Waiting tables is one of the few professions in the U.S. where a person can be legally denied payment for his or her work. Every hour across America, waiters and waitresses in restaurants, bars and clubs do everything in their power to ensure their patrons have the most enjoyable experience possible.
While there are many people who make a habit of leaving good tips to compensate their servers, an equal number leave outrageously poor tips or leave no tip at all.
The server-patron relationship is one of power, power that is held solely by people who demand that another human being slave at their feet for hours at a time and then get to choose whether or not that person receives just compensation for their efforts.
The tipping system in America is archaic at best, and it’s time that we abolish it.
According to a 2001 article from CNN Money, the word “tip” originated in the 17th century and was used among thieves as a slang term for “to give.”
It was later adopted to refer to “drink money,” often given by patrons to servers so that they could enjoy a drink after hours. Since then, tipping has become a common practice — thanks to the fact that it allows restaurant owners to shift a majority of their cost to their patrons.
It’s a widely-held belief that tipping provides a strong incentive for waiters and waitresses to provide the highest level of service. But according to an article in Slate, the findings of several studies shows that “tipping is not an effective incentive for performance in servers. It also creates an environment in which people of color, young people, old people, women and foreigners tend to get worse service than white males. In a tip-based system, nonwhite servers make less than their white peers for equal work.”
Working in the restaurant industry for almost two years, and 18 months of that as a server, I can confirm the findings of many of these studies.
I have seen customers discriminated against by fellow servers and have seen servers discriminated against by customers. I have also been in the unique position of working for companies that use what is called a “service charge”: an automatic gratuity that eliminates the need for tipping.
I’ve also worked for companies that operate on a purely tip-based system. Having experienced both, I can say unequivocally that the service charge model is superior.
Companies that use a service charge to ensure a set gratuity for servers provide far more motivation and higher morale. In these ecosystems, waiting tables becomes like any other job. Servers know how much they will be paid up front and can rest assured knowing that their hard work will not go unrewarded.
This encourages employees to go above and beyond because they can focus less on what they are making hourly and more on striving for recognition and possible promotion. Jay Porter, author of the aforementioned Slate article, relates his experiences after switching his restaurant to a service charge model:
“When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn’t feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved.”
Unfortunately, recent changes in federal tax law have made it even less desirable for businesses to run the service charge model. Under these new laws, the IRS considers all automatic gratuities as income that goes towards a restaurant’s bottom line.
It is taxed as such, which means that employers are essentially paying taxes on money that fails to increase their profit margin. This provides almost no incentive for restaurant owners, many of whom are more concerned with the bottom line than the happiness of their employees, to run anything but a purely tip-based system.
The service charge model is without a doubt superior. Including the cost of service in a meal relieves servers from the stress of worrying about their hourly income and increases morale, which increases the quality of service. It also takes the pressure off of the customer, who no longer needs to worry about tipping too much or too little.
We live in a draconian world where it is legal for a person to pour their heart and soul into their job and receive absolutely no compensation in return, simply because someone else overspent and couldn’t afford the tip, or they tip low because that’s how they were taught.
The tipping model needs to be removed from our culture, and it needs to be replaced with a system that compensates servers the same way people in all professions should be compensated: fairly and justly.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @sirshackofford