Bob Bestler

I always tip servers, but is it time to rethink the system?

Workers prepare to bring food orders to customers at an Ivar's restaurant in Seattle. After Seattle's new minimum wage law took effect last April 1, Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants announced that it was raising its prices by about 21 percent, eliminating tipping as a routine procedure, and immediately paying all its hourly workers a $15 per hour. They began the new pay rate three years earlier than the law required.
Workers prepare to bring food orders to customers at an Ivar's restaurant in Seattle. After Seattle's new minimum wage law took effect last April 1, Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants announced that it was raising its prices by about 21 percent, eliminating tipping as a routine procedure, and immediately paying all its hourly workers a $15 per hour. They began the new pay rate three years earlier than the law required. AP

I’m not a big tipper, but I think I do my fair share.

I give at least 20 percent to the barber who cuts my hair. And I always try to have a couple dollars for the golf course guy who handles my bag.

Each of these tips actually makes me feel good: I’m tipping because I want to, not because I have to.

I don’t feel the same way about tipping at restaurants, where a 20 percent tip is the current norm.

I do, of course, unfailingly leave between 18 percent and 22 percent, each one rounded off from the bill before me.

It’s seldom based on the quality of service, but on convention. (Plus a nagging daughter who spent many days as a server and knows the importance of a tip.)

So I always leave a tip, knowing how little the restaurant owner is paying servers. And there’s the rub.

I’ve never liked the idea of me, rather than the employer, helping the employee make a living wage.

As I understand, restaurants are permitted by law to pay as little as $2.13 an hour to servers. Tips are supposed to get them to a fair wage level.

I complained about all this years ago in a column and was told by more than one restaurant manager that without tipping, menu prices would soar and restaurants would suffer.

They were the experts, of course, but now one expert is putting that argument to a test.

Danny Meyer a respected restaurateur who owns 13 eateries in New York, is phasing out tipping by the end of next year.

At the same time, he will raise prices by 15 to 20 percent, calling it a surcharge, and will spread that amount to all his employees, servers as well as the kitchen staff.

The current system is unfair, he said, because servers in his restaurants often make more than the line cooks.

If nothing else, Meyers has opened a conversation. Tipping is not customary in many European countries; Switzerland, in fact, abolished tipping 40 years ago.

I also recall visiting a restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, where the waiter insisted that he not be given a tip. Curious, I thought.

I have no illusions that will happen here. Even if some restaurants adopt a no-tipping policy, customers’ old habits will be hard to break – especially for exceptional and friendly service. Even I would happily leave a tip for that, whatever the policy.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

  Comments