In his bestseller The Tipping Point, Malcomb Gladwell estimates that a person needs to repeat an act 10,000 times to become really proficient at it. I estimate that I reached my 10,000th tip at the Village Inn last week, and if Gladwell knows anything, that makes me something of an expert. A reluctant expert, but still an expert.
The lunch bill for two was just under $17.00 with tax. The service was okay, and while the server introduced himself at the beginning, there’s no way I’ll actually remember his name. He was kind of forgettable and did nothing beyond the bare minimum of taking our order and delivering the food to our booth about twenty minutes later. I left a $3.00 tip (which I later realized was exactly 17.65%), not because it was about 18%, but because to leave less than $3.00 always seems really cheap. Three dollars is my minimum, the base from which all tips arise. It’s intended to say “you didn’t do anything special, but a sense of responsibility, guilt, or embarrassment keeps me from stiffing you completely.”
Now, I have no idea what getting that minimum $3.00 from each customer would net the server per hour. I have a feeling it’s not great, but what if the tips don’t actually go to the server? Are they shared by all the staff? Does he just get a percentage of my 18-20%? Does his percentage reflect the fact that his actions are the main determiner of the tip? And what does he get paid as a base hourly wage? Not enough to live on, I’m sure. All of these questions have factual answers, but restaurants don’t post that information, and I’ve always had the feeling they prefer that we customers operate in the dark.
All of which makes it clear that I am not really an expert on tipping, but the fact remains… our American system of tipping is just wrong— in so many ways. And we all have a very real stake in the system.
Just for starters, why should anyone’s ability to support herself depend on my questionable math skills? Truthfully, I don’t even want the responsibility of worrying about this person supporting herself or her family on what I decide is a fair price for bringing my meal. I know some people seem to enjoy whatever power comes with deciding if the server’s actions were up to snuff and how much she deserves for pleasing the customer. But people like that annoy me. I always equate that with fat old men who refer to all waitresses as “honey” or “sweety” and have this need for power over others– deserved or not. Why should they get to decide anything? And why should I have to worry about it?
Truth be told, I usually feel pretty good about the common practice of adding an 18% gratuity to the check with groups of eight or more. It removes the responsibility from me, and I’ve figured out that it usually saves me money. A couple of months ago, my wife and I went to an out of town restaurant with a group we meet once a month. The group can consist of anywhere from five to a dozen couples, so we’re used to the idea of regularly having a gratuity added to the bill for each couple. This restaurant’s menu stated that an 18% gratuity would be added for groups of our size. Sounded good to me– no need to do the math. When the bill came, meals and drinks for two were about $33.00. I didn’t question it. I just laid out a twenty, a ten, and a five on top of the bill. A couple of extra dollars was not a big deal; the service had been great, and an extra couple of dollars added to the regular gratuity seemed like a good idea. Only after leaving the table did I hear one of our group mention that no gratuity had been added to the bills! I left a two dollar tip for a $33.00 meal? Panic time! I made a quick trip back to the table to correct the problem, but only by chance had I caught my mistake. Simple math, addition of meals and drinks and taxes, then figuring percentages and putting it all together– obviously not my forte.
And another thing, would somebody please explain how it’s right that someone else’s wage is based on a percentage of what I spend for a meal? Any way you look at it, it makes no sense. It’s unfair to servers in less expensive restaurants, and unfairly rewards servers in higher priced restaurants. A tip of three dollars is 22 % of a $13.05 bill. Fifteen percent would only be about $2.00. If I had gone to an expensive restaurant and spent 75.00, would the server really be worth the extra $15.00 gratuity? Was his job more difficult? Is the server at the more moderately priced Village Inn less of a person? Is it a shorter walk from kitchen to table? Now I begin to understand why some of those high toned waiters walk around with their noses in the air.
And finally, how difficult could it be for restaurants to adjust their pricing to provide a living wage for servers? No one else we value lives on tips. In fact, we are not allowed to tip teachers, nurses, police officers, receptionists, grocery store clerks, or Walmart greeters. None of these people are getting rich, but they are being paid whatever the market establishes as a fair wage for what they do. Why can’t servers be paid a fixed, fair, living wage by their employers? The price of eating out would go up, of course, but certainly not by more than the 15-20% that would cover the salary of a professional server.
That 10,000th tip of mine was for a $17.00 meal that actually cost me $20.00. Nobody was fooled into thinking it was really a $17.00 meal. Seventeen plus three equals twenty dollars. Easy. Even easier if the restaurant had just priced the meals at $20.00 in the first place. If fairness to the server required the owner to increase the meal’s price by $5.00, I’d be okay with that. And it might even save me some embarrassment if I’ve been seriously under-tipping all these years.