Perhaps We Should Be Tipping More for Cheap Eats

waitressThe fundamental problem with tipping in restaurants is that employers should be paying their workers, not customers. But the practice of tipping is also grossly unfair, especially to servers in less expensive restaurants as this data reported by Eater show:

In small restaurants where the average bill is around $10 per person, servers earning the federal tipped minimum wage have to wait about four tables an hour in order to make the equivalent of a $15/hr hourly wage, data from FiveThirtyEight shows. That’s assuming a 15 percent tip from tables of two. Meanwhile, servers who work at more expensive establishments can get through their shifts barely serving one table of two an hour (0.2 tables to be precise) and still make close to that amount. That means casual workers have to serve nine times as many tables as fine-dining servers to make a comparable amount.

Furthermore, servers in the less expensive restaurants are disproportionately women and people of color.

Part of the solution to these inequities is higher minimum wages and the elimination of tipping, which some restaurants have attempted with varying degrees of success.

But we might also think of changing some of the norms surrounding tipping. Some of the inequities of tipping could be mitigated if it were customary to tip servers in less expensive restaurants at a higher percentage of the cost of the meal. It’s standard to tip everyone 15%-20% for satisfactory service. But perhaps we should be tipping servers in less expensive restaurants 30% and servers in fine dining establishments 10%-15%.

It is true that service in some higher-end restaurants requires more skill—some knowledge of complicated dishes or the wine list, for instance. But in my experience demonstrations of such skill are more the exception than the rule.

I’m in the habit of tipping 20% across the board, in most cases, regardless of the quality of service. But I’m thinking I should be more generous to the person serving my tacos.

One comment

  1. Employers pay their customers? Perhaps I missed something. In any case, whether employers pay their worker or employers pay their customers, I am not sure what this has to do with “edible arts”–the aesthetics of wine and food. This topic should subsumed under the category of moral science or restaurant management or even microeconomics.

    Of course, things are interconnected in interesting ways and I am probably missing the boat. I have had stints as a busboy, waiter, and prep cook. I have even delivered pizzas. Yes, indeed, American patrons are asked to pay the lion’s share of wages in the restaurant business. No doubt, this is an injustice. But it does not end there. The social and moral pressures to tip “fairly” is only one aspect of the tipping issue. Arguably, even if we accept that tipping 15-20% is the right thing to do given the current state of affairs in most restaurants, the underlying unfairness in distribution of these tips is even more critical.

    There is great variation in the size and capacity of restaurants, which affects the number of individuals dependent on tips. Many restaurants rely on hosts, bartenders, waiters, busboys, dishwashers, prep cooks, cooks (some high-end places even have restroom staff responsible for handing out warm towels and perfumes, which complicates matters even further since customers have to face an additional layer of tipping).
    The question is this: which of these workers should receive tips. Should a hierarchical system be based on the nature of the job and the base-wage of the employee? Or should it be evenly divided amongst every working individual who contributes to the operations of the restaurant and the satisfaction of the customer? How do we determine who is more important without being dogmatic, conventional, or elitist?

    Obligations, conventions and rules vary country to country. In many respects, Americans are the most naive customers in the world and often the most affluent. The restaurant makes a sizeable profit on the food (depending on the type of restaurant), an astounding profit on alcohol (wine, beer and spirits), and has the audacity to leave a defacto bill for labor (tips). In addition to that, many patrons enjoy paying for valet parking, extra “bells and whistles” which transform the menu into a deluxe car wash (extra wax is 3 dollars). Most Americans have been potty trained to accept these charges as normal and desirable. (And many restaurants in the States, which market themselves as being associated with the cuisine of another country, do not respect that country’s traditions–eg guacamole is free in Mexico and grappa or limoncello is a traditional house offering in Italian restaurants.)

    Perhaps the unconscious forces at work–to the extent they exist–are the most interesting. Americans, frequently use tips as a display of power and ego, often to the point of obscene disproportionality–showering waiters with big tips gets people’s attention and develops reputations and attempts to curry favor with waiters over less generous tippers. Or, conversely, in the case of small tips or stiffing, the patron can power-trip and show disapproval for the most trivial error–without knowing the source of the error (short-handed staff, newly trained busboy, or lack of some menu item due to weather or delivery conditions.) The waiter takes the hit for someone’s else incompetence or cock-up. To be sure, there are a number of cases where customers are trying to be reasonable and decent, even if the whole concept of a 15 percent tip is unfair or misunderstood.

    More often than not, the generous tipper–noble and fair-minded on paper–is really just another humbug with a “savior complex”. Nevertheless, I appreciate your tips! Reading your blog made me feel like a lucky waiter who just won the lottery.

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