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Steve Coomes: Tipping in restaurants is outdated, outmoded and should be 86′ed

by Steve Coomes

tippingfeature

Here’s a tip: End tipping.

Kill it.

“86 it,” as they say in the restaurant biz, and start paying servers an hourly wage.

I’m sure my liberal friends are shocked that a capitalist like me would write that. But the fact is I want fairness, and tipping is unfair in every way, especially to those who never get tipped.

On one hand, the compensation is implied, but not guaranteed. You serve me a meal, tote my bags to my room, park my car safely and I just might—might—reward you for it.

If I don’t, there’s not a thing you can do about it because you knew the risk when you took a job working for tips.

But by and large the opposite happens: tipped compensation is generally pretty good and worth the risk. But in the case of a restaurant, where one person is lashed with cash for the work of many, how is that fair?

Where’s the cut for the cooks whose hours of preparation went into the dish the server only delivered to the table?

Where’s the cut for the dishwasher working in sweaty, sodden conditions to make sure the tableware was clean and sanitized?

Why do servers—good ones will make $40,000 a year or more—earn such solid coin while others who work more hours are lucky to make half that?

A restaurant is a complete team effort, and having worked in nearly every position in a restaurant, I can tell you none is easier than serving tables—though it’s not easy work. So why the lopsided compensation?

Not sure. But let’s avoid that discussion and get to my point that tipping should go away so every employee on a restaurant payroll is paid more fairly.

I’m with the “charge more on the menu and share the extra with the staff” crowd. If a restaurateur raised menu prices 20 percent, it would be same ding to customers’ pocketbooks as if they tipped, so no loss there.

I know that opinion isn’t popular because I’ve asked a lot of people, everyone from restaurant customers to owners and servers. And most think it should stay the way it is.

Some owners say it works, so don’t fix something that’s broken. Why create a hassle where there is none?

To my amazement, some of these owners are chefs who work two and three times as much as servers who make close to what their top servers make. Call me obtuse, chefs, but I don’t get that at all.

Servers said they want tipping to stay put—no surprise there—and that they’d find other work if it were eliminated. The incentive of money would be gone.

In my experience, servers who are just in it for the money typically aren’t very good servers anyway, so good riddance. I’ll take a good natured, conversational sort with a service mentality over a high-pressure suggestive seller any day.

What mere customers said surprised me the most, though. Many said they liked the power of controlling a server’s compensation for bad or good service. In other words, you suit me, I’ll stroke you. Tick me off, the cash stays in my wallet.

What a pathetic power trip, a means of taking out your disappointment on someone’s pay, a sick fantasy of holding some dinner knife of Damocles over their heads.

We don’t do that with grumpy retail attendants, airline counter workers, detached doctors who make us wait, dentists whose lousy work requires multiple repeat visits or plumbers who show up late. We might complain, but we don’t change their pay.

But with servers … oh we still get to exact our pound of flesh and we want to keep it that way.

Such a notion nauseates me. That’s akin to feeling cheerful and powerful over denying my son his weekly allowance because he forgot to do his chores.

No doubt table service is not as good as it used to be, and people who remember what it once was like are fair to be disappointed by its absence. We’ve grown up in a culture that expects good service, but there aren’t many restaurants that breed and teach a service culture, and that irritates us. (Many of those restaurateurs say today’s servers simply are too selfish to enjoy pleasing others.)

Restaurant food, however, has improved vastly as service has declined. Yet the kitchen team gets no love for that increased effort.

Compared to the food I eat in restaurants now, I laugh when I think that what I cooked in the 1980s was regarded as really good food. Today’s kitchens are astonishingly better than those I worked in, and I worked in some of Louisville’s best.

But the service isn’t—at most places, not all, but many—half as good as the dining rooms where I worked.

And yet servers make more money than kitchen help.

Go figure.

Some wrote me saying that if we ended tipping, our service would become crappy like that found in European restaurants. Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Talk to Americans who’ve lived there for extended periods and they’ll say service is amazing in Europe. Other Americans who visited there as tourists traveling to tourist areas claim it’s horrible.

I’m more inclined to believe those with the broader view.

Others want to see tipping go away for multiple reasons. Uncle Sam is one of them.

The IRS drools over the notion of fully trackable server income because it knows it’s missing out on under-reported revenue now.

To a large extent, credit card transactions have taken care of this since no cash is exchanged—unless you’re like some who wrote me saying, “I get around this by tipping nothing on my credit card but giving the server cash.”

This is a good thing? How?

You’ve helped that server become a tax cheat, which means he’ll likely pocket all of it and no one else down the line gets a cut of the tip. Plus, unreported income doesn’t go into the nation’s general till to pay for Social Security and Medicare—funds said server will draw on some day.

Still think that’s a good idea, Faux Generous Einstein? If so, you’re probably the kind of customer who accepts “free” drinks from the bartender and tips her extra for not charging you.

In case you ignore your moral compass and let your dark side do the talking, that’s theft and you’re aiding and abetting in a crime.

No shocker some owners I talked to want to see tipping go away: The IRS can hold them at least partly responsible when servers get caught not reporting all their tips.

Plus, the removal of tipping would wipe away a layer of onerous bookkeeping, and that’s always a good thing.

Like I said, kill tipping, raise menu prices and pay the staff better hourly wages.

If servers think, “I can’t live off that!” tell them to try getting by on the current wages of a cook or dishwasher.

I did it for many years, and it was a humbling experience.

It’s one of many things that drove me to find a career outside the restaurant business.

Here are several other opinions on the issue from a variety of sources:

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