Four Letter Word
The second sentence in the preface to my book Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter contains a four-letter word. No, not the usual F-bomb or scatological epithet you’d expect from a harried, ill-tempered server about to drop a bolus of sputum into your soup. The word in question appears in this sentence — “I bring food to tables in exchange for tips.” You don’t see the four-lettered culprit, you say? Dear reader, it’s staring you in the face! It’s the word tips.
We all know what tips are. Tips are a “gift of money for a service, especially as an amount above what is owed.” Say you eat at Café Fancy Schmancy and the bill is $100. If you want to avoid washing dishes under the supervision of a socially maladjusted ex-con after you’ve finished eating, you’re going to fork over that $100. And, if the server wasn’t a demented serial killer and refrained from dumping food on your head, tradition dictates that you leave them between $15-$20 as payment for explaining the menu, taking your order, and delivering your food. What could be simpler? Sadly, it isn’t simple. Some customers regard the word “tips” the way other people regard F-bombs or, gasp, the dreaded “C word.” It’s a hard, cold fact that many restaurant patrons loathe the very concept of tipping.
I think one of the reasons people don’t like tipping is because of the sticker shock. Let’s face it, when you go to a restaurant in the New York City, the menu prices only tell part of the story. Buying food in a restaurant is not like buying gasoline at a service station where taxes and fuel delivery charges are rolled into a single posted price. By the time you add 8.375% in local taxes and a minimum pre-tax 15% tip, the true cost of your $100 restaurant snack has risen to $123.78! That’s an almost 24% increase over what you initially thought you’d pay! Brutal!
But you’ll almost never hear customers quibbling about paying Caesar his due. That’s probably because the State comes equipped with cops, guns, and reinforced concrete extended stay facilities. You know the government’s getting its money, so who’s left to crab to? Who’s left to skim? The waiter, that’s who! Legally a “gratuity” is a gift. Unless the restaurant writes on menu that patrons must pay a “service charge” on top of the bill, a customer’s under no legal obligation to leave anything. Trust me, there are customers who are aware of this loophole and skimp on the tip in order to save themselves a few bucks. Here’s a tip for them. If you can’t afford the gratuity, you can’t afford to go out to eat. Oh, you may get away with stiffing waiters for a while, but eventually every waiter in the Metropolitan area will have your number and you’ll need a toxicology team from Johns Hopkins to sort through the nastiness we’ve been dumping into your food.
But people hate tipping for another reason. They’re aghast that they have to subsidize a restaurant’s employment costs. I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek story for a UK magazine that poked fun at British people for being bad tippers. The Queen’s subjects are nice enough human beings but, when visiting the US, they’re usually unaware that the customary tip at a restaurant is 15-20% of the bill and unwittingly leave a substandard gratuity. When you explain this to a Briton (or any other member of the European Union) they’re shocked that American waiters depend on tips for the bulk of their income. They raise a hue and cry and say it’s not their fault American restaurant owners fail to us a pay “living wage.” Instead of just acknowledging the system for what it is and giving us our money, they tell us waiters to man the barricades, exhort us to unionize, fight for our rights, and, if that’s too much effort, stop whining and find other jobs. An English woman, however, wryly noted that English men patronizing American strip clubs don’t raise a similar ruckus regarding the cash gratuities they slip into a dancer’s G-string. I’d love to see some European tell Uncle Tony to pay his girls “a living wage.” Ha!
Sadly, many American’s believe in this “save the waiter” nonsense as well. The word “tips” conjures up visions of economic injustice waiting to be vanquished in the space of a Sunday afternoon complete with an Andrew Lloyd Weber sound track and half-assed choreography. Spare me the Che Guevara nonsense. Just pay what you owe me! The tipping system in the US is here to stay. Why? Look at the numbers!
Waiters, unlike servers in Europe, are not paid a salary. In the state of New York, for instance, servers are paid $4.60 an hour. That’s below the state’s minimum wage of $7.15 an hour. The expectation is that our tips, coupled with a small hourly wage, will raise our compensation to the minimum wage level or above. If you work in a good restaurant you can clear $200 a night. But that’s not the norm for most servers. Under the current system, a restaurant owner in NY only has to pay a waiter working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, a mere $8,832 per annum (before taxes). Owners count on the customers to leave tips and raise the waiter’s income to the minimum wage level and hopefully above it. But the NY owners only have to pay their workers $4.60 an hour!
So let’s look at that “living wage” scenario our socialist brethren in Europe and at home are advocating. Let’s pretend that our full-time US waiter working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, will now get paid a salary. Let’s further assume that the waiter averaged, with his shift pay and tips, $100 per day. $100 a day or $12.50 an hour is now established as his salary. Let’s toss in a bare-bones health care plan that costs the employer $300 per month. That’s an additional $3,600 a year. And, since we’re being generous, let’s throw in 3 sick days and 2 weeks vacation. (Waiters normally never get health insurance, sick days, or vacation.) That’s an additional $1,300.
The breakdown? Our “living wage” server is now earning $25,000 a year. He has a health care benefit costing $3,600 a year. He has a $1,300 benefit for vacation and sick days. The yearly cost to the restaurant for one full time waiter is now $29,900 per year! That’s an increase of $21,068! The cost for that one waiter has more than tripled! Can you think of any business that can survive its labor costs going up threefold? And who would bear those new costs if it happened? You, the consumer! Restaurateurs would pass along the higher labor costs in the form of higher prices and going out to eat would suddenly get a lot more expensive. And, since water always seeks its own level, most restaurant owners will game the system by only hiring part-time servers ineligible for benefits and pay them something like $8 an hour. Good waiters will leave the business in droves and service standards will plunge. Every restaurant in America will transform into a fast food joint staffed by the dumbed-down version of the French waiter from hell. Heck, owners will tack on a 20% service charge, pay their waiters as little as possible, and then pocket the difference. You think I’m being cynical? The precedent has already been set by catering outfits! What do you think happens to that automatic gratuity catering halls tack on to a wedding party? The owners use that money to pay banquet servers a low hourly wage and then pocket the difference. With few exceptions, letting management be the sole determinant of what waiters should get paid is asking for trouble. I think it’s in the American restaurant customer’s best interest to keep the current payment system afloat. Just what do you think will happen when servers know they’re going to get paid no matter what level of service they provide? Yep, it’s back to the French waiter from hell thing again.
There’s no way I can cover all the history, nuances, and issues regarding tipping in a single blog post. Suffice to say, tips is a hot button word like sex, politics, or veganism. Everyone’s got an opinion on it, but no one truly understands it either. Whenever I mentioned tipping on my blog Waiter Rant, my traffic numbers soared and the number of comments would go through the roof. Sometimes, when I had my own version of a slow news day, I’d just throw the topic out there and start a little brush war in the comments section. And you know what? People, in typical knee-jerk reactionary fashion, would fall right into my trap and start raging away. It was so easy. Tips is a powerful four letter word that can stir up the strangest passions in the most unlikely places.
And don’t forget folks, tips spelled backwards is spit!
This post originally appeared as a guest blog entry on Powells.com