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RSVPhillippi |NOVEMber 2015


By Dennis Phillippi

Let’s be honest– the tipping system in bars and restaurants does not work. According to Federal law, restaurants are allowed to pay servers as little as $2.13 an hour, a punitive amount, supposedly offset by gratuities. A lot of states mandate more base pay, but none of them require waiters and bartenders to be paid an actual living wage. In theory, giving good service should garner a server enough additional income in the form of tips to be able to pay their electric bill. The problem with this is that research keeps showing that the level of service has little to do with the amount a customer tips. That amount can be determined by arbitrary things like how the customer’s day at work went, whether or not they like the server’s haircut, how their shoes are fitting, or any other number of arbitrary factors.    

In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for tips exactly once. I worked the cash box at a beer stand at a crawfish boil. All I had to do all day was make change for people and watch as at least half of them would unthinkingly drop a buck or two into the tip jar, which I had early on seeded with two of my own dollars. At first, it was really cool to watch that jar fill up with singles and even the occasional five. In this particular instance, I was doing next to nothing to earn those tips. Eventually though, it began to bug me that everyone wasn’t dropping me an extra dollar. Who did these non-tippers think they were, not giving me money for breaking their twenty? Part of me started to really resent those cheapskates.    

Anyone who has ever read this column knows that I am a big believer in watching sports in bars. I don’t join clubs, I don’t play in pool leagues, I don’t have a fantasy WNBA team. In short, watching the game at the bar is my social life. I have good friends I hang out with, and, over the years, I have become friends with a lot of bartenders and servers. Seriously, genuine, real friends. These are people I have gone on road trips with, helped move, and had to my house for dinner. Still. At the end of my evening, I find myself having to calculate what is an appropriate amount to tip the guy who has been pouring me drinks, but whom I also bought a birthday present. That can present some uncomfortable moments, especially if he’s been a chump all night. I’ll admit that part of me would enjoy these people not seeing me, at least in part, as a dollar sign on a barstool.    

The system seems screwy, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Danny Meyer, founder of the Shake Shack chain and current owner of 13 restaurants, recently announced that he intends to phase out tipping in his places altogether. He explained in an interview that not only is the amount a server is tipped largely unrelated to the quality of their service, the practice is also, in his opinion, grossly unfair to the kitchen staff. The bartenders and servers are often expected to pool their tips and share them with barbacks, who typically don’t get tipped, in an effort to foster teamwork. This practice makes sense, but there isn’t any requirement to share the tips with the kitchen staff, who make more hourly, but don’t benefit from the tipping system. That’s this big shot restaurant owner’s words, not mine, and, frankly, it kind of goes over my head. The point is: he believes that every thing about the tipping system is at best ineffective and, at worst, a form of classism.    

My wife and I have been fortunate enough to travel to places where tipping is not standard and the service in these places doesn’t seem to have been dramatically affected by their system. Mind you, we’re also blowhard Americans and tend to tip anyway because, you know, we’re like that. The extra Euro or few of whatever the local currency is isn’t a big concern to us because we’re on vacation, and the bartender or waiter always seems to get a big kick out of it. But, and this is a big but, if we lived there, we’d almost certainly quickly adapt to not tipping. We’re generous on vacation, but we could get used to not having to be.    

Now, here’s the rub with Meyer’s non-tipping restaurant plan: in order to be able to do it, he’s going to have to raise the prices at his fancy restaurants. That begs the question: would you be willing to pay more for that truffle-infused veal shank with a pear salsa reduction knowing that it will make it possible for your waitress to not be at the mercy of tightwads and bullies? Yeah, probably not.    

Obviously this is not an easy issue, but you know what is? Tip jars at places where the employees are paid a much higher hourly wage. I am a conscientious tipper and even over-tipper where bartenders and servers are concerned because I’ve seen my friends get paychecks for six dollars. But if you work at a place that, let’s say, serves coffee, and I know for a fact that the people behind that counter are being paid above minimum wage, that tip jar becomes a little bit of an issue for me. Just because you are technically serving, don’t put a jar out there that leaves the impression you’re in the same boat as the poor guy in a nametag at a chain restaurant that depends on the generosity of customers that understand the pay scale involved. That tip jar is just greedy.    

I know people in the bar and restaurant business with strong opinions on both sides of this tipping thing. Some would rather just be paid an amount that makes tipping unnecessary. Some are really good at raking in tips and would like for me to shut up. The important thing is, until this system changes, tip better. Chump.