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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is The Restaurant Tipping Model Bad For Waitstaff?



Does tipping in restaurants improve service and bring in much-needed revenue for waitstaff?

Or is it, alternatively, an archaic practice that does nothing to improve service, results in overall lower wages for waiters and waitresses and creates a pay disparity with other kitchen staff?

We ask food writer Corby Kummer of The Atlantic and Boston Magazine.


  • Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic and restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He tweets @CKummer.



From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And there's a fascinating piece in The New York Times today. It calls for an end to the custom of tipping in restaurants. Say what?

HOBSON: Yeah. Well, while the federal minimum wage is 7.25 an hour, it is just 2.31 an hour for food servers. Federal labor statistics show that with tips, they end up making more than the minimum wage, about 8.75 an hour.

YOUNG: But the restaurant critic for The New York Times, Pete Wells, says tips don't always go to waiters, and they don't encourage better service. Corby Kummer is senior editor at The Atlantic monthly, restaurant critic for Boston magazine. Corby, we wanted to check in with you. We know you've been working on just this very idea. There's a huge debate going on in the restaurant world. Do you agree with Pete Wells that tips aren't doing what they were supposed to do?

CORBY KUMMER: I agree that tips don't work, and that we all want a way of both rewarding and punishing service that we like and we don't like. The problem is we're not doing it when we're tipping. We are rewarding the whole staff, and we're punishing them equally. So, as Pete - who wrote a terrific piece in The Times, which I congratulated him on at midnight last night - wrote, when we think we're punishing the waiter who had a bad attitude and didn't bring the food to us, we're also punishing the guy who gave us a great table, or who recommended the terrific Sicilian white.

YOUNG: Because many restaurants are not just having these tips shared, there are lawsuits now from waiters - as Pete Wells tells us about - there are lawsuits now from waiters who are saying they're not getting the money.

KUMMER: Right. Sometimes waiters don't get the money, because sometimes it's distributed to management. So you never know how the tips are being pooled, but you can be almost 100 percent guaranteed it is being pooled, and you're not sending the message you think you are.

HOBSON: Well, in the other story - the other point that Pete Wells makes here that's pretty interesting is that the servers' profile you at the beginning and figure out before you do anything that you're only going to tip 10 percent, or that you're going to tip 20 percent, and they base their service on that.

YOUNG: Some. We should say some. A former waitress here.

KUMMER: You know, I think the facts...


KUMMER: Right. You know, I think everybody is like a former waiter. And it is the entry service job, and that's why it's got to be more fair. So I called up Danny Meyer, who is the head of the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, and many people would say that at his New York restaurants - and at Shake Shack - he's helped introduced the concept of good service. And he said, boy, would I love to implement an across-the-board service fee, which is what I've come down to. I just want those workers treated fairly and getting health insurance.

And I want - I am happy to have it incorporated into service. As Danny pointed out, when you are paying a regular entree price, you're paying the dishwashers, the cooks, everybody. You're not paying the waiter, particularly. Would you go back to the kitchen and say, I'm punishing you because you put too much salt in my steak?

YOUNG: Well, that's just it, the tip, and then it comes out - well, anyway, but what are you saying? Are you saying, as some restaurants are, that we're just going to have a service charge? You are saying that. Because some restaurants are saying we're just going to pay our waiters better and let our people know - pay everybody better, and let our patrons know, so that they don't have to tip.

KUMMER: So either one or both would be great. Raise the minimum wage, which is Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is doing, or implement an across-the-board service charge. But Tim Zagat, of the Zagat surveys, whom I've talked to about this, says Pete Wells is whistling in the dark. Americans like the tipping custom. People want to think they have an influence on it. Danny Meyer says if you want a way of punishing them, you say to the manager: Here's what went wrong tonight. What are you going to do about it? You either go back, or you don't. That's what you do.

HOBSON: And I'm sure our listeners have a lot to say about this. You can go to hereandnow.org, or to our Facebook page at facebook.com/hereandnowradio and let us know what you do. By the way, Robin, I tip 20 percent almost every time.

YOUNG: I'm still there.

HOBSON: And although whenever I want to...

KUMMER: Me, too.

HOBSON: ...not tip 20 percent, somebody says no, don't do that. You'll just punish the waiter. Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic monthly, writes about food for Boston magazine, thanks for coming in.

KUMMER: Thank you.

YOUNG: And remember, we want to hear from you. And waiters, waitresses of the world, unite at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Putney

    There is no tipping in Japan at all for anything and service was excellent when I visited last year. We should adopt a similar system. As Danny Meyer said in your report, there are ways to complain about poor service.

  • Yar

    Waiters should get a percentage of sales. Say ten percent and if the customer likes the service they can tip more. Much fairer than making all of the pay for service optional. Tip pooling should require disclosure on the bill.

  • Duffy Johnson

    I have a few issues with this. First, the “waiting wage” should be abolished. the minimum wage should apply to everyone, even for positions that involve tipping. Tipping is just part of waiting. Second, tipping should absolutely not be abolished. It is a tradition practiced all over the world. Lastly, so-called ‘entry’ positions, like waiting or being a fry cook at McDonald’s, require the worker to perform under enormous pressure and manage time very precisely. They are far from being ‘low-skilled’. They are the front line soldiers for restaurants. They deserve to be paid MUCH more than they get now.

    • adks12020

      Tipping is not as common as you think. In Canada and throughout Europe tipping is often not required or expected. Gratuities are often added to the check automatically or included in the overall price of the meals so servers can be paid more.
      I lived near Canada for 6 years and went to Montreal often. On more than one occasion I had a tip handed back to me because I forgot it wasn’t expected and the server was honest.

  • Stephanie Hale

    As a waitress and bartender at a very busy local summer destination, I am strongly in favor of tipping. I would rather make $4 an hour and go home with between $100 and $300 a shift in tips ($15-$30 an hour) than make minimum wage with benefits. Waitressing is a hard job, it is physically and mentally demanding, no one would want to do it for minimum wage. Also, some people are bad tippers no matter how the service is. People who appreciate good service tend to make up for those who are bad tippers, so it all balances out in the end. If you can’t afford to leave a nice tip, stay home, it is cheaper!

    • JohnDorchester

      If you can’t live with the wages you get from your employer, stay home!!!
      the whole dining experience Is turning on its head. it seems like I am dining out to make my waitress feel better. apparently minimum wage is not sufficient to take an order and bring food!!! these people are not living in real world. there are a lot of tougher jobs out there that pays minimum jobs. If you think waitressing is difficult, try getting a real job!!

  • Tim Reynolds

    I lived in France where servers are paid a living wage, are professionally trained, and speak more than one language. When we ate at a restaurant, the server did not bother my wife and me because the meal was our experience, not the restaurant’s. Servers never came to us except when asked; they never sat at the table and acted as if we were best friends. Not so in the States where servers are forced to be friendly in order to get a good tip. Train servers as professionals, treat them as professionals, pay them accordingly. Then and only then will dining be an enjoyable experience that won’t mean that customers will be interrupted every five minutes.

    • Quipepeo

      Agree. I waited on tables for a year while in college and felt that tipping was more analogous to taking bribes than to providing good and professional service. It can be denigrating, sexist and completely unrelated to the “service” that is provided. I will never forget that the $45 tip I received on a $5 charge had more to do with how appetizing I looked to her than any contribution I could have made to the degustation of a poorly made plate. Here is my vote to abolishing tipping and to providing a respectable and equitable wage and benefits to the trade!

  • Jake

    what makes serving unique is that it is an entry level job where one can make real money on a relatively flexible schedule. The front of the house makes more than a lot of the back of the house because they take the brunt of all the problems that come up whether they are front or back of the house related, but mostly they make more because they don’t have to rely on restaurant management or ownership for their pay, if they did, well take a look at Burger King or Dunkin Doughnuts, that is what you would end up with in the mid level chain and mom and pop restaurants. The New York Times article quoted an owner, “Neither one is more important than the other,” Mr. Patterson said. “So it doesn’t make sense to me that servers would make three to four times as much as cooks.” Mr. Patterson says this as if wages are something ordained by some higher power rather than something controlled by him, the owner. He could pay the heart of the house more but instead he levies an 18 percent gratuity to the customer, which is equivalent to raising his menu prices 18. He still pays the servers minimum wage for their position which is very low, and takes that extra 18 percent which in most restaurants offsets that very low wage and spreads it across the restaurant so that he doesn’t have to take money out of his own pocket. It’s naive to think that this “movement” is an attempt at fairness, if that were true it would be servers and back of the house employees pushing it. There is another section in the article that refers to the payroll tax hit the restaurant takes. To that I say don’t be naive, forced shared tips is beneficial to them otherwise they wouldn’t consider it. One last thing to note, the article really only deals with high end restaurants where that 15 to 20 percent is much more significant than at your local chain restaurant where

  • Briana Rovinskie

    Just a reminder, almost ALL servers have to distribute the tips they do make between the people who seat you, bus your table, and make your drinks, so even if you tip a generous 20% 3-5% of that the server has to give away to other people in the restaraunt so the owner can avoid paying them a decent wage as well

    And personally I’ve never based my quality on service by pre-judging my table, and find it offensive your guests make that assumption, because it’s something a “good” server would never do. And it’s important patrons take aminute to think about what the server really has control over during their meal. Though servers complete many tasks simultaneously during your service, they were not the ones who over-cooked your steak or under-poured your drink….

    • linda Operle

      I am in total agreement! Any server making that assumption should look for other work. As my daughter (a server) has commented a lot people who “look” well to do tip the worst and those showing up in jeans and a ratty t-shirt will often tip better.

  • jmco

    Just eat overseas where they do not tip. The average service in the U.S. is superb compared to France or other countries with no tipping or lower tipping. Europeans love to visit and eat in the U.S. in great part because the service is so better here. European waiters are no different than gas pumpers (for NJ, OR) or factory workers. They get paid just for getting the order from you and the food to you. Nothing more. Being nice or checking on the diner pays them NOTHING. So waiters vanish and meals are pretty slow (which, of course COULD be a good thing!)
    If tipping has any connection at all to service quality in the U.S., I say leave it alone! But we do need to eat slower here…

  • Keith m

    I like to tip when my server adds to my meal experience, either with great service or a ‘real’ nice personality. When I get bad service or pandering service, I don’t want to tip (or tip very big), but since it is expected I feel like the server will spot in my food next time.

    I say do away with the tipping line on the bill so it’s not expected, but let me drop 20% on the table for the server that deserves it.

    • marycaps

      “but let me drop 20% on the table for the server that deserves it.”

      so what you’re saying is that every waitress has to have the personality you specifically like in order to get paid? Isnt it enough that they are there taking your order,bringing you food and cleaning up after you ? If something is wrong then speak with a manager and pay the person like your supposed to. Its no secret that servers dont make much hourly per their employer. and its also no secret that servers tend to be human so not everyday is gonna be full of sunshine and wit.

      • JohnDorchester2

        The guy didn’t say 20% or nothing! He said he will drop 20% for those who deserve, meaning a lesser amount for those who do not. It is up to him to tip what he thinks is fair. If that doesn’t work for you, arrange a tip before a customer sits down for dinner.
        P.S. The norm for tip for average service (means most situations) is 15% and 20% for EXCEPTIONAL service.

  • catiekat

    As a former waitress I think I would support a service fee in place of tips. I used to work at a very small sandwich/crepe shop and I can’t tell you how many times I was left no tip by customers who blamed me for the fact that there weren’t more gluten free, South Beach diet items on our menu.

  • linda Operle

    As the mother of a waitress I can say if not for tips many nights my daughter would not have made enough money to pay for the gas it took her to get to work. It seems this analysis did not include discussions with actual wait staff that depends not on the per hr pay but rather on what they can make in tips to make it worth while to go to work.

  • Jessy

    This was timely! Just coming back from a shift where I made $22 for a 5 hour shift. Oh and I had to tip out 20% of my $22 to the busser and food runner. And the credit card usage fee is taken out of my $22 too. Most restaurants over staff shifts because they are only paying a nominal wage for all the staff, hindering us from making any money. I have had incidents where I got a huge tip and the manager talked the customer out if the tip, because they felt it was ‘exessive’. In general very few people in the industry actually make that $300 a shift. Most of us make very little. Everywhere else in the world has figured out a way that servers can make a decent living, have flexible hours and get insurance. Why cant the U.S do the same?

    • Shale

      I have worked for some incompetent and unprofessional managers/owners in my day, but I have NEVER heard of a manger talking a customer out of a generous tip! That is horrible and you should look for another job, especially if you don’t have at least two shifts a week where you break $100 in tips. If you are good at your job, you can do better. Do not waste your time working for a disrespectful manager at a perpetually slow restaurant. If I were out to eat and a manager came over to my table and tried to talk me out of a large tip I would be really offended and a little horrified! It is none of a managers business how much a server is getting tipped, a good tip is a compliment to the server and trying to talk a customer out of a good tip is like undermining a server.

      The fact that the credit card usage fee is taken out of your tips is also deplorable. You should really try to find a different job. Tipping out a bartender/busser is normal, tipping out the owner is not. Any restaurant that would purposefully overstaff is being run by complete idiots. Why would you pay staff to be there if not needed and waste your own money? Where I work we will get called off of work if it is too slow to justify having more servers than needed. There are better places for you to work, and I wish you the best of luck.

  • Karen

    I was a waitress for years and I was good! It actually does require some degree of skill and intelligence. I treated all of my guests the same and I made decent money.

    One night a table of 8 stiffed me on a $300 + check because they didn’t understand the fact that an inch thick steak takes longer to make than a plate of pasta and they saw tables around them receiving their entrees in a shorter amount of time. Often the waitress is punished due to the negligence of another person on staff, who screws up an order.

    I received $2.15 an hour and without those tips it was pretty difficult. I think it would be great if the servers received at least minimum wage, PLUS tips. It would eliminate the nauseating kiss ass servers. I don’t think tips make a difference in service.

    We were always told that if we were paid more, then food prices would increase and business would decrease. I think that the employer should be responsible for paying a decent wage and the tip should be given only for great service, in which case it WOULD be an incentive to the server.

    • JohnDorchester

      why minimum wage PLUS tips? why not just minimum wages?
      Of course it would be nice to get paid more….its called basic greed…

  • Jsizzle

    I am a professional server in my 50′s who is required to know about wine, how it pairs with the food we serve, and what each ingredient for each meal and app we serve in case of food allergies. I must also be able to quote local trivia, be aware of our extensive liquor cabinet and be able to read a table for the type of service they want and who is the table ” captain “. I am expected to tip my coworkers over 7% ( hostess, busser, bar, expo ) on the basis of my sales, not what I am tipped. If you want to send a message about service and you feel uncomfortable doing so at the restaurant, call the manager. Any decent place will still take care of you. This idea is good on paper, but would destroy service at mid level restaurants.

    • ServicePlease!

      I have been a server for 13 years and agree with everything you are saying. There are so many issues surrounding this topic, and this article in particular. My first issue is that the interviews for this story come from the management’s perspective. I have worked for countless managers/owners who haven’t lifted a tray in years, if ever! A person cannot truly comprehend the extent of our job without doing it themselves. I make a decent living on my tips, but I sweat, and run, and multitask, gauge personalities, avoid catastrophes, etc, while also maintaining an heir of confidence and warmth for the comfort of my guests. I deserve every dollar I make. And while i think the back of the house most certainly deserves to be paid better, I can’t count how many times I’ve had cooks tell me they can’t do the job we do. They would rather sweat over a stove for 10-12 hours and make a fraction of our income than deal with the public.

  • Mary Caps

    I work at a restaurant that pays the min. wage and we pull our tips between the servers,cooks and managers. It works very well, just about everyone in the diner cares about service and food quality and if they don’t care their career is short lived. We are one of the very few MD restaurants that pay the Min. wage along side pulled tips but most people do not realize this when coming to the diner. We have an 18% gratuity placed on all checks with a party of 5 or more and some patrons really have an issue with it even though as a waitress when I am at a restaurant I never leave my table with less than 20% as a tip no matter what I ordered or how many people i am eating with. I believe that a lot of patrons that have an issue with a standard tipping of 15-20% were never F&B employees. We are multi-tasking along side with being a therapist or punching bags for the people who had a bad day or who waited to long in their eyes. Our job requires us to be personable friendly and efficient no matter what our personal lives are like before or after we get to work. Also what i feel a lot of patrons fail to understand is that most of us are not working for pocket change to get that prom dress or go see the new movie that just came out, we are paying rent , BGE, water, groceries ect. This is the only career that the patrons really feel they have POWER over how a certain worker will get paid that day. I agree if you want to “punish” your server speak with a manager and decide if you will return or not but please rethink before you decide if this person will be able to get their dog the medication he needs along with paying rent or having to choose one over the other. Another thing to consider before thinking your service was the WORST realize that you CHOSE to to go a restaurant to be served by a complete stranger while another stranger cooks and prepares your food. Your CHOICE was to participate in an industry that relies heavily on tips. An industry that mostly does not provide health benefits so there is another bill that needs to be paid IF that person even has health insurance. I believe the younger servers/cooks are not aware of the service they signed up for but the older crowd (25-up) is there to serve and protect <–haha but seriously when i see a plate that I would not want placed in front of me I ask the cooks to remake it. So in a way I am protecting my patrons from an unpleasant experience while under my care. I have been in the F&B service since 2004 via diners, catering and a high end hotel. I have witnessed everything from entitlement to ignorance all the way up to appreciation and empathy. Some people get it but some people are so clueless as to what is going on when they step in to a restaurant. I think there needs to be a standard tipping across the bored OR get rid of tips and pay us like real people and bring up server pay.

  • choutlaw

    Re: tipping culture, I’m a restaurant manager and my place on this idea is that we need to, as a society, move away from the reward/punishment idea of tipping. Like Mr. Meyers points out, there are other ways to inform the restaurant that service was poor or any other problem. If there is a problem ask for a manager, don’t just leave a bad tip an not say anything. The manager on duty will try his or her best to rectify any service problem before you leave the restaurant to hopefully ensure your return. While leaving a bad tip hurts the entire staff, and causes significant financial harm for the server, rather than fixing the underlying problem.

  • Joe penz

    Maybe people who certainly haven’t waited a table in at least 20 years should keep their mouths shut about the subject. But don’t worry, print media is dying. And when you’re my bartender I’ll be sure to stiff you.

  • Horizon Star

    Thanks for opening my eyes, Here and Now! Now that I know my tip isn’t going to the waiter anyway, I have no qualms about not leaving one at all. I think I’ll never tip again!

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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