By Jacqueline DeMuro
Recently Dave Infante, some guy over at Thrillist, published a piece entitled, Why You Should Stop Tipping Your Server (he also very helpfully, in the body of the post, delineated several “Reasons Not To Tip”) — it was also subsequently published by HuffPo. According to Mr. Infante he drew his inspiration from an argument made by one Mr. Greg Linster over at a blog entitled Rationally Speaking.
To be fair, Mr. Linster was exploring the custom of tipping as an Economist. In his piece he explored why, based on what is considered sound economic theory, Americans tip restaurant workers but do not apply the same generosity to, say, auto mechanics who, he reasoned, may do a more “important” job for the average consumer. He muddied the waters of his argument a bit by throwing grocery clerks and baggers into the mix, but still he managed to make his point, which was that tipping is not “rational”, insofar as economic theory defines rationality.
He managed to answer his own question when he admitted that auto mechanics (and grocery workers) are not tipped because they are paid a fair wage by their employers. This, of course, is not the case for servers and bartenders, a class of worker who, in most States, make less than minimum wage. I’m lucky enough to work as a server/bartender in the State of New Jersey, a place where restaurant owners are allowed to pay their workers a wage that is far below minimum wage (and, let me just add, the lowest wage in the country for service workers) — $2.13/hour.
Mr. Linster reasoned that, unlike the proprietors of automotive service stations (or grocery stores), restaurant owners protect their financial bottom lines by unfairly transferring all of the economic risks associated with running a business to their workers and, by default, to their customers. This is only partly true. Restaurant owners do pay the salaries of the back of the house staff. Still, Mr. Linster makes a solid point with respect to the risk-reward relationship that exists between restaurant owners and front of the house employees.
What Mr. Linster does not do is get on his soap box and shout “STOP TIPPING!”, in fact, he ends his essay by saying this:
While it’s unlikely that the irrational practice of tipping will become antiquated any time soon, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that it is, at least theoretically, problematic and that the arguments for keeping it are rather weak. Irrational as it may be, I will continue to tip quite generously until something does change.
Using Mr. Linster’s argument, it is Mr. Infante who drags out said soap box and leads the charge with his headline grabbing Thrillist post — a post that encourages readers (and, more importantly, diners) to abandon the practice of tipping. His reasoning? It will force restaurant owners to pay their staff. He goes so far as to suggest that, to this end, all restaurant owners have to do is add 20% to their menu prices and, Voila!, no more tipping! Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
It is simple. It is also simple-minded. Like Communism, it is one of those things that look great on paper. It sounds good. I would argue that it is only a good idea in theory. I sincerely doubt that it would ever work in practice. The assumption Mr. Infante makes — and conveniently omits from his article — is that restaurant owners would take this price increase and willingly share it with their front of house staff. This, of course, presupposes that restaurant owners are an altruistic bunch with Socialist tendencies. It has been my experience that they are neither altruists nor Socialists. In other words, it would be a cold day in hell before servers were paid a fair and living wage by the average restaurateur, not so long as they are allowed by law to pay them $2.13/hour.
No restaurant owner in his or her right mind is going to fork over a 20% menu price increase to its front of house staff, not willingly anyway. Servers will NEVER be paid that kind of money by a restaurant owner. NEVER! (Take a close look at the catering industry if you want proof that this is the case. What? You thought that the gratuity you paid to the restaurant where your company hosted that last retirement dinner you attended actually divvied up the gratuity they charged you fairly amongst its staff? Think again. I guarantee you the house took a generous cut. The house usually does.)
This, of course, begs the question, “How do we transfer the risk to the restaurant owner?” The only answer I can come up with is legislation. Write your member of Congress, call your Assemblyperson, fax your State Senator. Get a group of like-minded folks together and start an organization to unionize restaurant workers. Hire lobbyists. Go ahead. Change the system. I’ll be right there with you. But don’t write inflammatory nonsense encouraging people to stop tipping $2.13/hour workers. That’s just silly. And counterproductive. Hurting the little guy won’t change anything. Not in any meaningful way, anyway.
I would love to ask Mr. Infante a few questions related to his arrangement with Thrillist. Questions like: Was he paid to write the article? If so, did he receive a flat rate? Is there some provision in his contract, if he even has a contract, that allows him to share in the ad revenues from a post that generated such a large number of “hits”? If not, will he be asking the good folks over at Thrillist to share this increased revenue with him? Will they do so?
I doubt they will. It has been my experience that writers, like servers, are an undervalued, unappreciated, and underpaid bunch. Still, it would be nice to think that we have each other’s backs.