigh in on their feelings about the issue.

One point that came up repeatedly was that perhaps it is time for America to banish the antiquated tipping system. I could not agree with this sentiment more.

I worked in fine dining in Ann Arbor at various restaurants for over five years. Yes, part of the reason behind getting a job at one of these places was the expectation of high tips. However, as I became older and my expenses expanded, I realized the value in receiving a regular, steady paycheck and being able to count on a set amount of money each week. The occasional $200 or $300 dollar night were sandwiched between numerous $45 slow summer nights or getting stiffed on stupid parent's day tables (I will not turn this into a rant on the University of Michigan Parents Day - though it is tempting).

While the article focused mainly on European customers who are supposedly unaware of the American tipping system, I found as a waitress that there are many, many ambiguities with well-meaning Americans who should be completely familiar with tipping practices.

For instance, when I go out to eat, I tip on the whole bill. Period. I do not subtract the booze or even the tax (in my case, subtracting the tax would not make much of a difference on the majority of my restaurant bills). However, I have seen some people who do not tip on liquor, or bottles of wine, etc.

I tip on everything because it has been my experience as a server that the person who waits on your table will be tipping out (giving a percentage of their sales to) the person who made your drink or poured your wine. The Earle is a perfect case in point: say you ordered a $100 bottle of wine with your meal. I would not have poured it for you - our sommelier, Stevie G., would have come to your table, guided you through the list, made some recommendations, and ultimately opened and poured your wine. Why should you give me a tip? Because at the end of the night I have to run a report on the amount of bottled wine I sold and tip Stevie G. 6% of that total, that's why. By choosing not to tip on your wine or drinks, you are most likely taking money out of your server's pocket because they will still be expected to tip out their bartender and sommelier (not to mention the busboy).

Still, if you don't work in a restaurant, do you know that? Maybe not. To the non-restaurant employee, it seems like the server is being fairly tipped for the service provided.

That is why tipping needs to go. There are too many ambiguities. Tipping is a way for restaurant owners to keep expenses down by not paying a lot of money to employees. But it is confusing to the customer and not dependable for the server. American restaurants should go to a flat wage. Yes, prices would most likely go up slightly or many restaurant owners would possibly institute a "service fee" (many European restaurants do so) but the upside is you would know exactly what you were paying for ahead of time. The server gets a regular paycheck, which in this economy is not a thing to be discounted. Nobody makes any social faux pas. And if your server really is spectacular, you can always slip them a ten or a twenty, and they'll be appreicative rather than disdainful.

What do you think?


Becky said...

I think this is a fair arguement, but I would pose another viewpoint. I've noticed that when going out with a group of people large enough that gratuity would be included in the bill, I've gotten horrible service. My friends and I went to a restaurant in Boston and they added 18% gratuity for parties of 6 or more. We had 6 so our gratuity was included. Our waiter came to our table twice (aside from bringing out our meals), once to clear appetizer plates and another time to give us the bill. We didn't get drink refills, and he was not polite at all. Why? He didn't have to work for his tip. I think that if we abolish the tip system, which I will admit is not fabulous and probably somewhat unfair, we also may sacrifice good service because there is no longer anything to work for.

I'm not saying we should keep the tip system, but I don't really want to sacrifice service either.

Alison said...

I'm 50-50 on the issue. I spent a few days in the UK in 2004 where there is no gratuity, and our service was miserable. I've been told from friends and coworkers overseas that this is par for the course and that the U.S. has some of the best restaurant service in the world BECAUSE of the tip system.

That said, I have worked as a waitress and know how frustrating it can be when you get stiffed. And for the record, I never knew people didn't tip on booze. That's insane! I can't believe people would do that.

Jessica Watkins said...

I think a good solution would be for the US to include a service fee in the amount of 15%. Just like anything else on your bill, this charge would be negotiable in the event you are dissatisfied with it. If the service is excellent, then a customer may choose to leave a little extra. If the service is poor, a chat with the manager could lower the service fee to an amount which would get your point across without requiring the errant server to pay the bartenders/busboys out of their own pocket. As frustrating as poor service can be, a server should not have to pay anyone for the pleasure of waiting on you.

I personally tip what I'm going tip, whether the service is good or bad. I don't use my dinners out as an opportunity to rate my server's skill level. Since I always tip 20%, it's rare, but not impossible, that a server will "wow" me so much that I leave extra. The server also has to go out of their way to insult me or a member of my party in order to be punished with a 10% tip. If it's just because they're an idiot, I don't punish. I'm just not that type of person. I prefer to maintain my own level of class, rather than stoop to a lower level. It's just not my personal mission to raise the level of service in America. And when I was a server, a low tip did not inspire me to try harder. I'm an educated person, not a slave.

Bobby G said...

I disagree wholeheartedly im a waiter as my 2nd job, and this is the perfect job for that. Tips are great for 2nd income, you dont have to claim much so you can lie to the government which is fun, also cant beat CASH! If I get stiffed (which I NEVER do because im dope) it doesnt really matter because its just going to my CC debt anyways. SO I like the tip system because for someone who is a DAMN good waiter I make a lot more money than I could at a regular job for a lot less hrs! Waiting tables is the PERFECT 2nd job, case closed!

Amy W. said...

I'd watch your claiming...I've seen a server roommate of mine get audited by the IRS and the fines she had to pay weren't pretty. No kidding.

Bobby G said...

Oh i claim enough, but not all, i got it covered!