Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another word about tipping

LJ and I share a common dislike, namely the proliferation of industries which now feel it necessary to beg for tips from patrons. The practice is growing more widespread and I find it particularly insulting both to customers and employees alike, both of whom have to live with an undue societal pressure to conform to this inanity. This is my screed to the world about it.

I’m no historian, but as I understand it, tipping started in this country, as a practice, in food service industries. I will do some research into why this was, but I will hazard a guess and say it was due to successful lobbying from the restaurant industries as a means to subsidize what is a labor intensive manual process. As cities increased in size in the late 1800’s and rural dwellers fled to the cities, eating out became more and more of a necessity to sustaining city life. As a result, the number of restaurants, and the service industry supporting them, grew exponentially. Couple that with the passage of the minimum wage act (the ‘30s?) and you have a bit of an issue for the average restaurant owner. Food service and preparation, by it’s nature, is a low margin business. How then, do you maintain a decent profit while simultaneously employing a large number of people in a field expanding with competition. The answer, of course, is to encourage tipping as a practice and then get an exemption to the minimum wage act to allow paying these food service employees a lower wage.

*Note: This is all complete speculation on my part. I’m on a plane right now and have no access to materials to research. The reason I’m writing this will be made clearer later*

In my opinion, and in many other people’s, I find it abhorrent that the wage of a restaurant worker, to use this example, should be even semi-dependent on tips. It is nothing more than a hidden tax on patrons who end up subsidizing the income of the employee. To those who use the argument that tips allow patrons to effectively ‘grade’ employees or businesses, I say the act of eating at an establishment serves this purpose more effectively. If I receive poor service at a particular establishment, I can choose to not patronize that establishment again. This loss of revenue should, if used en masse, translate to the restaurant either increasing their service to attract business or closing down. Punishing the employee responsible is only effective if the employee themselves is responsible for the poor service. But what about all those times we have poor food, poor lighting, dirty forks, rude matre’d’s? Should my service person be punitively damaged for circumstances beyond their control?

I would much rather be charged a market rate for the food I am served with the proper living wage of the employee built into the price. I’m paying it anyway, if I’m tipping appropriately. It’s time for our country to end this ridiculous practice. Europeans get along fine with this system. Tipping is only 5-10% in most European countries, and even then only for extraordinary service. Of course, European waitstaff are not dumb, and they know that Americans are used to tipping 15-20%. How fortunate for them. But they get paid a living wage to begin with. In our own country, it is not uncommon for finer restaurants to also pay their wait staff a real living wage. Peter Luger’s has waiters on staff who have been there for 25 years or more and put multiple children through college.

So yes, I disagree with the principle of tipping. But I do it anyway because that is the current custom and it would be unconscionable to deprive hard working waiters and waitresses of the ability to pay their rent and/or food bills. What I am even more concerned with in this country is how the practice of tipping is spreading like a cancer to other service industries.

Taxi cabs, for example, have long been used to the practice of tipping. Even though it is completely voluntary under New York City rules (and even printed in each cab), it is ‘expected’ to tip a taxi driver. Oh, but these drivers are badly paid as a result of their renting out the cabs from medallion owners and forced into a revenue sharing scheme. So we overlook it and subsidize their income. People from other cities marvel to me how cheap New York City cab fares are and yet this hidden cost is borne with nary a complaint.

So what about other service industries then? Well, about 10 years ago, we started to see tip jars appear on the countertops of take-out food establishments. From Chinese to burgers to Taco Bell, it is now standard to see a tip jar for jobs that normally worked only for wages. In fact, these jobs, unlike wait staff, are already paid minimum wage or more! Why are we tipping them? Because the jar is out there, true, and we don’t want to feel cheap. But instead of pressuring our government to raise the minimum wage standards, we swallow the cost and move on. Workers are going to get there needed money one way or another. Either people are going to tip them to supplement the anemic minimum wage, or restaurant owners are going to raise food prices and raise wages as a result. I would much prefer that these workers receive decent worker’s benefits than have their income be decided by the ‘generosity’ of their patrons.

But not just food service industries have been affected by this scourge. Haircuts, home improvements, the cable guy, movers, the list seems endless. All of these industries which, up to a decade ago, worked for nothing but their bill at the end, have all started ‘gratefully’ accepting gratuities for their work. I certainly don’t blame the workers for asking for it. I blame the business owners with using their worker’s wages as a way of increasing their own bottom line. If the wages are being paid anyway, raise the cost of labor and demand that customers don’t tip. What I think you’ll find is that by paying higher wages, you’ll be able to attract better and more skilled workers and defray that cost by the increased quality of your business offerings. Customers will gladly accept a 10% hike in prices if it means they don’t need to pay a 10% tip at the end of a job. It all evens out in the end.
A personal note: What got me started on this rant was my flight from Dallas, TX to New York, NY that I am on right now. It is an American Airlines flight, for the record. When the snack service was started and the announcement was made that it was starting, an addendum was made that, “tips are always appreciated.” I was appalled.


Wow said...

Great blog. That last paragraph is shocking. The attendants should be embarrassed.

I'll throw stuff into the takeout buckets only occasionally. They still amuse me. It's like "Hey, if I wanted to tip, I would have had this delivered".

Tae said...

There's not enough room for me to explain why I believe tipping at a restaurant is a good thing (for good service) and an essential practice in the restaurant industry. If you want restaurants to continue to operate, you're gonna have to have to put up with tipping. We'll talk about that when we talk about apple picking. :)

I heartily agree with you that the tip jar thing has gotten out of control, and it's where I drew the line. I don't tip at the coffee shop for takeout either, but I certainly will if I sit at the table and get good service throughout the course of a meal.

I almost blew coffee out my nose when I read your last line. That is horrifying. I'd complain. Loudly. To as many people as I could find. That is just gross.

Tae said...

Ooops, I forgot to add: Although I believe tipping for good service is a good thing, its use is negligible when pooling is involved. Another bad practice run rampant.

Karol said...

"Europeans get along fine with this system."

No, they don't. I was a bartender for 2 weeks, making 4 pounds (like 6-7 bucks) an hour and zero tips. Nightmare.

Jamie said...

making 4 pounds (like 6-7 bucks) an hour

Ummm...Isn't that minimum wage of higher in this country? What did you want for being a bartender? A generous compensation package and an end of year bonus?

Tae said...

"Europeans get along fine with this system. Tipping is only 5-10% in most European countries, and even then only for extraordinary service."
- In Italy (I don't know about the rest of Europe) there is a line item for gratuity, per person! So you are being forced to pay a gratuity willy nilly.

"What did you want for being a bartender? A generous compensation package and an end of year bonus?"
-Are you being snarky or was that a serous comment? According to your philosophy that is what she deserves and then you wouldn't be obligated to tip: "I would much rather be charged a market rate for the food I am served with the proper living wage of the employee built into the price."
-Minimum wage is not a proper living wage. I believe at 40 hrs a week at federal min wage a person earns something like $11,000/year? My daughter makes just above minimum wage - she won't be moving out on that salary. Fortunately she has a few years to earn a raise. :)

Jamie said...

Tae, I think you're missing my point. The thrust of what I'm trying to say is not that bartenders are underpaid or not. It's that the income of servers shouldn't be determined by the arbitrary tips of the patrons. Better, in my mind, that their bosses pay them better and pass the cost to us in the price. For the record, I am an excellent tipper because I'm a generous person by nature. But it's not fair to my waiter/waitress that some people aren't.

And yes, minimum wage sucks and I would prefer seeing a hike in that standard. But that's really not in the scope of the conversation.

Tae said...

"For the record, I am an excellent tipper because I'm a generous person by nature."
-I never ever would have assumed otherwise!

I see your point and totally 100% agree with you in theory. Unfortunately the reality is unrealistic. And no, it's not fair at all. Remember I'm a culinary management graduate. There's a reason I don't own a restaurant - long hours, no life, very little money. Not just for servers but for everyone involved.

Ultimately I'd like everyone who deserves a good salary to get one, and everyone who doesn't deserve one to fall off the face of the planet. How can we swing that?

Tae said...

OK, maybe not everyone. Just my old boss.

I'll shut up now.

Karol said...

Ummm...Isn't that minimum wage of higher in this country?

Ummm, yes. But a bartender that makes minimum wage in the US is doing something wrong.


Jamie said...

I'm not down on bartenders, which is why I'm willing to pay them what they're worth. Unlike bar owners who pay them dick. Could you stay on point?