Chow Bella

I Want to Keep Tipping My Restaurant Server and Here's Why

My friend Leslie is a lousy tipper. In her defense—I guess—she’s from England, where tipping is more of a nod than a commentary on the level of service. In the UK, as in many foreign countries, one leaves a pittance, and not, say, twenty percent of what one has spent on food as an indication of one’s approval about the meal and how it was served.

Leslie will be thrilled, I’m sure, if the new trend in no-tipping restaurants catches on in the US. The policy was first floated last month by New York-based Joe’s Crab Shack, a seafood chain that announced a test run of its new no-tipping policy in 18 different locations, though none are in Arizona. Joe’s compensated its employees by raising their hourly salaries to between $12 and $14 per hour (in most states, the national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour), and told CNN last month that if the no-tipping thing is well received by customers, it’ll become policy in all 130 of the chain’s locations.

A few days later, Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group announced that his 13 New York City restaurants (which include Manhattan’s popular Modern eatery) would no longer be accepting tips for its waitstaff. In recent weeks, a number of high-profile restaurants have jumped on the no-tip bandwagon, among them Chez Panisse in California, Pittsburgh’s Bar Marco, and Per Se in Manhattan. Alan Light

This no gratuities notion is good news for people who struggle with adding twenty percent to a sum total, or for anyone who resents having to compensate the people who bring them their food in restaurants. And it’s probably not a bad thing for second-rate waiters who are habitually stiffed for providing crummy service. But for most of the rest of us, it could well be a fly in our bouillabaisse.

Waiters and waitresses have been traditionally paid a lower-than-minimum-wage hourly rate, with the difference being made up in tips. That’s always placed food servers in the position of relying on our good graces and our better understanding of their industry, but it’s also meant they’re working to impress us in exchange for a better salary.

My friend Teddy, born and raised in Phoenix, is a career waiter at a local upscale restaurant. “What you tip me is what I am taking home, what I am living on,” he explained to me in a phone call the other day. “I will end up taking a cut in pay if this thing catches on, by as much as $30 or $40 per hour on weekends, which is when most of us make the real money.”

Waiting tables is a sales job, Teddy explained, and a waiter’s tip is his commission. “Nobody waits tables based on the hourly wage it pays,” he snarked, pointing out that minimum wage for servers is now pegged at $2.13 per hour. Think about that the next time you leave ten percent after dining at Durant’s.

Taking away a waiter’s tip money, therefore, potentially lowers his standard of service. We’re kidding ourselves when we believe that that young gal at Omelettes Be Gone No More M’Lady is treating us especially well because she loves bringing us a plate full of eggs.

“I guarantee you,” Teddy told me, “if I am making the same amount of money waiting on a nice guy as they’re paying me to take care of an asshole, they’re both getting the same service.”

Doing away with tipping also affects diners, in more ways than one. I like slipping my server an extra ten to let him know I appreciate the free dessert or the recommendation that I skip the skid-ink pasta. And then, of course, there’s the fact that an increased hourly wage for waiters has to come from somewhere; a fourth grader will tell you that a restaurant adopting a no-tipping policy will have to increase its prices to cover that newly inflated worker’s wage. Joe’s Crab Shack, for example, has hiked its New York menu prices by 15 percent.

I understand, after doing a little reading on the subject, the necessity for this potentially odious strategy. A survey published earlier this year found that 75 percent of Americans tip restaurant waiters less than 20 percent as a rule. So now, those of us who heed proper dining-out etiquette might wind up being penalized because a bunch of scalawags don’t want to pay their servers.

Weren’t poutine and tea-towel napkins punishment enough?
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela