Monday, February 18, 2008

The Tipping Point  

A favorite activity for the wife and I, and I'm sure for many of you as well, is to go out and try new restaurants. We’re both slightly-better-than-amateur foodies (cooking as well as eating) and it's a lot of fun to see new spins on favorite recipes, or to try something that we wouldn't normally have. However, whenever we go restauranteering with friends or family, the inevitable discussion comes up: what to tip?

Now I'm not a skinflint and I would hope that people wouldn't describe me as a heartless bastard, but I'm definitely of the mindset that a server has to earn a tip. I've never been of the opinion that it's mandatory, and I have to admit that I'm very surprised at how often people I dine with feel that they have an absolute obligation to leave 15%, 20% or even more regardless of how the service was.

The simple fact is, the job description of a server is to take people's order and bring them their food. This is what’s expected, so anyone meeting this bare minimum and not going a step further can look forward to a big fat zero from me when they peep that little line on my credit card slip reserved for gratuity. I'm sorry, but a person picking up a plate and simply bringing it from point A to point B doesn't deserve any of my hard-earned cash as thanks for doing what they’re hired for.

I often hear the argument that it's a tough job and people work hard doing it, but if it's really that tough, then get a different job. I've waited on tables myself so I know exactly how hard it is. I didn't stay long. Besides that, I've had a bunch of jobs where I worked harder and kissed more ass on a more consistent basis than I ever did waiting tables, and never got a single tip. I could remember the names of just about every customer who came into my comic shop, remember what they read and what they liked, and even remembered to ask about their family and pets… was that worth a damn dollar to any of them? Of course not. They appreciated it, liked it, and it kept them coming back to the shop, but they never felt obligated to leave cash. What's so special about being a waiter?

I also hear the argument that servers get taxed on estimated tips, and that if a diner doesn't tip, then the server actually loses money because the government takes part whether they actually got that tip or not. I understand the situation, but I fail to see how it's my responsibility to make sure that this person doesn't get a bite taken out of them by Uncle Sam. Personally, I think that servers should not be taxed at all on their tips… when I get bad service, I don't leave anything, so it seems unfair that the government should tax a person for something they didn't earn. However, instead of always leaving enough money to cover someone else's taxes, it makes more sense to me that the servers and restaurants should band together and get the law changed.

The final argument that always comes up is that many restaurants pay minimum wage or even below minimum wage, so these people are depending on their tips to survive. I don't know how true this is or not (and it may vary from state to state) but I don't agree that anyone working anywhere should be earning less than minimum wage. If there's some loophole in the law that permits this to happen, that loophole needs close. Additionally, there are tons of minimum-wage jobs out there that aren't in restaurants, so I don't see how people waiting tables are somehow getting a rougher ride than some guy who's cleaning toilets or picking cauliflower. Having servers is an expected cost of doing business for restaurants, so restaurants should expect to pay servers what they're worth. If the job doesn't pay enough, look for another one.

Now before you all start thinking I’m anti-server and never leave anyone that tip, ever, let me just say that because I'm so critical, I absolutely reward good service when we get it.

Honestly, it doesn't take much.

If the person taking my order actually gets it right, they're starting off on the right foot. If the server checks back after dropping off the food and asks how things are, I notice. If I ask for something and it gets brought to me in a reasonable amount of time, another plus. Toss in the barest hint of a smile or perhaps even a little warmth, and that person is absolutely going to get something. If the server wants a tip, they have to earn it… however, I really don't think it's that hard. And when a server is great, I'll tip heavily and write down their name to ask for them again the next time I come back.

For example, the wife and I went to Cascadia here in Seattle on First Ave and the bartender, Michael, was superb. He was friendly, cracked a few jokes, kept checking back with us to make sure everything was OK and paid attention when we asked for something. At the end of the night, we gave him an extra $20 and made sure to ask him what days he worked, so we could come back when he was there.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we went to Thai 65 on University Ave today. The waiter started out all right, but vanished as soon as the food was brought. After I finally flagged him down to ask for more rice, he said ‘right away’ and then proceeded to sit at the bar and eat ice cream in full view of the restaurant while he was texting. I caught his eye again to ask for the rice a second time, and when it came, he dropped it off with attitude. Can someone explain to me why servers like this deserve 20%?

Although I feel like my stance on tipping is logical and quite reasonable, more often than not I'm greeted with weird looks and disdain from people who I would otherwise describe as smart and sensible. Am I the only sane person lost in a Twilight Zone of undeserved tips, or am I somehow way off base?

If you’ve got an opinion, I’d like to hear it.

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3 comments: to “ The Tipping Point

  • Anonymous


    Good good stuff, Brad. Seriously, why are you not the world's most read blog yet?

    Anyway, tipping isn't mandatory in our country. I'm saying something good about our country, for once.

  • Anonymous


    I forgot to add,

    No, I believe in your stance wrt tipping. I wouldn't do it if the service is awful and if the food is awful too.


    This all makes sense. I don't like the standard US approach to (and expectations around) tipping at all. It bothers me that servers are paid below minimum wage and taxed as they are. It's a shitty system. But then, the US's tips-for-everything culture is partly to blame. Once you're abroad, tipping becomes a lot less common. Take Korea, for example. I have my gripes about the place but I love the fact that tipping is Not Done here. Ditto Australia. I once tried to tip a guy who schlepped my gigantic suitcase into my hotel room and he declined: "I'm just doing my job, mate." That's refreshing.