Should Gratuities and Tips in Restaurants Be Discontinued?

ining out in a restaurant in the United States can be a pleasant experience — until the time comes when the waitperson arrives with the bill, which includes a blank space for a gratuity. How much of a gratuity do you leave? Customers typically leave a tip of an amount anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of the total bill.

Unfortunately, tipping is not solely an American phenomenon, as some may erroneously believe — although the procedures and policies of tipping do vary from country to country. In some countries, an obligatory service charge of ten percent may be levied on a restaurant bill, for example; while in other countries, tipping may not be customary at all and may even be considered an insult in some cases.

Should gratuities and tips in restaurants be eliminated altogether? Read on…

Controversy

The practice of tipping in restaurants has been quite a contentious issue over the years — so much so that at least five discussions in the DiningBuzz forum alone on FlyerTalk pertaining to the topic of tipping staff in restaurants have been locked. This includes a discussion launched on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 by FlyerTalk member show_me_the_points, who asked I hate tipping, how can we end it?

In this article titled I Will Tip When I Darn Well Feel Like It — which I first posted on April 26, 2013 — I wrote the following:

Discussion of the practice of tipping is one of the more controversial topics which has been debated for years on FlyerTalk. A search using the word tipping in the titles only of discussions posted on FlyerTalk amount to 374 results; while the words tip and tips yielded 492 results and 466 results respectively — but to be fair, the results include the meaning of the word tip as advice rather than gratuity.

By the way, the word gratuity revealed a paltry 18 results.

Definition

Before we continue — as with the aforementioned article, which pertained primarily to tipping staff at hotel properties — let us once again look up the definitions of the word gratuity, which seem to support how I feel about tipping:

  • Something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary
  • A sum of money given to someone who provides service or a favor as a way to show graciousness or thankfulness, according to yourdictionary.com
  • A gift of money, over and above payment due for service, as to a waiter or bellhop, according to dictionary.com
  • A favor or gift, usually in the form of money, given in return for service, according to education.yahoo.com
  • A gift or reward, usually of money, for services rendered; or something given without claim or obligation, according to Collins English Dictionary

 

Oxford Dictionaries claims that the origin of the word gratuity is a “late 15th century (denoting graciousness or favour): from Old French gratuité or medieval Latin gratuitas ‘gift’, from Latin gratus ‘pleasing, thankful’.”

Voluntary. Gift. Reward. Hmm…none of those words imply obligatory or required. Assuming that none of the above definitions are considered obsolete, I would like to know since when did a gratuity become expected — and even obligatory in some cases? Am I missing something here?!?

Restaurants Which Have Eliminated the Practice of Tipping

Apparently one restaurant in the United States is attempting to change the tipping culture in the United States, according to this article written by Jason Kessler of Fly&Dine:

Bar Marco recently announced that starting in April, they won’t be accepting any gratuities. Instead, their employees will all get a salary of $35,000 that comes with full health benefits and 500 shares in the restaurant to become part owners. The shares are originally worth $1 each when they vest (after three months) and the value increases from there. In contrast, most restaurant servers in Pennsylvania get minimum wage ($2.83 for tipped workers) plus their tips. Welcome to the new age?

Welcome to the new age, indeed. Jason Kessler continues on, saying that he loves this move and hopes that “it catches on with restaurants all over America.”

The trend had already started: Sushi Yusada is a Japanese restaurant in New York where gratuities have not been accepted now for approximately a year; and a similar policy had been implemented by a restaurant in Austin called Black Star Co-op, according to this article written by Ryan Sutton of The Price Hike, which purports to “help consumers better allocate their hard earned disposable income by promoting price transparency.”

Consequences of the Elimination of Tipping in Restaurants

I would initially agree with Jason Kessler; although there are some people who believe that restaurants which eliminate the practice of tipping employees might lead to:

  • Poorer service because the incentive to provide better service to customers is no longer there; although Jason Kessler did write that “good service should be expected and if a server isn’t good, they should be fired like all other under-performing employees are”
  • Higher prices for menu items because someone has to pay for the increased salary, benefits and other costs to keep the employees compensated well and happy

 

One might argue that customers are already paying higher prices for menu items when leaving a gratuity; but at least the customer has the choice to use money to rate the quality of the service received. However, Bob Conway — the owner of Packhouse Meats which was opened in Newport, Kentucky last year with a policy of no tipping the servers who take your order and bring food to the table — “said he got ‘pummeled’ for it on review site Yelp by people accusing him of taking advantage of employees”, according to this article written by Polly Campbell of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We did it to protect the servers.”

Do Restaurant Servers Need Protection?

Also — according to that article — in the early 1900s, an anti-tipping movement resulted in the outlawing of the practice of tipping altogether in several states. However, those laws were repealed in the 1920s; and “Americans were back to their tipping habits. They have since been formalized in a system in which restaurants in all but seven states pay a very low wage to servers, expecting voluntarily given tips to be the bulk of their income.”

An official statement released on July 10, 2014 from the National Restaurant Association disagrees:

The practice of tipping is fundamentally engrained in our American culture and that spirit of hospitality is what makes the restaurant industry an industry of choice for millions of Americans.

To say there is a ‘subminimum wage’ is categorically untrue. Tips are wages, that employers and employees pay taxes on. No one is making $2.13 an hour. Every tipped worker is guaranteed at least the minimum wage of their state, more than half of which have increased both the tipped wage and minimum wage to above federal levels.

Servers are often the highest paid workers in restaurants. Our data shows median hourly earnings range from $16 for entry-level servers to $22 for more experienced servers. If an employee’s tips plus their cash wages don’t add up to the federal minimum wage, their employer is responsible for making them whole under the law.

The federal rate of $2.13 per hour has not changed in almost 24 years.

Do Restaurant Customers Need Protection?

Have the waitpersons at restaurants been compensated so poorly as to cause some of them to chase patrons outside of restaurants for not leaving enough of a gratuity, as reported in this article posted back on July 15, 2010?

One couple was reportedly handcuffed and arrested back in 2009 for theft after not leaving a gratuity upon exiting the restaurant…

…and one person reported to have had the gratuity left on a bill at a restaurant involuntarily increased upon reviewing the monthly credit card statement.

You Pay Anyway

There are three ways in which you pay for the compensation of employees of restaurants:

  1. Voluntary gratuities and tips
  2. Through a mandatory service charge tacked onto your bill
  3. Included as part of the cost of your food and beverages

 

Which is the best method of payment, in your opinion? Which do you believe is most transparent and fair to both you and the restaurant employees? Would the quality of service suffer or improve with any of the three ways listed above?

Summary

There are some FlyerTalk members who believe that the word tips is derived from the acronym to insure proper service. Perhaps — but I have consistently found that politeness and respect towards the service provider goes a long, long way towards ensuring proper service, and can be far more effective. Most people deserve to be treated with respect and addressed politely. Respect and politeness can be far more valuable than mere money, in my opinion. Throwing money at someone who does not earn or deserve your respect — let alone perform the service in question properly or at all — should be considered insulting to a person with moral character.

I understand the argument that service personnel — mainly in the United States — depend on gratuities due to low and even sub-standard compensation paid to them by their employers. They do deserve to earn a living and be compensated for their work. If those service personnel choose a job or profession which is reliant upon gratuities, then they need to perform their role as best as they possibly can — and unfortunately expect the occasional deadbeat to not leave a well-deserved tip. Others may argue that service personnel earn more than people think as a result of gratuities — but I am not about to tackle that debate here at this time.

The point I once again am attempting to make is that a tip should be deserved, not expected; earned, not required. If you are a service provider, did you offer a service of value to your customer — and did you do it exceptionally well? If so, that is how you will get a tip out of me. If not — well — that is up to me to decide. Not you.

Am I wrong?!?

By the way — please leave a gratuity for me in the Comments section below, as I cannot add that to your final bill.

Thank you. Come again!

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

4 thoughts on “Should Gratuities and Tips in Restaurants Be Discontinued?”

  1. Aaron K says:

    Here in Seattle, we just implemented a $15/hour minimum wage. Tipped servers are not exempt from the minimum like in some states. So should you still tip 20% on top of the $15/hour they already make?

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That is a good question, Aaron K: if the servers are already compensated reasonably, should this affect how they are tipped?

      As they are not exempt from the minimum in Washington state, has there been any discussion there related to your question?

  2. Tom says:

    Having worked in many restaurants, I will say one thing. If you choose to not top at all or give a “good”sever a marginal tip in the US, do not ever return to that restaurant. I have watched servers and chefs spit in food, blow their nose in food, drop a raw steak on the floor prior to cooking it, serve regular coffee when promising to give decaf, etc. you might be principled if you don’t leave a tip but I promise you will be the one losing out. It simply isn’t worth it.

  3. JonW says:

    I often hear the ‘but you’ll get poorer service if you don’t tip’ line in defense of tipping. Perhaps its a US thing to enjoy this style of service, but I find the constant hovering and fake nice-ness (it’s the fake part I don’t like, not the nice) of US wait staff quite disconcerting – I’d much rather they’d just leave me alone to enjoy my meal and let me decide when I want something than interrupt me every 2 minutes with a fake smile in an attempt to make themselves seem more tip-worthy. If getting rid of tipping made service more genuine and less fake I’m all for it.

    As a non-USian living in the US tipping still confuses the hell out of me. I don’t want to play games, just tell me how much I need to pay and factor it in. Having to do the mental gymnastics after every meal, and the afterthoughts of ‘was it enough’, ‘was it too much and was I ripped off’ for the next half an hour is a real downer on the eating out experience IMHO, and detracts from what could have been simply getting up and leaving with the positive after-glow of good company an good food. No-one will ever tell you what is the right amount or wrong amount (and is it pre-tax, post-tax, drinks included?), or who you’re supposed to tip and who you don’t, but expect you to do it correctly nonetheless (everyone complains about foreigners tipping poorly but no-one will help us).

    Just pay staff properly, don’t leave them hanging on the personal, variable and often random whim of customers and include it in the damn bill!

    Ditto US habit of not ever including taxes in published prices. I just want to know what it *actually* costs.

    I would never *not* give an appropriate tip in the US while the current exploitative wage arrangement exists. But I certainly don’t agree with it.

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