Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cumulative Tipping

I’ve never been much of a fan of tipping, even though I’ve worked for tips before in the restaurant business and as a taxicab driver. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s entirely subjective. Most people agree on what constitutes a reasonable tip for reasonable service, but the definition of “reasonable” is painfully elusive. Another problem with the current system is that tipping is based on the size of the bill, not on the quality or amount of service provided.

One of the biggest problems I have with restaurant service these days is the "fake service:"
  • Waiters who suggest “superior” entrees, as though they’re offering you an inside tip on a winning horse. If the entrees weren’t all good, they wouldn’t be on the menu.

  • Waiters who congratulate you on your choice, as though you clearly have a keen culinary eye. I know what I want, I don’t need validation.

  • Waiters who return to the table again and again, interrupting your meal or dinner conversation, to ask if everything is OK. If it wasn’t OK, you’d already know.

  • Managers who creep up to the table just to make sure the waiter has been asking you if everything is OK often enough. If it wasn’t OK, the waiter would have told you about it.
So I’m often tempted to reduce a tip based on the amount of bogus service I’m forced to endure, which of course is the opposite of what the restaurant intended.

The amount of service a waiter is able to perform for a customer is limited, which limits the opportunity to do it well:
  • Service must be prompt, with an understanding that there are busy times in restaurants and times when they are short-handed. If service isn’t prompt, waiters have to expect a reduction in tips, even if it’s not their fault.

  • Service must be accurate. Duh. If you can’t get the orders straight, find another line of work.

  • Waiters must be knowledgeable, able to answer questions about the items on the menu and how they are prepared. Waiters must know before they take an order if a menu item is no longer available. However, waiters can fake knowledge about wine, because wine snobs are just bullshit artists anyway.

  • Service must be flexible, allowing for the little peculiarities of diners. Salad dressing on the side? No problem. No onions? Just remove them. Whole wheat toast instead of hash browns? Yes, sir.
Simple, right? But the hard part is the small intangible things that distinguish a good waiter from an ordinary one:
  • Eyes in the back of your head. Waiters must be able to spot an unhappy diner from across the room, at any moment, drop what they’re doing and race to the rescue. There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering you don’t have silverware and spending ten minutes trying to flag down your waiter who is rushing around and NOT LOOKING while the gravy on your steak is slowly coagulating.

  • Personality. If you’re good at what you do, and it’s a busy night, you won’t spend much time at the table with your guests. So you have a brief period of time to make your guests feel welcome. However, you’re not auditioning for a part in a movie, so know when to shut up. If you don’t have a personality, please don’t try to manufacture one, it’s always a horrible failure.

  • Obsessive attention to detail. Nothing makes a better impression than a waiter who handles things you didn’t even expect them to handle. Once, while having coffee after a meal, I poured some cream into my cup. The waiter, rushing by with a tray of drinks for another table, ducked and grabbed my cup from me before I could stir it. He quickly returned with another cup of coffee and another pitcher of cream, because he had noticed that the cream was curdling in my coffee, indicating that it had gone sour. Now THAT was a waiter.
Even waiters who meet the minimum requirements and are able to excel at the intangibles run a risk of being stiffed by difficult or disgruntled diners, it’s just the way tipping works. So I propose a new system to replace our current, unreliable system. This system ensures that diners get the service they demand, and that waiters provide the service the diner requires. I call it Cumulative Tipping.

When diners are seated, they will find a slip of paper on the table, containing a list of service objectives the restaurant is trying to achieve, each with a little space to write in an amount. So a list might look like this:
    Waiter arrived promptly__________

    Drink order taken and delivered correctly__________

    Waiter courteous and knowledgeable__________

    Meal arrived within a reasonable time__________

    Order accurate and complete__________

    Extra service__________
As the evening progresses, diners write in small amounts for each service item, which are visible to the waiter with each visit to the table. Cheap diners will get less attention than generous ones, and can’t really complain about it (although they will). When the meal is complete, diners may add to the cumulative tally any additional amount they desire to further compensate the waiter, which will typically be a proportion of the total bill.

Oh, and there will be one last item on the list:
    Guy who thought this up________


burton said...

I am more tolerant on the whole waiter/waitress thing. I feel for them because they have to constantly deal with people that treat them all like they are entrants at a dog and pony show. We share a friend who knocks off part of the tip even if a straw wrapper remains on the table between visits by the wait staff. To me, that is offensive and demeaning.

All one has to do for me to be satisfied is attend to you promptly after seating, take responsibility for any errors, check in (not necessarily verbally) fairly often for basic procedural items, and refrain from sharing their bad day with our party. I know it sounds too simple for most people.

This person is working for a living just like us and admirably so in a customer service position. It takes a lot to rub me the wrong way during a dining experience.

For that reason, I stick to the 20% rule. However, if a waiter or waitress has rubbed me the wrong way with those easy standards, you get stiffed. I have only fully stiffed a waiter once - but it was a situation where I was convinced he fully wrote us off in favor of two larger parties. If my tip was not important to him, then I need to hang on to it.

I say keep it simple and give them a little break. There are some people in this line of work that do not belong. Those people will not appreciate the feedback which would defeat the purpose of the system since the better waiters/waitresses are the only ones who will worry about the feedback. You probably should not try to encourage a bad waiter to be nice to you with a system like this. In the immortal words of RK, you can't put a pig in a dress and pass him off as a lady.

Anonymous said...

I dont agree a percentage is the totally correct way to go. Why should a waiter get more for correctly serving 1 glass of wine and 1 steak than correctly serving 1 coke and 1 chicken?? The effort required on the waiter is exactly the same in fact with free refills on soda, ice and straws it actually needs more work than a glass of vino.