Down with mandatory tipping

By Ben Rowe

Do you tip when you go to a restaurant? Sure. How much? Fifteen per cent should do, shouldn’t it? Wait, why did you just do that? Why 15 per cent, exactly? When did this become part of the ritual of eating out? There’s a common sentiment that the waitresses and waiters earning the tips deserve it because they make minimum wage, which isn’t enough to live on. But why are they the only minimum wage earners we apply this to? Why isn’t the attendant at the gas station making 15 per cent off every chocolate bar he sells me?

At one point in time, tips were given by well-off individuals to their servers to recognize and encourage jobs well done, effort above and beyond the standard requirements of the position. It was the “trickle-down” theory of wealth in motion: the rich giving extra cash to the less fortunate. Somewhere down the road, this action became so ingrained it became a ritual. Now it’s expected to the point where two college students in Philadelphia were actually arrested for refusing to pay a mandatory 18 per cent gratuity after receiving what they called “lousy service.”

Leslie Pope, John Wagner and six friends showed up at the Lehigh Pub, and after having to get their own napkins and cutlery, their own refills and wait over an hour for salad and wings — their server was taking a smoke break, you see — they refused to pay a U.S. $16.35 mandatory tip the restaurant placed on their bill. The restaurant considered this “theft” and called the police. What exactly these college students were stealing is beyond me. They owed money to the restaurant for . . . what, exactly?

Reading that recent news item my eyes seized upon the absurdity of a mandatory tip — to take what was once a token of gratitude and transform it into a required debt, a Danegeld to restaurant owners. What was once a prize for enterprising waiters is now a tax by greedy restauranteurs. When and why did we, the customer, allow this to happen? Because the sad fact is, it’s our fault. It may result in outrageous cost additions and really snobby servers, but we’re the only ones to blame for the rise of the mandatory gratuity culture. By always tipping, we’ve made tips expected. Because the restaurant expects tips, they come to depend on them. Because they depend on them, they must make them mandatory.

Two friends and I were out last week for wing night. We were getting pretty lousy service, but for a while it was tolerable since it was, after all, a busy night. When we got our food, we didn’t receive napkins or cutlery. When we asked for napkins, our server threw them down on the table in a huff without even looking at us. Later, I was down to my last wing, he came by and asked me, “Are you gonna finish that wing?” Now, I knew what he meant to ask was whether he could take my plate or not, but with the tone of his voice I was very close to asking him, “Why, do you want it?” Well, long story short, his attitude and actions resulted in my decision not to tip him. When this happened he looked at me and said, “Y’know, half of my tips have to go to the kitchen and bar staff. That’s how this works. I don’t get paid for serving you, y’know.” Excuse me? Isn’t that exactly what a server is paid for? Or are servers working as volunteers now?

At any other job, if you feel you’re not being paid enough you ask for a raise or get another job. You don’t bitch about it in front of customers in an attempt to make them feel obligated to slip you extra money. But that’s what’s happened. We’ve created a caste of food servers who feel entitled to that extra fifteen per cent. All I can say to the industry is this: if you want to make tips mandatory, just add them to my bill. Make it part of the cost of the food. Raise your prices and pay your employees more. Because you can’t insist I pay extra for service when I’m not getting any. I know that the food doesn’t cost to make what you’re charging me to eat it, so don’t pretend you’d be starving without the gratuities.

Meanwhile, restaurant customers heed my call: only pay tips if your server has put in the effort to deserve them. Otherwise, all you’re doing is feeding the feeling of entitlement and contributing to the victory of the “mandatory tip.” When the server gets the little bit extra no matter what, what motivation do they have to actually do a good job? None, which is why we’re getting worse and worse service, while the cost keeps going up. Stand fast by your principles, an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and we can return to the days when good service meant something and was rewarded, while others didn’t last a day in the service industry.


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