Monday, November 2, 2015

To Tip or Not to Tip

The matter of tipping restaurant waiters is much discussed these days.

For certain very high-end restaurants -- Per Se in New York's Columbus Circle, French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Chez Panisse -- no tipping is required.  This seems fair enough for eateries where the standard meal costs $300 or more, with wine extra.

But most other sit-down restaurants' wait staff expect a little something added to the check.  This has been the case for many years.

Over time, issues have arisen.

     -- The basic tip, once 10 percent, rose to 15 percent and then, by 2012, to 20 
     percent.  Now we have reports that waiters in New York and San Francisco 
     expect minimum tips of 25 percent.  People on Yelp report they pay 30 percent 
     or more for really great service.

     --The rationale for tipping has been that the basic wage for waiters is below
     minimum wage because they take in tips that raise their incomes substantially.
     Now, however, expensive cities have been raising minimum wages for all 
     workers, including waiters.

     -- As prices at expensive (not ultra-expensive; see above) restaurants have 
     increased, waiters' compensation has grown to pretty impressive heights, 
     sometimes to $300 for five-hour weekend evening shifts.  Meanwhile, side
     workers and, more important, prized chefs work just as hard for much less money.

Danny Meyer, a New York restaurateur, announced recently that he is transitioning his restaurants to no-tip establishments.  He plans to add 20 to 25 percent to meal charges, which he says will allow him to match waiters' current earnings and also increase the wages of employees who work in the kitchens.

Meyer's first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, opened 30 years and has been popular ever since for fine food, excellent service and improving the Union Square neighborhood. Since then, he has opened 12 other well-regarded restaurants in the city.

People do not know what to make of this new policy.  If it is effective, other restaurant owners may copy his approach.  Diners wonder how it work.  And more than a few professional waiters are very uneasy. 

Is It a Trend? 

There are some reasons to believe Meyer's decision is in line with current themes in food service.

Fancy sushi restaurants in several cities already have no-tip policies, perhaps because of their owners' backgrounds.  In Japan, tipping service workers is seen as insulting.

The Black Star Co-op and Brewery in Austin, Texas pays its workers a living wage and discourages tipping.  Other restaurants around the country also are trying out this model.

The times also may be leading to a change in restaurants.  More people are eating at Chipotle-style restaurants where worker pay starts at $13 an hour and diners watch their meals being prepared.  Other restaurants, some of them pricey, are testing the I-pad order/payment model, which leaves servers with the sole task of walking meals out to tables.

Last week, the Significant Other and I ate dinner at a relatively expensive suburban restaurant.  We learned the names and made friends with the servers and the woman who poured water and brought rolls to the table.  We were interrupted often and asked, "Everything okay, you guys?"  But our meals arrived at different times, and a modest special request that was agreed upon by a waiter never made it to the kitchen. 

For a fancy joint, the service sucked.  A few days later, I asked the SO what he did about the tip.

"Well, the service was pretty bad," he said, "so I only tipped a little over 15 percent."

That's where we are now.  We're so polite that we don't want to offend even people who don't do their jobs very well.   The relationship between the performance of waiters and the size of the tip effectively has been severed.

So I see why this no-tipping thing might have a future.

Other Countries

In Europe, meal prices are generally "service compris," and tips, if left, are quite modest.  You might round up the check total to the next euro or leave a krona on the table.  If you're really gung-ho, you would leave five or, at most, 10 percent.
     Americans who visit Europe and tip in restaurants as they would do here no doubt endear themselves to Continental waiters.
     Conversely, restaurant waiters in New York are famous for not wanting to serve international guests, whom they regard as cheapskates. 

In Australia, where the minimum wage is $17 an hour, no tradition of tipping ever developed until recently.  Now, after many visits by American tourists, there are reports of restaurants adding "tip" lines to charge receipts and placing gratuity jars near the cash registers in coffeehouses. My impression is that at least some Australians are not charmed by this development.

In my experience, Americans tip a broader range of workers, and at higher rates, than any other people in the world. This may say something about our national character, but I have no idea what it could be.

Words to the Wise

The Business Insider posted not along ago about tipping etiquette in various countries. There were two particular recommendations that I plan to keep in mind.

     -- Brazil:  If a restaurant does not charge for service, a tip of at most 15 
     percent might be in order, but, "Be careful not to tip in dollars; it can be 
     insulting or lead to a robbery."

     -- Russia:  "Tip about 10 percent and give it directly to your server.  If you
     leave cash on the table, it will most likely go to management instead."

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