Tipping Point

Photo Courtesy of Manny Hernandez

Photo Courtesy of Manny Hernandez

Right up there with the good things in life are drinking wine at lunch and the absence of tipping. In places like Europe service charges are embedded into the menu prices. If you’re a newbie, you’ll overtip waiters in Paris, Rome, and Tokyo. Rest assured they wouldn’t dream of embarrassing you by chasing you down the street to give you a refund. But once you get the knack, what a boon it is to dine tip free.

Tipping anywhere—in a restaurant or a hair salon for that matter, is a terrible arrangement. I tip my hair colourist because her work is meticulous and she prevents me from looking like a crone, so why don’t I tip my dental hygienist who is equally conscientious? Tipping is terrible because it creates a power differential between two people. Presumably the waiter or hair colourist cannot earn a decent living from wages alone and depends on tips to survive. A cheapskate or meanie can withhold tips, even when the service provided met expectations. (Bad for waiter.) Whereas a soft touch like me will habitually overtip to avoid offending anyone. (Bad for patron.) My allergy to tipping and my preference for all-in pricing puts me in a minority though. According to The Loop’s daily poll, more than 83% of respondents want to control the amount they tip.

But think about the downside of tipping autonomy. Nowhere does this play out more dramatically than in restaurants where it creates anxiety for servers and patrons alike. Either waiters trip over one another to chase after ‘big tippers’ or else they provide obsequious service—not good service—in order to guilt clients into tipping well. (“Hi, my name is Tommy. The grilled octopus? Excellent choice! How is everything so far?”) The flip side is customer profiling. If a certain group (e.g. Europeans, female diners), has a reputation for poor-to-middling tipping, then it receives indifferent service. This results in a lower than average tip, thus confirming the stereotype.

And, let’s not even talk about the mathematics of tipping! After a fine meal, the bill arrives. And, whoosh, just like that all the romance has been sucked out of the table as the calculations begin. (Yes, I know there’s an app for that but your brain still has to switch hemispheres and, after a bottle of Montrachet that’s painful.)

Wouldn’t it be an evolutionary step to abolish tipping altogether? This would have many positive outcomes. First, diners would know how much the meal really costs, thus lowering sticker shock and indigestion. Second, staff would be paid appropriately, whether they are customer-facing or not, creating a more serene and egalitarian environment. Whether it’s a slow night or a date night, workers would make a predictable wage. It also would prevent sticky fingered multi-millionaire proprietors from scarfing up tips and underpaying staff. (Yes, that means you Masterchef judge Graham Elliot! and you Amy’s Baking Company)

So far only a few restaurants have jumped on the no-tipping wagon: Sushi Yasuda and Per Se in New York. The former has higher menu prices while the latter automatically tacks a 20% service charge onto the bill. Yet, one of the more innovative options comes from NEXT restaurant in Chicago. Dinner tickets are pre-sold similar to an entertainment or sports event. Menus changes every few months and the cost includes food and beverages in addition to a 20% service charge.

So far only high-end restaurants are re-jigging tipping. But I hope there’s more to come. Then the close of a meal will come with a sigh of satisfaction instead of the mean sound of numbers being crunched.

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