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October 6, 2009

Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays: The tipping point


You know, the more I think about it, the more I like Owl Meat's suggestion for a new tipping system. Take it away, Mr. OMG:

Tipping in America is an epic fail.

It foments tension where there should be digestion. It's demeaning to workers. It has whiffs of blackmail and bribery. It's a chance for cheapskates to stiff someone. Good and bad service are often rewarded similarly because of social pressure or mandatory service charges.

Americans tip about 42 billion dollars a year in the food industry. Tipping is supposed to improve service, but research shows otherwise:

"this common wisdom might be wrong. Empirical evidence suggests that tips are hardly affected by service quality."

Here at the Owl Meat Drink, er, Think Tank we propose a new system: free market tipping. The concept is simple ...

Bartenders and servers set their own minimum tip rates. No government interference or "living wage" nonsense. Customers choose their server from a menu of photos and backgrounds. Goodbye to the indignity of monetizing human behavior after a night out.

Do I want suave, mustachioed Antonio, with twenty years of fine dining experience (25%), or twitchy Mindy, a student with one month's experience (13%)? The miserly and wanton might choose turbo-hottie Mindy. The discerning gourmand and pretentious tool might select Antonio.

This system has many advantages. It encourages employees to maximize sales, which is good for them and owners. Employees never get stiffed. Patrons don't have to guilt-tip. Foreigners can't plead ignorance. Customers and employees both have a sense of control. Tipping above the minimum is allowed, so there is an incentive to excel. Antonio has a nasty gambling habit, so you might negotiate him down on a slow night.

This adds complexity and might not work everywhere, such as a small bar. You could set one rate per bar or restaurant and let them compete with each other on the price of service.

Service is a commodity and should be subject to free market competition. We already do the math, we just don't translate it properly into money. I go to certain bars on certain nights, because I like the bartender. I don't mind paying more for good service, but I also want to pay less for poor service. One often hears that a restaurant's food is good, but the service is poor. Let's pay commensurately for that service.

The tango of the tip is complex. That won't change, but this would make it more rational and less stressful. Let's destroy the old system and set up a free market for all parties. Welcome to America where everything is for sale, now let's agree on a price.

(Photo by Getty Images)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 7:38 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays


While I don't understand everything he's saying, this doesn't acknowledge the fact that high minimum tip rates would likely deter otherwise good business from walking through the door. While guilt-tipping is common, I think people prefer the option of not tipping at all (even if they've never stiffed a waiter). This would actually take control away from the consumer and give it to the restaurant, which I think many customers would protest on principle. Only extraordinarily good restaurants could get away with something like this, and many of them already do it with minimum gratuity percentages and so forth.

If a system like this were to become popular I could see other restaurants countering it with their own advertising: "No Tips Rates," et cetera. I don't think this is workable.

I've never walked into a restaurant with the thought that not tipping at all was a viable option.

If social norms require that you tip and social status egotism requires that you overtip, then tipping isn't really voluntary as it is in many civilized countries.

Leaving more than a token bit of change is considered insulting in some European countries. Waiters take their jobs seriously; they are taken aback that one would have to be bribed to do their job properly. But I guess that research paper shows that bribing yor server doesn't get you better service anyway.

People now consider 15% to be the tip for very bad service, rather than 0%. It's messed up.

Doesn't this just amount to a mandatory service charge, but with more headache and complexity and bad feelings among the staff?

Why poke a stick at a hornet's nest? It would easier fix health care.

much better to estimate the tab up front, put the tip on the table in 1's and every time the waiter/waitress screws up remove a dollar (conversely, if they are exceptional, you can always add to the pile.) trust me, a server will eye the cash until you leave so they will know how they're doing through out the meal!

Wow, that's harsh, ss2. I've never seen anyone do that. It's not at all degrading to the server. I wonder what the ramifications of treating someone like a dancing monkey would be? At the end of the meal do you make it rain? LQTM (Laughing Quietly To Myself)

I can't wait until the Japanese invent a wait-bot.

No need to wait for robots. Here's a video of Japanese monkeys working as waiters. Banana tipping!

We've covered this topic at least twice before, Maybe Sam will put the referred links in later.

Even give the opinion of not tipping, people will if it's a favored eatery, bar, etc. and they expect or want to go back and expect at least decent service.
A teacher I had at school was horrified and embarrassed by the person paying for their lunch left one cent to represent each person at the table because she HATED the service and wanted it known by the waiter. Few people have that degree of courage and conviction to act on their opinion.

I know of a case where the waiter have followed a very demanding family of customers out to the parking lot because he felt stiffed, they actually left nothing, and demanded to know why.

I also know of a case where a waitress was run ragged by a party of 35 people who ran up a bill of about $850 and the woman paying the bill only gave the waitress a $20 tip. She question if there was anything lack in her performance an the woman reply no. The waitress told her not to ever come back again. The women demanded to speak with the manager. The manager hearing the whole story aslo told her never to come back again.

Which leads one to suggest people take some consideration on how the behaved as a customer when tipping. Just because you are a paying customer doesn't mean you should act to some degree like a guest.

I guess the question is why is this issue so dysfunctional in the U.S. and not elsewhere?

GDA, I know this topic has been discussed before and people go around and around but never come up with a solution. I thought this might be such a solution or at least a conversation starter.

The beauty of my idea is that theoretically everybody would be happy.

One flaw in the idea is that a restaurant owner or corporation would have to care that their employees occasionally get stiffed.

Sorry I don't completely follow Owl Meat's idea. it sounds a bit complicated. I always thought that tipping on a percentage of the bill was ridiculous. It doesn't take any more work to bring me two $30 steaks and a bottle of wine than it does to bring me two $3 ham sandwiches and iced teas.

Why not just publish a standard tip rate list available at every establishment for the asking (and made available online so you can grab it on your Blackberry at the location) listing the latest rate schedules for tipping that aren't based on how much money you spend. I'd call it the National Standard Tip Rate Guide. It would be based on how much time the server spent with you, what area you lived in, and the quality of the service they provided. So a typical National Standard Tip Rate Guide entry would be labelled as follows: "STATE: NEW YORK - CITY: YONKERS - AREA: WESTCHESTER COUNTY - TIME: UNDER 1 HOUR - SERVICE QUALITY: ACCEPTABLE TO GOOD - RATE $2.00. See what I mean? Easy.

By the way, I almost always select my server when I visit a restaurant. I don't let them select my server for me unless it's absolutely necessary.

Interesting idea, johnnycat. Tipping by percentage is kind of stupid. Why should someone get tipped differently for a $1 Natty Boh and a Belgian ale in the place at the same time. They shouldn't.

I kind of like the idea of paying for service like a parking meter. Why not? It might be good for owners because it would discourage people from lingering over coffee for an hour and a half. If they do, the server is happy but the owner might not be. It would discourage lingering and promote table turnover in general and that would make owners happy.

Renting a bar stool? I would go broke. It might shorten those lengthy smoke breaks outside.

You could still have different hourly service rates for better servers.

Service per hour is an easy item to post on a menu outside or on a web site. Competition depends upon consumers having easy to acquire complete information on prices.

Insane. Just pay them all a decent wage and raise the prices to cover that cost.

Owl Meat Gravy,

There may be down side to parking meter approach in that people will avoid the places that traditional they go to leisurely dine if they have to keep an eye on the clock. It kind of creates a fast food mentality that may be resented.

I wonder if it would be a boom for places with take out service?

I gotta a feeling...that tonight is gonna be a good night..oooowhoo

tipping is for sissies..get drunk, stay high..

Insane. Just pay them all a decent wage and raise the prices to cover that cost.

Socialism!!! Welfare!!! Aaaaaaaa.........


"Just pay them all a decent wage and raise the prices to cover that cost."

Nice idea that has been proposed before
assuming you could get all businesses to do that, how do you motivate good service.

Extreme case,
Actor David Hyde Pierce once gave an account of going to a restaurant in the then Soviet Union under Communism, where because no one ever tipped or got merit raises, he and his party had a great deal of trouble in getting any of the wait staff to wait on them or to come back as needed and they were the only people in the restaurant.

How good is the service at your local fast food eateries* (i.e. McDonalds) compared to any regular sit down restaurant? It seems you get the best effort from the manager and new employees, if you’re not a regular in their good graces.
I’ve worked fast food, there are some people who you enjoy serving and are will to make a little more effort for as the situation permits, and there’s those you do the minimum you need to do get rid of them as soon as possible. Human nature but not really good for business reputation.

An awful lot of this seems to re-inventing the wheel and changing how people think, which is difficult because things have been so entrenched for so long.

* Fast food is the only place that forbids tipping, especially if you’re a counterperson, they assume you are stealing.

Fast-food workers get a decent wage? What color is the ketchup in your world?

I think you're right, GDA. Now let's fix health care.

On the other hand, the government seems to be getting people to sneeze into their elbows, so never say never.

Changing the psychology of people and then their behavior is hard but not impossible. Consider the screw cap on wines. Long considered an abomination, it is now widely accepted among wine fans. Some good and even very good wines are screw capped now. The most ordinary house wines served in bars all seem to have corks or fake synthetic corks. Change moves down from the top.

This is how things might change in my imaginary universe and it involves market forces. Imagine a group of high end New York restaurants forming the League of Gold Service (LOGS). They establish standards for service and guarantee that they will have the best service and will not allow tipping.

They can say that they have great service and you don't ave to bribe anyone to get it. Consider the more relaxed attitude betwen server and customer as an extra benefit. They work out some formulae to with servers to compensate them well and add incentives for upselling, basically like commission sales. All this is hidden from the diner.

When you establish this new standard as the new trendy mark of the elite, other restaurants will want to associate themselves with the elite. Elite restaurants have elite customers. You could see how this might catch on.

Thanks for letting me think out loud.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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