Friday, October 1, 2010

Tipping Questions

Tipping. We all do it, because for that one moment at the end of a restaurant meal we get to feel generous and nice--saying "I'm paying you, even though I don't have to." Some restaurants have tried to go the way of Europe, paying waiters more and eliminating tipping, but this meets an outcry here from customers who like to have SOME discretion over rewarding their servers and servers who know that if they're good they can make much more through tips than a higher salary. But this raises a number of issues:

1) Tipping is traditionally based on the cost of the meal rather than the difficulty in bringing it to the table. A plate heaped with a burger and fries is just as hard to carry as a plate of caviar stuffed in a Faberge egg, yet the waiter's tip is going to be much higher on the latter. A $2 soda will fetch a much lower tip than a $10 Manhattan, even though the soda is likely to be sent back for refills. Is this really fair to the waiter with the lower cost items?

2) Tipping as a percentage also doesn't work when you're dealing with smaller amounts. 20% sounds great when a meal is $100, but what if some diner patron only orders coffee and a bagel, and the bill comes to about $5? It makes more sense to give extra (and most patrons will), to justify the trip to the table.

3) Also, the tip as a percentage misses another factor. Picture two tables being served, each ordering $100 worth of food, each leaving the customary $20 tip (I keep the math easy). Table One stays for an hour, Table Two stays two hours (let's say they're old friends who haven't seen each other in years). It's expected that the people at the longer duration table will tip better, and when it's an uncommonly long time (say, three hours or more) they usually will leave extra tip since the waiter can turn over fewer tables in that case. But within normal wait periods, the tip will usually be about the same. It seems the tip should reflect some function of the amount of time the table is occupied. (Of course, if the long wait is due to the waiter or kitchen, there's no reason the tip should be higher)

4) Some guests will undertip, because they think 10% is a good tip and that's the way it was in 1951 so of course that's the way it should be. And some Europeans will pretend they don't know any better, even though they so do know better and are just being cheap. But the random nature of this reward system hardly seems fair. Especially since the reward comes after the services are rendered, so it cannot affect the behavior of the waiter in the current instance.

5) Tipping in groups can really suck when you have undertippers in there. Sure, you can throw in extra, but you have to either pretend you're not good at math ("I think I owe an extra five bucks, even though I put in $20 for my fifteen dollar meal") or you have to all out tell the diner their being a cheapskate.

6) As a reward system, the tipping only covers one aspect of the dining experience. Reducing a tip in no way punishes the chef for serving a lousy meal, or the host(ess) for seating you next to the bathroom, or the manager for not throwing out that family with screaming kids.

So is there a better solution? Probably not, or some innovation would have been invented by now. In the meantime, if you can't afford a decent tip, stay in and save your money (those restaurant menu prices don't reflect sales tax and the extra fifth of its cost for tip), and try to consider the effort the server is going through beyond the price of the meal.

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