When I first decided to write a blog about the restaurant business, I silently promised myself that it would not turn into the rants of the Vindictive Waiter. Lord knows there’s enough of those out there already; blogs and waiters. So I have until now, avoided the subject of tipping like a dog turd when I’m barefoot. But sometimes that turd comes floating to the top of the punchbowl and you just have to acknowledge it. A guest last night gave me an earful about how the “tip” is supposed to be voluntary. “To Insure Promptness” he nearly hissed at me through his green, British teeth, “it should’t be mandatory”.
At our restaurant we include a service charge. It’s 18%. Some people obviously have a problem with this (we will always happily remove it if asked), some don’t; and those with the problem are not always just the cheapos. One theory is that throughout their whole experience in a restaurant people have no control: we tell them where to sit, what to eat (our menu), what to drink (our winelist and wine pairings), when they’ve had enough (our portions), and when to leave (your check, sir…). We tell them how much to pay (our prices); so then, it comes time for the one decision they normally get to make on their own, the tip, and there it is, already on the bill! Sonofabitch! Mr. Greenteeth last night vocifierously objected, so we took the 18% off. He left 12%.
We don’t add the service charge to fleece people. Indeed, if you eat at our place, order four courses, dessert and our wine pairings you are going to get far more than the 18% worth of service. Our Captains are pros with years of experience in the finest places. Name a five-star restaurant here or New York or anywhere and we probably have someone on staff that used to work there. We have Master Sommeliers pouring your wine with each course that have been doing wine and food pairing at this very high level for years. I’m not trying to brag here, but my peeps be good. I only mention the breadth of our staff’s experience of to emphasize that we deliver the goods on the 18% and then some. But because we automatically add that nasty service charge, people who would normally “tip” 20 to 25% or more, often don’t go a penny above the 18. Because we told them to.
Some people (many of them my waiters) would say that we are shooting ourselves in the financial foot with this service charge thing. One of the reasons we add it is that, as management, we can legally dictate the distribution of a service charge, but not a gratuity. We use some of the service charge to pay management salaries (people who have the ability to hire and fire cannot legally be part of a “tip pool”). But unlike the famous French “Fluff and Fold” operation to the north, we don’t keep and distribute ALL of the service charges in the form of hourly wages. Managers get a decent salary plus service charge “points”. We also give 5% of the total service charges we collect in a day to the kitchen. Divided between line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers and sous-chefs, it doesn’t amount to much more than beer and cigarette money on a weekly basis, but you should see their little faces light up when they get it. Makes them feel more a part of, not apart from. And with a service charge-based pooling system, management can giveth or taketh away when staff go above and beyond or below and around, the call of duty. This is a beautiful thing. So, you see, we have our reasons. Plus it protects us from Canadians or Euros who use the “Well, the tip is included at home, so I didn’t know..” reason to be cheap and leave 10%. It also protects us from people like Mr. British Green Teeth Big Spender All The Way Through Dinner Until It Is Time To Tip Guy.
Adding the service charge also does away with the potential negative impact of the Verbal Gratutity. With the way of the World lately, our business has seen a sharp rise in Verbal Gratuities. Compliments are all well and good and I will never fault anyone for having manners and thanking us for a job well done, but it turns into a double slap in the face when combined with the 10% tip. It’s like getting dirty talk instead of a blow job; not an equitable substitute at all. Unfortunately, you can’t spend good will. Try this: when your rent is due at the first of the month, give your landlord 75% of the rent in cash and then tell them how much you really enjoyed living in their house or apartment for the last month; how beautiful the garden is, or how nice a kitchen you have. See how that shit flies…
Much of the backlash about tipping these days though comes as a result of the “expected gratuity”. Bill Murray in Caddyshack espoused the “How about a little something for the effort?” position. But, many who work in jobs where tips are part of the equation have grown to expect a certain amount just for doing the job and, as a result, service quality in general has diminished. My wife and I grabbed a cab in The City a few weeks back and, like the good tourists we were, started chatting up the driver (surprisingly he was a Caucasian American, spoke English). He had the radio on, so I asked him how the Giants did that day. “I don’t follow sports” was his reply. “I’ve never even been to a baseball game”, he says. So, as he was taking us from one restaurant to another, we asked him what some of his favorite places to eat were. “I don’t have a favorite restaurant” he grumbles. Okay. Now, a cab driver’s job is to drive. He already makes a percentage of whatever fares he books. So why are we tipping Surly Guy? If a cabbie jumps out of the car to help with a suitcase on an airport trip, opens the door for the ladies, or happily turns up the Air if you ask, I can see it. But this guy was just plain unpleasant, and was miffed when I gave him less than what he felt he should get. I hadn’t the time or inclination to tell him why. Right back atcha, Rude Boy. The “expected gratuity” has become ingrained. The tip jar at Starbucks, for example, where I’m supposed to leave money because they were nice and made me a latte. And?
I am by no means advocating a revolt or boycott on tipping. I am not nuts; I make my living on them. But I am advoctaing getting a little bang for your buck. If the service sucks, don’t just stiff the waiter and leave, tell someone. If you don’t complain to the right people you give them and anyone else your permission to do the same thing again.