Restaurant Life

Thoughts On Tipping

It happens a million times. The waiter drops the check. The guest stares at the credit slip with a furrowed brow, twiddling the pen and staring blankly at the empty tip line.

What should I leave them?

Every diner faces the inevitable decision at the end of the meal of how they will tip. It’s a lonely place. They endorse the check quietly worrying to themselves, wondering if they did the right thing.

There have never been any official published guidelines for tipping—it’s always been a very ambiguous custom—which makes it even more difficult for diners to navigate. There are a lot of gray areas in the debate over gratuities; diners are hungry for change and servers are frustrated by inconsistent and unpredictable income. As unpopular as the custom of tipping has become, it begs the question:

Why hasn’t anyone tried to institute reform?

There are many issues impeding change. The same people who want to abolish tipping altogether are not prepared for the inevitable higher prices that would result. Consumers have become accustomed to a particular price point for dishes when they dine out, but those prices are subsidized by the depressed wage levels of tipped employees. Most states allow restaurant owners to pay adjusted hourly rates that are well below state and federal minimum wages. In some states, this can be as low as $2.13 an hour.

Over time, the burden of paying waitstaff has institutionally shifted from the employer to the customer–likely as a way of artificially keeping food prices down and boosting perceived value. Psychologically, you feel better about the price of your meal when the check is 15-20% lower, even when you are customarily expected to leave “extra” for service. But if Front-Of-House (FOH) are paid below minimum wages, should the tip really be viewed as extra? Even though a service charge is rarely included, many diners have come to perceive the tip as an additional tax. Customarily, leaving gratuity is optional and unenforceable by management. When you leave the waitstaff a deficient tip, however, you are essentially flouting payment for the services you received. What other industry allows you to receive services without mandating that you pay for them?

It is considered taboo for a restaurant manager to approach the table after a guest tips poorly. But wouldn’t management insinuate themselves if that person didn’t leave enough money to pay the bill? Tipping customs have evolved so that your tip is considered an evaluation—either punitive or rewarding. Under the current system, a substandard tip would be considered justifiable if service was unsatisfactory. But sometimes people skimp on the tip in order to save on the cost of the meal. They’re just cheap or—especially in the case of foreign guests—they are ignorant of or don’t feel responsible for obeying customs. In this respect, the current system fails. Even those who resent having to tip on top of their check should be required to pay an appropriate premium, however modest, for service if it isn’t included.

ChangeTipDiners aren’t the only ones to blame for impeding change. Many restaurant workers who receive tips actually prefer that their income be negotiated in an open market. The potential upside of winning the tip lottery is more thrilling and can be infinitely more lucrative than fixed pay. Otherwise, all waiters would work in catering. Waiting tables you feel more like an independent contractor or a commission-based salesperson. Talent will migrate where the tips are highest. Busier restaurants will attract the most tenured staff, struggling ones will be plagued by heavy turnover. Any overhaul to the system would upset these market forces which are deeply entrenched in the industry, in all their dysfunctional glory.

So, what can we do to change the system?

Here are five ideas:

1) Gratuity should no longer be considered optional – Under the current system, menu prices are set artificially lower because restaurant owners can legally pay substandard wages to service employees who are tipped. The “tip credit,” to which it is often referred, evolved out of the determination that gratuities function to make up the difference for any built-in deficiency in hourly wages. However, the system fails when customers skirt their responsibility to tip properly. There may be some cases when service is unsatisfactory and a sub-par gratuity is warranted, but it should be management’s discretion not the guest who decides that a payment for service be withheld. If you are unhappy with a dish in a restaurant, it is ultimately management’s decision whether you pay for it or not—the same should apply to service issues. Every situation is different but there are certainly far too many occasions when an inadequate tip is issued arbitrarily. The bottom line is: If you paid less for your food with the customary understanding that you would leave a gratuity for service, then you should not be allowed to walk away without making an appropriate contribution to compensate those who served you.

2) We should eliminate adjusted minimum wages – The current system is antiquated and is due for a reassessment. According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, tipped employees are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line. Restaurants should not be afforded the opportunity to underpay FOH simply because they receive tips. Hourly wages often go toward helping servers pay taxes on whatever tips they receive. Seattle has recently passed legislation to insure city-wide minimum wages apply to restaurant workers and, as you might imagine, it’s already causing a stir.

3) Diners must learn to accept higher prices – Detractors will say “If FOH wages go up, so will menu prices as restaurant owners are forced to incur higher labor costs.” It’s true, prices will go up. But maybe they should’ve never been so low in the first place. One of the biggest impediments to fixing the system is a consumer who must learn to accept the real cost of dining out. This includes proper compensation of the waitstaff.

4) Guests should not feel pressured to tip on a percentage basis – After ordering an expensive bottle of wine, many diners silently wonder why they are expected to leave a larger tip when all the waiter did was open the bottle and pour it. They usually tip anyway to avoid backlash. But why should a guest tip exorbitantly more money just because they spent more? Conversely, if a table spends less than average on their meal, why is it considered acceptable to leave a smaller tip just because they spent less? Didn’t the server deliver the same services as the big wine check? If minimum wages were raised for tipped employees, it would take some of the pressure off the tenuous relationship that often exists between the guests and staff.

5) Offer more full-time waiters a salary – As more people enter the hospitality industry as a legitimate career it makes sense to have more non-managerial FOH positions that are salaried. Including service charges automatically or adjusting menu prices to subsidize service will create a more consistent pool of revenue for a restaurateur to securely pay his top talent in the dining room. Obviously, it may not work for every restaurant and every situation but there are benefits for both sides if it’s feasible to offer servers more consistent wages.

Opinion Restaurant Life

Critics Under Review

Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can make or break the commercial ambitions of their subjects.  Highly anticipated openings in the culinary world are usually followed by a parade of media hype and scrutiny.  “Review season”—as we affectionately refer to it—is a stressful time.  Influential food critics arrive with their scorecards the moment we open for business—their mugshots plastered to the kitchen line and wait-stations like wanted criminals.  We understand that major periodicals have a responsibility to their readers who are hungry for the skinny… but why the rush?

Most major news outlets with a commitment to covering culinary arts will file a review within the first three months of a restaurant’s infancy.  Critics risk being perceived as out of touch if they are slow to weigh in.  But new restaurants are like toddlers that need time to shed their baby fat; they must learn to crawl before they can walk or—in the most hyped cases—learn to fly up to their lofty expectations.

The unfortunate result is that many restaurants with real ambition never get a chance to grow into adulthood without judgement already having been passed.  In most cases, if the quality of a new restaurant improves after review season has ended, it will happen without much recognition from the press.  With as many technological advances in mobile communication it’s puzzling that a critic’s views would not evolve over time.  Is it really fair to file one definitive review based on a few early experiences and be done with it? Isn’t this akin to reviewing a piece of theater based on the quality of its dress rehearsals?

Restaurants are complicated ecosystems with a lot of moving parts.  We make it look easy when the machine is well-oiled but the choreography isn’t as easy as it looks.  Like a sports team, it takes time to develop chemistry.  Expecting immediate success in the restaurant’s first year is no more realistic than a winning season in a new franchise’s first year in a pro sport.  It takes time to fine-tune systems, to get individuals with diverse levels of experience to act in concert.  Why do so many new restaurants prefer a “soft opening” where they can assure themselves of greater control of the elements with minimal fanfare?

In sports as in restaurants, assuming that a team that loses its first few games can’t turn things around and win a championship is a mistake.  But most new restaurants don’t have this luxury after their review season has ended.  For the ones that begin to pull things together and start firing on all cylinders, sadly, it may be too late.  The book on them has already been written and closed with very little chance of changing the narrative.

Let it grow, Let it grow...
Let it grow, Let it grow…

The flip side is that many restaurants flourish in the early going, are showered with accolades, then take their eyes off the prize and decline.  After a string of positive reviews, many restaurateurs use the press as a springboard for new projects while the older ones are set to auto-pilot.  But while this occurs, it’s unusual for a critic to risk embarrassment by revoking his stars or periodicals to issue revisions to their earlier praises.

As consumers we have a very short attention span and so we rely on simple metrics for evaluating restaurants.  Perhaps it harkens back to the days of potty training, but we’ve unanimously embraced the star system as the de facto measure of success or failure.  It’s not about a memorable dish or a knowledgable staff, it’s about how many stars you have pinned to your lapel.

Ultimately, the current system ignores the complexity of a restaurant’s development.  It is a living organism and diners should learn to be more forgiving of its formative years.  Over time, should an adolescent restaurant turn into a tempestuous brat or a defiant teenager, it should answer for the quality of its performance and be subject to reassessment.

Perhaps this is why services like Yelp have become so popular—the crowd-sourced feedback loop is much more efficient.  Of course, Yelp has its drawbacks, too, but its success represents a sea change in the way diners get information about restaurants.  The traditional food media should recognize this and stop fumbling over each other to get the scoop and start worrying about serving up a better dish.