The Tipping Point 

America irrationally cherishes its tradition of gratuity for service. Maybe it's time we got real.

Last month, Thomas Keller made national news when Per Se, his $175-a-person New York restaurant, bumped up the price of a meal to $210. That extra $35? A fixed service charge. Because Per Se is the highest-profile restaurant in New York to switch from voluntary tipping to a service charge, and because New York is the center of the media universe, the press has been agog since.

Heresy, many critics say. America is a tipping culture, and as diners, our only guarantee of good service is the fact that we can wave our Abe Lincolns over our waiters' heads to make sure that they're going to treat us right.

What a load of hooey.

Keller's California restaurant, the French Laundry, has been charging a 19 percent service charge for seven years, and his customers have neglected to launch a media blitz. Chez Panisse instituted a 15 percent service-charge system fourteen years ago and bumped it up to 17 percent just last year. At a recent meeting of the Association of Food Journalists in San Francisco, Keller explained that his restaurants had switched to the service charge to give the waiters a steady income and paid time off. Both he and Alice Waters, who also spoke at the meeting, said they use the fixed-fee format to distribute the wealth more equitably between the front of the house and the back.

One conference participant challenged Keller: What if someone has a really awful experience? The restaurateur replied that the customer could ask for the charge to be dropped, and he'd do it. Keller was blithely skating over the fact that bad service is a rare event at his tightly controlled restaurants, and who wants to be the diner who stomps up to the manager of one of the world's most lauded restaurants to demand part of her $35 back? But the point was made.

I understand how folks can view service charges as a loss of control over their dining experience. But I simply don't believe diners would be affected by a switch to fixed tipping. We live in a service culture. Auto shops, drugstores, opticians, insurance agents, coffee stands -- we expect good service from everyone. If we're not greeted with smiling competence, we're ready to kvetch and take our business elsewhere. Why should we not expect the same standards from our bistros?

In fact, the tipping tradition has spread so far that I feel anticipatory guilt swell every time I encounter a tip jar -- at a cafe, a bakery, a frickin' corner store. I don't think I need to give someone fifty cents for ringing up my scone, but I always chip in anyway, because I've lived the $6-an-hour life. Still, why is it my responsibility to compensate for some small-business owner's unwillingness to pay higher wages?

America has a noble tradition of tipping waiters because it gives restaurateurs a workforce that costs little to expand and contract depending on the flow of business. Servers don't complain, because they're addicted to that fat wad of cash they pocket at the end of each shift, and because they're convinced the government is going to tax it away from them if they have to report the whole amount.

If the service charge is a mechanism by which restaurateurs spread the wealth to the cooks, all the better. When I was a cook at a San Francisco three-star, the waiters I worked with had mortgages and cars, while none of us on the line could even afford a week's vacation. Keller admitted that his sous-chefs earn half the salary of his wait captains, the comparable position in the dining room. By contrast, Gilbert Pilgram, general manager at Chez Panisse, says the two positions at his restaurant earn roughly the same amount.

I doubt that the wage disparity is going to disappear anytime soon, service charge or not, especially now that the Food Network and schlubs like me have elevated cooking to a noble art worth sacrificing your benefits for. But here's why tipping is a joke, anyway. First, it doesn't matter that much to the waiter. Many restaurants already pool tips to encourage the waiters to work together and to pay the busers, bartenders -- sometimes even the cooks -- en masse. Chances are, the 12 percent tip you stewed over will barely ruffle the offending waiter's feathers. It's a law of averages thing. If you really want to make a statement, do it to the manager.

Tipping is largely about us, not the service. Michael Lynn of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, who has conducted a number of studies on tipping behavior, found only a weak correlation between quality of service and the amount people tip. Other factors -- whether the waiter touches the customer, or introduces herself to the table by name -- have far more impact on the size of the gratuity. So does peer pressure; nobody wants to look cheap in front of friends. Face it: Even if we want to maintain the illusion of power over the waiter, few of us want to be the asshole who wields it.

In the end, good service is the responsibility of the management. I'm not saying America needs to adopt a service charge at every diner or sandwich shop. But at bistros where you expect to pay $40 for your food and between $6 and $10 for the attentions of a few solicitous folks, what does it matter whether you spend two minutes adding 18 percent to your bill or let the restaurant's computer do it for you?

After all, you're always free to leave a little something extra.

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