No Tipping?

The latest trend in upscale dining is to do away with tipping. Instead, fine dining establishments say they will pay staff a respectable wage. Of course, they’ll also jack prices up by twenty percent or more to cover the cost of higher wages.

Many moons ago, I waited tables. For more than a decade, I pasted a smile on my face and did my best to please often surly customers. Although I did my time in a dive or two, most of the restaurants where I worked were high end. For much of that time, the money I made waiting tables was my only source of income. I was paid $2.01 an hour (eventually it went up to $2.10) without any benefits at all.

Hours were erratic and unpredictable. Overstaffing was common. If we were busy, too many servers meant sections were too small to make any money. On slow nights, I might get sent home early. A late rush was a rare opportunity to make some money.

Early in my waiting career, reporting tip income to the Internal Revenue Service was my responsibility. Later, the restaurant reported (and withheld taxes) for tips paid on credit cards. One place reported 15% of my total sales as income, whether I was tipped that much or not. On paydays, rather than receiving a nice check, I usually had to pay my employer for the taxes they withheld.

Despite the challenges, waiting tables offered the potential to earn more than I could make at any of the minimum wage jobs for which I was qualified. Seniority helped. Folks who’d been around the longest tended to get the best schedules and the best sections.

By and large, working for tips was fair. Sure, some customers were poor tippers, but on average, good waiters made more money than those who weren’t so good at the job. Turning over tables without the customers feeling rushed was the way to have a big money night.

Paying wait staff higher wages is a great idea. Eliminating tips is a bad way to go about it. Tom Colichio of Top Chef fame says, rather than stiffing the waiter, customers should punish the restaurant by not coming back. He’s right, but misses a major point. Management is responsible for the quality of the food and the overall atmosphere. If it sucks, don’t come back.

Good servers make more money because they provide a quality experience. Those who don’t tend to find other occupations. Paying everyone the same salary reduces the incentive to provide good service, and rewards the slackers and poor servers who, in the past, move on pretty quick because they don’t make any money.

I’m also leery of management passing on the increased revenue from raising prices to the wait staff. Pardon my skepticism, but I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants. Magnanimous is not a term I’d use to describe any of the owners and managers I worked for during my twelve years in the business.

Eliminating tips might be beneficial to servers who work in very high end places. But the vast majority of servers work in various and sundry restaurant chains. Getting rid of tips in those establishments is just another way to boost profits and screw the hired help.