Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tipping point

Wow, there sure has been a lot of back and forth online recently about customary tipping (gratuities) in America for the service provided by waitstaff at restaurants.  A lot of it is playing out on Reddit.  There was this pastor who protested an 18% automatic tip on a split bill for a large party, citing God has her reason for protest.  That event lead to so much buzz that there's no point trying to cover any more it. 

Another Reddit posting appeared more recently of another posted receipt.  This receipt actually shows a reduction of the automatic tip from the final bill.  An interesting backlash has come out of this second posting.  Several problems arise.  First, the assumption is the automatic tips are some how compulsory.  Second, 20% automatic tip is just nuts.  I've seen 18%, and I still have to wonder why so high.  Third, how can a tip ever be considered compulsory!

I suggest reading the comments of the Reddit links.  There are a lot of good statements (some of them even sourced).  Legally speaking, tips are not compulsory.  By definition (IRS and at the state level), they must be voluntarily offered by the customer in order to qualify as a tip.  Sure, a restaurant can charge a service fee, but a service fee is not a tip, and not taxed the same. 

Overtipping is creating a monster

There's a general issue at the heart of all this: overtipping.  There has been way too much overtipping since the late 1990's.  People feel good about themselves when they overtip.  This is pure arrogance and selfaffirmation.  I know, I used to be one of those overtippers.  Why did I stop overtipping?  Sure, it helps the one individual, but it hurts the overall system.  The more overtipping occurs, the more waitstaff come to expect the higher tip rate, regardless to the level of service. Bad servers are rewarded for being bad.  The value of good servers is diminished over time.  Plus, waitstaff often don't connect the dots well enough to understand why they are getting a good tip and why they are not.  I was taught this lesson a very long time ago by a friend of mine who was a former waitress.  It took me a very long time to accept it. 

Another reason I stopped overtipping is because 15% is now considered a standard tip.  Really?  I remember when 10% was considered a great tip!  And now, some in the restaurant industry are claiming a minimum tip is 25%!?  Really?!   Waitstaff aren't the only group of people that aren't making a lot of money.  Overtipping is making it harder for average Americans to go out and enjoy dinner.   That actually hurts our overall economy.  Less people will dine out, consume less when they do dine out, or dine out a places without a waitstaff.  This means less overall money finding its way into the full service restaurant industry. 

No more overtipping

Can I afford to overtip?  Yes.  But I've stopped doing it after realizing the harm it is causing to the overall system.  Since 15% is now the normal and legally recognized tip, I consider that to be the minimum for normal/good service.  I will often push the tip up for great service.  However, that rarely exceeds 18%, and is usually 16-17%. 

And, just as important.  Do not tip on the whole bill.  Tipping is on the subtotal.  Sales tax is what we pay to the local government.  You really want to tax your sales tax?  People who pay their tip on the sales tax portion of the bill may think they are being good people, but this is just another form of overtipping.

How to handle bad service

If service was so-so, I normally just ignore it and move on.  What I have learned, that if service is particularly bad, do not take it out of the tip (or at least, don't wait to take it out of the tip).  Depending on the degree of the problem, talk to the restaurant staff about the issues you are experiencing.  For extremely minor issues, I will say, just get over it.  For simple matters that need to be addressed, talk to the waitstaff.  They should be able to take care of the matter.  I've found that waitstaff will often forward bigger issues to the Manager without you asking.  If the waitstaff isn't helpful or the problems are bigger, then ask for the Manager.  Again, depending on the degree of the service problem, you may wish to wait until after the meal.  Some waitstaffers will resent you for complaining.  If it is a problem that must be addressed before the end of the meal, then if at all possible, wait until the food arrives.


Having travelled much of America now, I've found that some areas are just better than others when it comes to the quality of service.  Set your expectations accordingly.  Of course, it is still not OK to receive rude service.  However, I've found that coastal regions of California tend to have better service on the average than other areas, such as Massachusetts.  Many times, trying to get your waitstaffer's attention can be a bit of a chore at many places in Massachusetts.  Training seems to be biggest cause for issues in Massachusetts, since normally the waitstaffers are willing to serve, they just aren't always as aware on how to be attentive.

Don't punish waitstaff for kitchen and systematic problems

Now, the flipside of this is that there are many areas of the restaurant that are not under the control of the waitstaff. Judge a tip based on the service itself. For example, if a steak comes cooked incorrectly, it's a 50% chance that the waitstaffer got the order wrong. However, it is 50% chance that the kitchen got it wrong too. Give the waitstaffer the benefit of the doubt.

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