To Tip or Not To Tip

photo by Aaron Freedman

It’s not often I write an op-ed here on Eating Adelaide. If you want to read opinion, if you want to be told which spending decisions to make or not to make, there are plenty of blogs that will sate those cravings.

In fact, I think last time I bored you with my opinion over something more meaty than a restaurant was when I wrote about the Matt Skinner generic wine tasting note hoo-ha back in 2009. So please excuse me a Sunday evening diversion …

Recently, there’s been a fair amount of chat about tipping. Over at fatboo, based in Melbourne, he discussed what he perceives to be the ins and outs of tipping in Australia. There’s been questions raised about tips on credit card payments going to restaurateurs rather than waiting staff. And there’s even been a bit of discussion on twitter about adding service charges to bills automatically.

My personal position on tipping in Australia is pretty ad hoc. If the experience (and that’s not just service, it’s everything else too) blows me away, I’ll be generous; if I’ve had a good, but not awesome, time, I might round up to the nearest $5 or $10. And if everything has been OK, well, I pay what’s on the bill. The restaurateur needs to factor in the cost of service, along with the costs of food, rent, chefs and so on, when he or she sets the prices on the menu.

More controversially, a waitress* in America has been fired after posting a copy of a bill to reddit. A patron took exception to the 18% auto gratuity added to the bill on the ground that he/she pays 10% to God, so why should waiting staff get more. The redditor, one Chelsea Welch, was not actually the person who served the table, but had taken a photo of the receipt at the end of service, and subsequently posted it. It looks like she’s been a user of reddit for about a year and has posted on a variety of topics, including issues relating to service and restaurants. I suspect that, up until the offending post, she had not been disciplined by her employer for these postings. I’d also be interested to know how comprehensive Applebee’s social media policy is.

Ms Welch has also written a considered piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. She makes the valid point that waiting staff in the States not only rely on tips but are also taxed on them. Her piece focuses on imploring customers to ensure that they tip, at least, correctly. She acknowledges that legislation around waiting staff wages is, perhaps, less fair than in other countries, but she doesn’t note what would be considered in many places the gross illegality of her sacking. And she does not posit any solutions to an inequitable wage system.

Naturally, the comments on her Guardian piece, rather do address those points.

Redditors are quick to point out how un-Christian the patron’s action was.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of American blogs and food sites and I am surprised that this is a discussion that is still going on. It crops up repeatedly. Many argue that a tip based system encourages good service. Having visited America more than once (last time was in 2001, so my perception is a little out of date), I cannot say that I found the service exemplary. Generally, it was either frighteningly obsequious and intrusive or non existent. I’ve had superior service in other countries where staff genuinely engage with their customers, read the situation, and aren’t worrying about paying their bills.

I did a brief Google of Applebee’s and it turns out its parent company is headed by a CEO who used to be … a waitress. Applebee’s itself appears to have been embroiled in various industrial disputes over the years, including allegations of forced arbitration and allegations of underpaying staff when they are not waiting tables.

I appreciate that people need to work, need to earn money and that, in the US, they need punters to tip. Should I ever visit the US again, I’ll make sure to tip appropriately and in cash.

But I also hope that, somewhere, some day, a waiter or waitress in the US will become CEO of a restaurant chain and decide to pay staff fairly.

Better yet, one will be in a position to make broader, more positive change, for all waiting staff.

2 thoughts on “To Tip or Not To Tip

  1. Don’t know how things work in other parts of the world, but in the US food servers customarily are paid low wages on the assumption that they will receive tips that will bring their income up to a reasonable level. Unless the service is outrageously bad, I tip at least the socially-acceptable minimum.

    It’s imprudent to say the least to post anything online that might possibly jeopardize a job that at least pays the bills. An employer in the US is well within their rights to terminate an employee who publicly complains about a customer’s behavior.

    1. I agree with you about the importance of tipping the acceptable minimum in the States but that doesn’t make the system fair. And it certainly doesn’t seem that wages are brought up to a reasonable level (Chelsea Welch says she earns $9 an hour).

      I would also agree with you about posting the image online except for a couple of things.

      The image posted on reddit had absolutely nothing identifiable about it at all – no date, no employee ids, the signature was mostly cut off, and nothing to identify the business.
      The actions of the customer have been almost universally decried.
      Only a couple of weeks ago, another waiter, refused to serve customers who complained about a child with Down Syndrome. In this instance, he humiliated and shamed them in front of a busy restaurant. This waiter has not lost his job and has won universal praise – as has the establishment for which he works. In terms of publicly complaining about a customer’s behaviour this is far more blatant.

      It seems to be me that there are some gross inconsistencies in how these two people have been treated. It seems that Ms Welch’s sacking was almost capricious, rather than a part of an informed HR policy. Perhaps Mr Garcia would have faced the same fate had there not been so much public praise heaped on both him and his establishment.

      I would also suggest that allowing waiting staff to chose who they serve, based on personal opinion, is a really slippery slope …

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