Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hey! How about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know?

Jim over at AbeLog has got his dander up again over the time-honored practice of tipping at restaurants. It’s a frustration shared by many, myself included, and one that requires a creative solution if we are to preserve the prospects of a pleasurable dining experience.

Restaurants, most of which operate on the thinnest of profit margins, are obviously not interested in ceding their customer subsidized salary funding. It goes without saying that if tipping were eliminated, menu prices would need to increase to cover the higher hourly wage that would be required. As reasonable as it might seem to simply eliminate tipping at restaurants, many will be adversely affected.

Freeloaders, who feel no shame in enjoying pre-tip prices without leaving anything extra behind, will find it much more expensive to dine out. Given their total disregard for the accepted customs of society, it's best if these people just stay home and eat Hot Pockets while watching their stolen cable TV.

More of a concern are the waitresses and waiters at the top of their game who probably wouldn’t be compensated with a wage commensurate with their generous tips. It would be a shame to eliminate a decent paying job that doesn’t require a college degree, but does reward a person who is courteous, conscientious, and hardworking.

But perhaps the biggest loss would be the system of meritocracy that is created by tipping. While managers of fast-food restaurants must contend with employees who see no reason to speak when a customer approaches the counter, believing that the briefest instance of eye contact is sufficient for instigating the exchange of money for sustenance, sit-down restaurants can rely on a monetary incentive to encourage their employees to exhibit interpersonal traits at a level higher than is found in plant life. The quest for a healthy gratuity usually, but not always, provides the necessary impetus to keep water glasses filled and soup off of the customers.

While I’m not a fan of subsidizing private enterprises, I do favor performance-driven compensation in the workplace. That is why I would propose a social experiment be conducted at some forward-thinking restaurant to see if the former can be eliminated while maintaining the latter.

In this new framework that I’m proposing, customers could still have a say in their waitpersons compensation based on their performance, but they wouldn’t be required to foot the bill for the bonus.

A comment card would be presented with the check that includes a grade scale for rating service. The waiter would then receive an additional flat sum of money from the restaurant that corresponds to their grade, with some type of multiplier thrown-in to account for the number of people at the table.

Under this system, restaurants could reward their good employees and motivate the others to do better, waitpersons would have an incentive to do their best, and diners would still enjoy some semblance of the master/servant relationship that can make dining out a desirable experience.

The question that remains unanswered is will customers respond appropriately to maintain a measure meritocracy and to not expend the restaurant’s revenues beyond what is actually being “earned” by their servers. The skinflints who wouldn’t leave so much as a quarter behind even if their waitress Heimlichly dislodged a chicken bone from their gullet, might be a bit more generous since it isn’t coming out of their deep pockets. But for the most part, I think that diners would grade judiciously. People consider poor service an affront to their rights as a consumer and wouldn’t reward a wayward server.

By making the incentive pay a flat rate, the inequity inherent in the current system that arises from the practice of tipping a percentage of the entire check can be eliminated. For example: waitress A serves two house specials and a $40 bottle of wine to her table while waitress B serves two house specials and $20 bottle of wine to her table. Even though serving a more expensive wine doesn’t require any extra effort, waitress A would receive a much larger tip under the current system. Under the new system, each would be rewarded based on the diners' assessment of their performance.

It could be argued that anyone drawing a paycheck should feel compelled to do a good job whether they are working at Schnuck’s or Sebastian’s. This is true, but it ignores some very real differences. A restaurant requires that their staff provide a more intimate level of service. Diners wish to be catered to and their expectations are higher. A half-wit cashier can be tolerated for the amount of time it takes to checkout of a grocery store, but an inattentive waiter can ruin a much-anticipated evening out.

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