Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cracking the Tough Nut of Restaurant Tipping

Posted By on Tue, Mar 6, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Mr. Pink: I don't tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip. When somebody really puts forth an effort, they deserve a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, that shit's for the birds...

Mr. Blue: You don't have any idea what you're talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job.

Mr. Pink: So's working at McDonald's, but you don't feel the need to tip them. They're servin' ya food, you should tip 'em. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. That's bullshit.

Mr. Orange: They work harder than the kids at McDonald's.

Mr. Pink: Oh yeah? I don't see them cleaning fryers.

The dialogue, of course, is from Quentin Tarantino's classic Reservoir Dogs, which, at least in regard to the infamous "ear" scene, is decidedly not something you want to watch whilst eating. It does, however, illustrate a point: Why is the professional food service industry seemingly the only industry that not only expects tipping, but damn near demands it (see the "17 percent gratuity added to parties of ___ or more," on the bottom of one of your recent food receipts)?

Where did this curious convention get its start? Why don't restaurants just pay their servers more in the first place, eliminating the need for tipping unless a server goes completely above and beyond the call of duty?

Of course, many argue that today's tipping system was put into place expressly to motivate said server to go the extra mile. By placing the burden on the waitperson to actually earn part of his or her hourly wage, service quality is, in theory, increased across the board. But, for the sake of argument, couldn't the quality of service also be controlled by, say, firing servers who receive repeated complaints? I realize there's a shortage of quality waitstaff these days (or so I'm told), but if tips are damn near mandated as they are now (at a 20 percent clip, no less), where's that almighty motivation? (Interestingly, in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, on top of tips, by law servers must earn at least minimum wage. It is imagined that line cooks and dishwashers in these states are particularly cranky on busy nights).

According to StraightDope.com, the origin of tipping (the word itself, at least) has two probable etymologies: the Latin "stips," meaning gift; and the Middle English word for "to give." Tipping spread from Mother England to the colonies (at least after a class system began to reassert itself), and lo and behold, some 230-plus years later, your $50 steak dinner is $10 more expensive. The restaurateur's side of this? If one didn't tip, the waitstaff would expect to be paid more, the price of your food would increase, yada yada yada, and you're out your $10 anyway.

But might that model be more intrinsically honest? When I go buy a car, I don't drop the salesperson an extra 2K on my $10,000 ride. When I have someone recommend a bottle of wine, I don't drop a dime on the sommelier. No, most of us grease palm when we've been satisfied, when we've been taken care of.

All this said, I must admit to dropping a solid 20 percent after almost every meal I eat, whether it's $10 Chinese take-out (yes, take-out) or a $60 splurge. Bartenders, too, get the same treatment. (With the former, it's because I often feel guilty, and tend to visit my favorite haunts rather frequently. With the latter, it's more a matter of self-preservation. If I had to figure out 17 percent on a $32.65 bar tab, I'd be there until the next night's last call.)

What about you, readers? Are there any occasions you don't tip (outside of exceedingly bad service)? How do you maneuver the take-out minefield? Do you ever drop ducats into your barista's tip jar, or gladhand the helpful wine salesperson, or is your repeated business thanks enough? Should those producing the food — the kitchen — get a cut of the action too? Hit us up in the comments.

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