Interlude: On Tipping; or, WTF America?

I'm starting a restaurant.  So I have a lot of decisions to make about how I run my business.  Here's one decision I've already made: we won't have table service, and we won't have tipping.  Customers will pay at the register in advance, and the price on the menu is what they'll pay.  I want our restaurant to be convenient, and our prices transparent.  Paying my employees is my problem; it shouldn't be yours.       

Ever stop to think about why we tip in the first place?  Why certain types of employees receive a significant portion of their wages directly from the customer, the amount left to the customer's exclusive discretion?  Employees in most jobs, after all, receive all wages from their employers at a pre-agreed amount.  You don't tip your auto mechanic or your insurance broker--my legal clients certainly don't tip me--but you do tip restaurant servers, hairdressers, and cab drivers.  Tipping conventions are all over the place, and oftentimes we find ourselves guessing what the "rule" is.  This absurd phenomenon, where the price listed on the bill isn't really the price, has run amok in America.  

The Restaurant Payment Transaction. An Ordeal of Inefficiency, Math, and Emotions.

The absolute most frustrating part of dining in America is the combined phenomenon of table service and tipping.  Not table service in the abstract, mind you.  At many restaurants, servers are pretty essential--though not, in my opinion, at a ramen shop.  But what gets me is the inefficiency of table service, particularly at the end of the meal.  Haven’t you ever thought about it?  There you are, you’ve finished eating and are ready to leave, credit card at the ready.  But your server is nowhere to be found, so you can’t go anywhere.  

Can we please have the check?  

Can we please have the check?  

As a matter of fact, dear reader, you’re not even close to going anywhere.  First you need to get your server’s attention--something that appears to me inexplicably harder at the end of a meal than at the beginning--and ask for the check.  Second, your server needs to go get the check and bring it to you.  Third, the server must return to your table to collect the check (pray there are no inaccuracies that would necessitate the recalculation of the check).  Fourth, the server must return yet again to deliver your receipt and credit card.  In this everyday scenario, your server will have visited your table four times, simply to execute the payment transaction!! 

But wait!  Your ordeal is not over, for now you must do math!  And not only must you do math, but otherwise mechanical and objective calculations will be inextricably suffused with emotions. Emotions like guilt!  Why?  Because the restaurant has transferred to you, the customer, the job of determining how much money its employees should make, instead of just building the cost of service into the cost of the food and being done with it.   

You feel social pressure to pay more, even when the service was poor, even when you thought your server was a total jerk.  Meanwhile, social tipping conventions continue to become more onerous.  When I was a kid, 15% was acceptable.  My guess is that, today, most people do 20%, and restaurants will even suggest 25% tips on your receipt.  Note re outrage: it gets my blood boiling when this suggested tip is based on a percentage of the combined food and sales tax—nobody should pay for service as a percentage of a wholly separate government surcharge.  

Tipping.   Remind me why we do it this way?

Tipping.  Remind me why we do it this way?

So there you are.  You’ve split the bill four ways with your friends, and you’re all waffling about what to do.  You’ve had a couple of drinks and you’re full; it’s late.  Math isn’t coming easily.  You’re simultaneously trying to be accurate and fair, while desperately hoping you don’t seem like a cheapskate--an even greater risk when four people separately calculate tips on the same base amount.  Again, why is this your responsibility?  This Slate article from 2013 makes the same point, explaining that federal tax law encourages restaurant industry employers to rely on tip-based compensation, turning the "customer into a co-employer."  Another great piece on American tipping culture from Kitchenette is here, if you're interested.  

Let Us Gaze Upon the Rising Sun and Rejoice!

In other countries, it isn’t your responsibility.  American-style tipping isn't the norm in Europe, although in some countries a small gratuity can show appreciation for good service.  As an American, I’ve always been terrified of paying in Europe--should I leave a tip, how much should I leave, if it’s too little will they be offended, if it’s too much will they be offended, if I leave anything at all will they be offended?  

In Japan, there’s no tipping.  Ever.  At any time.  Japanese service is world-class, so it can’t be that tips somehow incentivize better service.  It’s just that a phenomenon that is supposed to incentivize better service has been coopted by the restaurant industry and distorted into a default measure of compensating its workers, using smoke and mirrors to make prices seem lower than they really are. 

Awaiting the Idaho Burger.   Left: A Japanese restaurant where tips are not required.  Right:  A Japanese restaurant where tips are not required.  

Awaiting the Idaho Burger.  Left: A Japanese restaurant where tips are not required.  Right:  A Japanese restaurant where tips are not required.  

And you know what else is great about Japan?  They’ve got table service figured out.  You’ll recall my concerns with end-of-dining efficiency in the U.S.  No problem for the Japanese.  Oftentimes, when a server brings food to your table, an updated check (or an order tally) comes with the food.  So when you decide to order another beer, an updated bill will come with your new round.  And you’ll just take it to a register to pay on your way out.  So instead of four separate trips to your table by your server, it’s just one trip by you to the register.  And off you go!

The way food is served and paid for in this country is a real concern to me, and I think there’s a lot of room for improvement.  I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. 

Next time at Ramen Chemistry, we’ll be back to umami science.