Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tipping and Restaurant Service: Thoughts on the Pete Wells' Article in the NY Times, and Some Stories

A week ago the NY Times published dining critic Pete Wells' thought provoking piece on tipping in restaurants. In the article Wells argues that our current system of tipping does not have an impact on the quality of service we receive and that we should consider changing the way servers are compensated. He points out additional factors that he suggests might lead restaurants to do away with the current system, including lawsuits and cultural issues within restaurants.

This is not a long article and worth reading, if you haven't already. Tipping is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. At of the time of this writing, the Times piece has generated 474 comments. I want to share some of my thoughts after reading the article.

The economics behind the tipping question are complicated and I do not fully understand them, especially with regard to the equity questions raised in sharing tips with cooks, bartenders, and other staff. But I do think that it is worth asking this: why are we using the tipping system we use? Is our goal to ensure that servers are fairly compensated? Is our goal to provide servers with an incentive to give high quality service? Is our goal to allow customers to express their appreciation for services rendered? Is it a combination of the above?

If the goal is purely about compensation of servers, then the system does not make sense. I am "served" by many people during the week, and most of them are compensated by their employers, not by me. The man at the hardware store helped me the other day to figure out how I should go about building some shelving for a closet. I paid for the lumber. His employer paid him. I felt good about the service I received and so I will return to that store the next time I need hardware.

Why do we accept the notion that each of us must help to compensate a server at a restaurant, or the driver of a taxi, but not the employee at the hardware store or behind the desk at a medical office? If we are trying to ensure that servers are fairly compensated, then let's allow the labor market to function without the tipping intervention. But compensation isn't the goal, purely. It's also about restaurants lowering labor costs, and it's completely rational for them to try to do so using any legal means. 

One of Wells' main points is that the system fails as a way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service, and he gives several good reasons for this. The problem is, a system in which tipping is not allowed or not customary also does nothing to create the incentive for good service. And this is the thing that I wish we would talk about more when we talk about the relationship between service quality and tipping.

The way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service is for restaurants to evaluate servers based on their performance. A good service manager ensures that servers are properly trained and faithfully implement the restaurant's hospitality policies. A server that repeatedly fails to do so would not remain on staff. A service manager would be replaced if his or her servers too often fail to provide a high quality service standard.

In a tipping-as-compensation system, as most of our restaurants currently use, management should evaluate servers performance using qualitative data, not simply by looking at tips as a percentage of sales. Tip percentage is often not a reliable indicator of the quality of service the customer feels they have received. In a system that fully compensates servers via salary, as in most of Europe and now at some US restaurants, managers cannot rely on tip percentage as a means of evaluating servers and must therefore use other methods. Just like the manager at the hardware store does when evaluating the service provided by his or her employees.

Many of us feel as though our tipping system all too often allows restaurants to ignore their hospitality management responsibilities. They assume that customers handle this job for them, via tipping.
When I was 18, over the summer after my first year of college, I worked as a waiter in Manhattan at a restaurant called The Lion's Rock. I had no prior experience and I still have no idea why they manager hired me. I trailed another waiter for one shift, but otherwise received no service training. Then I was given a full schedule. It was a busy restaurant in the summer with a huge outdoor section, and we pooled our tips - tips were added up at the end of the night and shared by all waiters, after tipping out the bartender at 15% of the total. This tip pooling gave me the incentive to help serve tables that were not "my" tables, because I was impacted by the tip at that table. One summer evening I was delivering food to a well-dressed couple on the patio, and as I put the plate down in front of the man I tilted it too far and spilled sauce onto his lap. Not just a little bit of sauce. It was everywhere, comical in proportion. I apologized profusely, brought napkins and seltzer, apologized again, and felt truly awful. They were nice about it and they left me a big tip - over 20%, perhaps because they sensed that I would soon be unemployed. I have no idea if the manager offered to pay their dry-cleaning bill. In fact, the manager never spoke with me about the incident.

After I graduated from college I worked at another Upper East Side restaurant that no longer exists, called May We. I worked there for almost a year while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm sure that I cleared plates before all diners were finished and committed many other service atrocities - I received no training whatsoever. Anyway, we pooled tips there too, and there was no turnover in the waitstaff while I worked there. After a few months I noticed that I was consistently earning more money in tips and at a higher tip percentage than some other servers, and yet we shared tips equally. The manager never noticed, or if she did notice she never did anything about it. She also never thanked me when I spotted Ruth Riechel, at that time the NY Times restaurant critic, at a table in the upstairs room and alerted the kitchen and management so they could pay extra attention to her and her food. No one had noticed her until that point. She wound up giving the place a decent review on her weekly radio show.

Because I've worked as a server at several restaurants I feel some empathy for how hard the job is, and how frustrating it can be. I tip well when service is good, but I tip less when service is not as good.

Not too long ago, and for the first time that I can remember, I left no tip for the server at a restaurant. I was with my daughters and a good pal and we went in at 5:30. We were the only diners in the room and there are perhaps 10 tables, all of which can accommodate 4 or more people. This is a pizza place, a red sauce joint in a small city in northwestern Connecticut. We had been there many times before. I asked to sit at the booth where we usually sit and the server (who I did not recognize) told us we couldn't because the booth was meant for 6 people and we were only 4. I told her we would move if a larger party came in, and that we'd be there for only 45 minutes anyway. She said no, I politely asked her if I could ask the manager, she came back and said the manager said no. We ate our dinner (because at that point there was no other way to get the daughters to another restaurant in time to also go bowling and get home to bed) and I told the server as we got up to leave that I was sorry, but I would not leave a tip. Funny thing is, she said she understood and that she was sorry.

A new restaurant opened recently around the corner from my house. The menu offers things like sweet corn hushpuppies, pickled fried chicken, chickpea chopped salads, house made pickles, and other tasty sounding things. A friend and I went and sat outside in the back garden. Right after our food arrived I noticed that my friend had a genuinely disturbed look on her face and I asked why - she pointed behind me and I turned to see a large rat on the ground, perhaps 10 feet from our table. It was sitting there contentedly, gnawing on something. This is a paved outdoor space, by the way. We got up and so as not to alarm our neighbors or cause a scene, I quietly told our server that there was a rat near our table. She asked if we wanted to move indoors, and we gratefully accepted. We sat at the bar and the bartender said "So you've met out little friend. We've been trying to get rid of him for days now." A few minutes later he said that the restaurant would like to buy us our next round of drinks, and so he did. I felt disgusted by the rat and it seems to me that a new restaurant should be a bit more concerned with my friend and I in this situation - "let me buy your next drink" is not sufficient. If I owned the place I would have comped the meal (which amounted to about $50) - I want to demonstrate how seriously I take the issue and hope that these two people will give my restaurant another shot. Or at least that they will not spread this alarming tale on Yelp, awesome Brooklyn Wine and Food blogs, or other social media. They presented me with the check, and once my dining companion left the bar for the door, I handed them $60 in cash and politely told the bartender and the server how I felt (without the social media part). The server apologized and said "You're right," but the bartender pushed my money back at me and snidely said "keep it - we don't need your money." It was one of the strangest restaurant experiences I've had and needless to say, I would never go back.

I recently had dinner at Maysville, the newish Manhattan spot owned by the people behind Char No 4 in Brooklyn. My friend and I were both struck by how great the service was. Okay, they recognized my dining companion and were being quite nice to us, but looking around, it seemed as though everyone receives that level of service at Maysville. I asked the bartender about a cocktail on the menu, but expressed my misgivings about the Jack Daniels the drink called for. Although her bar was busy, she discussed it with me and offered to substitute something else. I declined because she clearly knew what she was doing, and the whole interaction felt right (and the drink was delicious). At dinner the servers did not attempt to whisk away and deep-chill our bottle of 1995 Cazin Cuvée Renaissance (excellent). One of them did pour it a little too deep and fast but they were friendly and gracious when I asked if we could pour it ourselves. Servers appeared when we needed something, not otherwise, and we never needed to ask for anything. When I dropped a fork near the end of our meal, some one who was not my server - a runner (some one whose job is to bring food from the kitchen to tables and to clear tables when diners are finished), brought me a new fork within minutes, wrapped in a napkin, without ceremony or flourish - just brought me a new fork without my having to ask. We left a big tip.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always figured that restaurants liked to have servers paid in cash by patrons--it would be much cheaper than having the house do it, since the servers wouldn't pay taxes, the house wouldn't pay payroll taxes, workers' comp, and so on. Sometimes they like it better since they keep some of it.

But as the IRS cracks down, and servers start suing and etc., the incentives change. I sure would prefer a 'service compris' setup myself.