Friday, June 24, 2011

Gratuitous foodity

Tipping. Probably a bad thing to have a nuanced opinion about.

(Full disclosure: I have never worked for tips. I have slung fast food, and worked other jobs at which I’ve been occasionally tipped. This puts me in “you’ll never understand” territory. I realize that. That’s where I live. Just hear me out.)

I see tipping as a meaningful gesture and a referendum on service. I tip at least 20 percent by default — 15 percent if you suck, up to 40 if you’re awesome and/or a friend. (Or, given my shoddy math skills, up to 120 percent.) I get as much gratification giving out a well-deserved tip as the person (or people) does in receiving it.

What I don’t think a tip should be is a guilt tax. Most servers insist it’s a customer’s duty to tip, because that’s what makes up most of their salary. Which is true, because most U.S. restaurants get away with paying obscenely low training wages. Therein lies the rub — that sucks. Few other industries get away with charging markup on their products and then expecting extra, unspoken costs on top of that. But the way the system works, it leaves us with no choice if we want our servers to get paid. Which leads to a weird irony — it’s us, not the restaurant industry, toward whom servers are most standoffish.

We’re told that servers’ survival hangs on our tips. And that many servers are already jaded from past incidents of chintz, so their smiles conceal veiled loathing from the outset. And if we don’t tip well, we risk being blacklisted and quite possibly having spit dressing accenting our next meal.

As much I understand their plight, such attitudes are exhausting. As is the oft-repeated notion that serving is a demanding job. I know it is, but so is every job I’ve ever had. And I’ve never had the opportunity to have a “good” night.

All of this makes me wonder if a good tip mitigates a customer’s abrasive attitude, and vice versa. Mostly I’m worried about the vice versa part. I don’t like value judgments based on money, and this is no exception.

As is the case with most other issues, tipping appeals to me in the positive sense — I like making a gesture of good will above and beyond my obligation. What I hate is feeling pressured to do so even if the service is awful, or being hit with rude and/or snobbish rhetoric that pinpoints us as the reason servers struggle. Seriously, what did we do? I try, just like I know you do.

Tipping is right up there with health care in things the U.S. does exactly wrong: In most other countries, servers are paid a living wage and tips are unheard of, or otherwise are given as genuine gratuities. Here, we’re compelled to tip because it’s the server’s salary and they lack benefits, and they often get taxed on tips regardless of whether they actually receive them.

If restaurants paid servers a living wage, and still allowed them to collect tips, then I think this problem would right itself.

A common rebuttal to raising wages is that it will drive up the price of food. Well, that’s debatable, given that 1) many countries that don’t do tips have comparable prices; 2) prices tend to rise regardless; and 3) food often has a generous markup. But even if it would raise meal prices, we already pay more, arbitrarily. And I would have no problem paying a slightly higher defined price on the menu if it meant my server could afford to live (which I imagine would reduce a lot of their job stress).

The tip I left would still be generous and be as meaningful as I intended it to be. And shouldn’t that be the point?

1 comment:

Kelli said...

Current Louisiana wage is $7.25/hourly, which has steadily increased in the years since I remember working for $4.25/hourly. I chose to work in the service industry because it is morally gratifying, certainly not financially. Waitress's wage has been $2.13/hourly for as long as I can remember it, regardless of minimum wage increases. It sucks and it should be standardized, but the next time anyone thinks about tipping their server less on basis of service should consider that their convenience store clerk made on average $5/hourly more for simply grunting a response at you and pushing a button to total your sale.

Since the invention of mandatory minimum wage, waitress's wage has NEVER increased. Chew on that, folks, while you chew your food.