Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quibbling about the Tip...

Today’s question is about tipping. I had so much to say about this, that I embedded not only the answer but the entire question deep within a historio-philsophical treatise…

If you’ve ever eaten out in a large group, at some point, you’ve probably had some problem figuring out each person’s share of the bill and tip. One person is so often stuck, addled and hunched over their cell-phone calculator, while others helpfully shout out, “I only had an appetizer and 2 Sierra Nevadas, and I put in $12!” If you are successful in accounting for everyone’s share of the food and tax, there is still the issue of the tip. Standard protocol is pretty clear across the county: you should tip between 10% and 20% of the bill, depending on your geography, but the intensity with which people have developed their own personal rating system reflects two things: personal expectations around service, and an understanding of the point of the tipping system at all.

While the lone martyr with the bill is adding numbers and doing some long division (or, if there are non-drinkers staring balefully at the bottles of empty wine on the table, perhaps some robust logarithms to excempt teetotalers from tipping for alcohol), someone else is generally offering amateur analysis on food quality and service to determine how much to tip. You know you’ve heard it: “Well, I didn’t like how she left my napkin on the table.” “I hate when they ask me if I’m still working on my plate – I’m not at work, goddammit!”. If this is allowed to meander for awhile, somebody who wants to appear above such niceties but not contribute to the math will inevitably offer conversational gambits about tipping. “Say, did you know that tips used to be given before the meal?”

The most commonly reference origin of tipping is that in the 19th century, café or saloon owners set out boxes labeled “To Insure Proper Service,” and customers would place money in that box before service was rendered, in order to effect the outcome of their transaction. But, the idea of tipping actually stretches farther back in history, with some reports of tipping-like practices appearing in the Middle Ages, with noted practices such as lords traveling through a particular area tossing beggars coins in order to guarantee safe, hassle-free passage. Whether or not this is classified as ‘tipping’ or ‘bribery’ is up for debate, ,but there is evidence from this time period that feudal lords would give their servants extra money during times of illness or duress.

The first commercially-tied evidence of tipping appears in 16th century England, with brass urns labeled “To Insure Promptitude” were set out in cafes. Cafes of this period were not breezy coffeehouses or sandwich shops near the courthouse, but salons functioning almost as classroom space for gathering intellectuals. As Renaissance brainiacs would philosophize for hours, it became customary to drop coins in these urns to receive continued (ergo, prompt) service. Through the next few centuries, tipping then spread throughout Europe, becoming common in hotels and restaurants, but didn’t catch on in the United States until after the Civil War, mostly because the United States had less of a servant class than did Europe.

Tipping history in the United States dovetails with labor and economic history. By some estimates, 10% of the workforce in the US in 1910 had a tip-receiving occupation, but because tipping was a relatively new phenomenon, social norms around tipping had yet to be engrained. Some servants (notably bellboys) developed signs and signals amongst themselves to identify some customers as bad tippers/no tippers (bellboys would mark suitcases of non-tippers with slight chalk marks, and perhaps drop those suitcases “by accident”). However, as tipping gain popularity, restaurant and hotel owners began to seek ways in to increase their own profit, naturally leading them to seek a portion of the tips collected by their workers.

It is not difficult to see, then, how service-business owners may have a tense relationship to tipping. If a customer knows that she is going to have to tip on top of the bill amount, she may be inclined to spend less (thereby encouraging incentive on the restaurant owner to take some of those tips to “make up” for the depressed income). Or, the restaurant owners may instead lower the worker’s wage, resting on the fact that the worker is also getting tipped as justification for the lower wage. This conflict was seen particularly acutely in the late nineteenth century with railroad porters. New York Railroad encouraged its customers not to tip, and made their workers wear special uniforms without pockets, but the Pullman company took advantage of the propensity to tip, and simply lowered the porter’s wages.

As tipping became more of an engrained norm, restaurant and hotel owners began to see that encouraging tipping could bring in more revenue than raising menu or service prices, because tipping is seen as “optional.” Labor groups at times agitated to abolish tipping, claiming tipping to be a smokescreen by the owning class to keep wages low. Even currently, there is some movement to create a stabilized tip-income flow by instituting 20% service fees on all checks; this is preferable to simply raising menu prices and thus raising wages, because this service fee works out to a lower amount than wages (after all of the taxes and additional costs of wages). This philosophy is reflected in the San Francisco restaurant practice of adding a percentage surcharge on meals to cover employee health insurance. However, this practice seems disingenuous to some diners.
Urbane Libertine spends much of that hazy weekend wait-time in front of Boogaloo’s reading the small, almost-tattered scotch-taped explanation of the meal surcharge (“Rather than raise our menu prices…”) wondering why they don’t just raise menu prices, until we open up the menu and exclaim, “Holy shit! I always forget how cheap breakfast is; I love this place!”

But is a plate or meal surcharge in the same genus as a tip? It’s not optional to pay the surcharge, but technically, one could walk out without paying the tip. However, tipping is so ingrained as a cost of the meal, that one could argue that there would be little difference from stiffing the tip to simply only paying half the bill. For that matter, many of us would be more apt to rip a friend a new one over not tipping than if a friend was, say, shoplifting. We look the other way when people employ nannies and gardeners off the books, but someone who doesn’t tip is a social felon.

So this brings us back to the unique existence of the tip. If we’re no longer tipping beforehand to let the server know that we want good service and we’re willing to pay extra for it (except, I guess, at a café when we drop the change in the bucket before they’ve turned their back to pull our espresso), is tipping just symbolic? If we agree that restaurant workers and other service professionals (cab drivers, hairdressers, the guy who helps you find a parking spot by the Opera House) receive tips because their wages are lower than those in non-service positions, then why do people quibble over whether their server should get 15% versus 20%? If we’re making up for lower wages across the board, why leave 10% if your spareribs came out cold? The essential question, when we really think about tipping is: what does tipping buy us? Does it buy a customer better service? Or does it buy one aversion to being socially outcast by failing to do one’s social duty? Or does it buy customer internal satisfaction by increasing low-paid worker’s income?

According to Michael Lynn of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, a study showed that when waitresses wore flowers in their hair they earned 17 percent more than when they didn't. Another study suggested that waitstaff who squatted beside tables to take the order receive a higher tip than waitstaff who merely stand by the tables. (As a related aside, we at Urbane Libertine can kind of understand why anyone would want their waitperson squatting by their table, but sometimes it feels strange. We also don’t really get the waitperson who actually sat down at our table while taking our order, although given that we were in Santa Cruz, that makes a sort of opiated sense.)

Speaking of being opiated, are you still with us, kind reader? Like I said, we think tipping is a big topic with a lot of confusion, so we’re trying to distill broader topics with which we can grapple.

Most empirical research on tipping has focused on restaurants. Some general themes emerge: people who are ‘generous tippers’ will almost always over-tip (20% or more) on a dining tab (many even tip on top of the added gratuity on a large party), and people who under-tip (less than 10%) will continue to do so regardless of service, and frequently apparently in spite of increases to menu or service prices. Returning momentarily to our fictional group haggling over the tip, you can predict that at some point, someone will point out that the restaurant raised their prices and that leaving a lower tip will send some sort of signal to restaurant owners about how shitty this is. We can logically link tips to service 7 ways until Sunday, but when people are displeasured by elements of their restaurant experience – it’s too noisy at Beretta, it’s too windy at Sky Terrace, I stood in line too long at Café Flore and there were not enough menus, my vegetarian entrée tasted like cow, my blueberry crumble was gummy -- the first place it will show up is in the tip, although things could change with the popularity of Yelp! Yelping it out could fast become a replacement for a shitty tip; if we start leaving 20% tip and then fire up the BlackBerrys on our way out to vociferously describe our displeasure, maybe there would be less confusion over the tip in general.

Granted, I don’t personally believe that many San Francisco diners are actually bad tippers. And, granted, most of the confusion about tipping doesn’t come from people going out to eat; even shitty tippers generally know what they’re supposed to tip at a meal out, but get tangled up when say, getting out of a cab or getting a haircut. Well-intentioned customers seem to get tripped up regarding social customs when tipping hairdressers, dog walkers, babysitters, and even bartenders and bellboys.

With all that said, here’s a question from this week’s mailbag:

Dear Ivy,
Let’s say you call in an order for pickup/takeout at a full-service restaurant, and when you get there, your order is not quite ready. The host invites you to have a seat for a moment until it is finished. While you are waiting, they offer you a glass of water, which you happily accept. Question: Are you obligated to tip? And if so, who should you tip?

The issue here is not that they served you water; you don’t need to tip separately for the water or the fact that they had to re-set the table you were sitting at. But you should be tipping for take-away regardless, even if it’s not full-service. Tip what you normally tip and say thank you for the water.

Having said that, I understand that there is some confusion over why people would be tipping on take-out food --- there wasn’t a lot of service. In most restaurants, the servers tip out the busboys, hosts and bar through a percentage of their tips, but in some restaurants, front of the house tips out the back of the house as well. In those cases, the entire restaurant is motivated by the promise of tips to give you great service, so you’re tipping the whole joint. The burden is more on the server to provide good service because, that’s their job (yes, we at Urbane Libertine have been servers) but the whole restaurant is hustling to make sure you like your mixed baby greens. Even if you get your food takeout (“But we didn’t use plates"), the dishwasher is still scrubbing all the prep plates and sautee pans that your food was cooked on, someone had to answer your phone call and run your stupid credit card, and – surprise! – someone actually cooked your food. Some restaurants pool tips so that everyone gets an equal share, some restaurants mandate that servers tip the back of the house a certain percentage and some may just leave it up to the server on the honor system (remember reporting tips to the IRS? Oh, yeah, that honor system), and many don't tip the back of the house at all but pay them a higher wage than the servers.

As to how much: I think that most people would feel that tipping 15% on your takeout bill is okay even if you’d tip 20% were you sitting down to eat in the same restaurant . When all is said and done, people choose their tip from a socially mandated range, depending on how they feel when the bill is handed to them, and poor service or absence of service is a lot more noticeable to one’s mood than someone hustling behind the scenes and having a sparkly personality. In the end, we’re may just kind of fickle and motivated by our own curmudgeonly and nonsensical instances.


Urbane Libertine said...

posted on behalf of Kym Ganeles Bixler
Nice, Ivy! But... um... I'm not so sure about tipping on take-out. Not 15-20%, anyhow! Maybe a few bucks if I've had special requests on an order. I don't tip a cashier at Target for ringing (and bagging!) my goods... I'm paying for goods. That's take-out too. Because Service Industry workers make less money than some others, well, that's their choice. I don't tip my dog's vet to make up for the fact that she makes less money than my OB/GYN... ;)

Urbane Libertine said...

Good point, Kym. The difference between the cashier at Target and her sister the waitress is that employees who receive tips don't have the same minimum wage as non-tipped workers do. Laws require that the difference between the wage and the state minimum wage be made up by the tips collected by the employees, and if they don't, then the employer has to make up the difference. Our tips aren't equalizing one person's pay to another person's pay for similar services, it's equalizing work that can be lawfully underpaid to the minimum wage.

alex cruse said...

I feel entirely too biased to even comment on this subject, because when I worked the day-shift at a cafe, I was expected (like all the other day-shift employees) to: greet and seat the customer, take the order, make the transaction, cook the food (which we had previously prepped ourselves), and then bus the table--and USUALLY would receive a 0-5% tip. So, I'm pretty empathetic and try to lay down the socially-acceptable 15% (and I think you're right in saying that it's partly culturalized, i.e. the tip is more about me not wanting the waitress to think I'm a bitch, and less about me saying "hey, you're really good at carrying a plate twice within a 25-minute period; here, have some money.")

That said, I am in favor of abolishing the tipping practice and making restaurant owners pay their employees more, simply to insure income stability.

(Enjoyed all the back-history of the tradition, by the way.)