I wrote a short article about how tipping promotes bad service, for Quartz, a publication of Atlantic Media. It draws somewhat on the experiences I’ve recounted so far on this blog, and also includes some new thoughts.
This is part 5 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
“This isn’t about money,” the man would say.
He’d be the one person in a thousand, or in ten thousand, who’d get angry about our fixed service charge. Angry about his lack of control over the price, angry about not being the final arbiter of our service. You could count on him being male, at least when we’re talking about public scenes. (I’ve heard of a few women who got pretty mad about it in private.)
And his go-to line was so predictable, we would wait for it, anticipate it. “I always tip way more than twenty percent!”
If that was the case, why were these guys so mad about paying only 18%, far less than they otherwise would? What was it about not choosing the amount they tipped, that infuriated them, even when they were getting a discount?
It had to be at least partially about lack of control. Or, more accurately, lack of imagined control. This guy thought that, in a tipped environment, his server would perform better in order to get more of his money. That idea is false, as shown both by repeated studies and common sense, but that was irrelevant. His anger could not be redeemed by mere facts.
Then what was this rage so primal that no exposure to reality could relieve it?
As this scenario presented itself through the years, its details started to hint at the anger’s wellspring. In the US, over 70% of restaurant servers are female, most of them under 30 — a statistic that well described our service team. And the person who was pissed he couldn’t tip them would be male, I’d guess usually between 35 and 55.
I began to notice that his hostility was not the frustration of a consumer who’d paid for a faulty product — we would occasionally encounter that kind of frustration, and this was different. No, this anger was much more evocative of a man betrayed. As we watched the scene repeat, I started to draw assocations with certain cultural archetypes — the rage of a man who finds out he’s been cuckolded, or the man whose lover tells him she’s always faked her orgasms. In time I drew the conclusion that our tipping ritual is only nominally a business arrangement. Under the surface, it is much more a convention about sex and power.
At this point I have to admit some uncomfortable truths. Before we switched to a non-tipping system, I was pretty much like these guys. Perhaps that just made me like most guys. I like to think I was generally nice to people, and I’m sure I always tipped way more than twenty percent. But I, like many males, loved the rush of having my needs attended to by young, attractive, female servers. And there was always the promise that something special might happen, and one of these icons of sexual fulfillment would succumb to my charms. It went without saying that my fat wallet and generosity would be key assets in such an conquest.
I don’t think I was unusual in harboring such thoughts. The meme of sleeping with our waitress is important to Americans. Like all our treasured myths, it’s embedded in our popular culture. Three examples come to my mind in a matter of seconds:
- Warren Zevon introduces the narrator of his brilliant song “Lawyers, Guns and Money” with the opening lyrics “I went home with a waitress / The way I always do.” From that point on, we know this man is a badass who lives a life we can only wish for ourselves.
- In a well-remembered episode of Sex and the City, when Samantha and her boyfriend arrange his birthday fantasy, an “all-night fuck fest” with another woman, it’s with — who else — their hot waitress.
- San Diego’s leading bartender-essayist, Edwin Decker, captured American attitudes about both flight attendants and servers when he wrote that “flight attendants are little more than waitresses in the sky….Nobody cares that she has had first-aid and crisis training….All anyone cares about is how quickly she delivers your chicken patty and what she looks like naked: the definition of a waitress.”
My point here, like Edwin Decker’s, is that we Americans — at the very least heterosexual American men — spend a fair amount of time thinking about having sex with waitresses. (I’ll leave as a bonus item The Waitresses, an 80’s band from Ohio with a pouty frontwoman who sang I Know What Boys Like.)
And in a context where we expect waitresses to both work for our tips and be objects of sexual attraction, their work and their sex appeal become two sides of the same coin. In the dining room, we assume that our server looks sexy because she wants to make more money from the men who are tipping her.
Even after I became an employer of professional servers, I attributed the sexiness of our tipped female employees to their desire to increase their income. Put simply, I blithely assumed that servers had the same basic motivations as exotic dancers. In those early days, our restaurant was perhaps primarily a place where young, smart, attractive people worked, and played. I figured the business of women looking good for money was the engine that drove the flirtatiousness in our dining room.
When we switched from taking tips to a flat service charge with no tipping allowed, I shrugged my shoulders a bit wistfully, assuming that the sex appeal for which we were known would become a thing of the past. That was OK with me — I enjoyed that part of what we did but it wasn’t the point of our restaurant, nor was it the reason I was in the industry. As long as our servers did a good job, it was fine if they decided to stop being “hot waitresses.”
Imagine my surprise when that didn’t happen. Not only did the women who worked for us keep up their appearances, they, if anything, actually turned up the dial.
I wondered what was going on — my expectations were confounded. However, it was clear that we were now the only restaurant in the US where, patently, if a female server chose to look sexy, it was most likely because she felt like looking sexy. If a server flirted with you, it was because she wanted to flirt with you. Not because she wanted your money; but because she was enjoying flirting with you. It didn’t affect her night’s income at all.
This opened up a world of possibility. A place where both patron and worker, as peers and neighbors, could bring their whole selves literally to the table. Not just playing their roles as master and servant, but as real people exhibiting their sense of humor, their playfulness, and, being human, their sexuality.
I saw that, in a tipless environment our female servers had the potential to be perceived as whole persons. From that, it was easy to see that in a tipping environment, we push the job of waitressing into a realm that nestles alongside sex work; a realm where any sexuality the woman shows is assumed to be solely because she wants to get paid. The social construct is that this woman — be she a server, a dancer, or an escort — can never like sex but can only pretend to like sex for money. In this contract, any sexual expression in which she engages in is because she is, effectively, a prostitute.
But when attention-for-payment is removed, and the female server transforms from “sex worker lite” to a person whose own robust sexuality can now be acknowledged — this is now a moment of vulnerability for everyone involved. It’s a threat to the male patron who no longer has the prospect of withholding income to protect himself from rejection. It may be a scary moment for a female customer on a date, who now weirdly has a potential rival — not a marginalized servant — joining her at the table as perhaps more than a third wheel. It’s a moment ripe with opportunity for new connections, but that opportunity comes at the cost of everybody being exposed. And the feeling of being vulnerable is not necessarily what people are looking for when they dine out.
From what I saw, that scary moment lies at the heart of the fury arising in some of us, when the emotional shield of tipping is removed.
The next question, of why acknowledging female sexuality would be such a flash point for us, of course comprises a whole field of inquiry. I don’t think we need to arrive at an answer here; we can still see the relationship between that force and tipping culture. However, there is some research that I think relates to this question in an interesting way. I cite it here not to make an open-and-shut case, but instead with the idea that it might spur some interesting reflection and discussion.
We know from anthropologists that the context in which humans evolved was fairly steady for the last 200,000 years or so, up until the last four to ten thousand years, when a major change happened: the introduction of agriculture. Before agriculture, we had typically lived in roaming bands of 100-200 people, carrying only a few things with us. After agriculture, our societies became stationary, and that allowed us to own more things than we could carry — including land, animals, and, in some cases, other people. We started to value, and inherit, possessions. If you’ve read the book Ishmael, then you know this story, laid out as an elegant parable of “Takers” and “Leavers.”
Another book, Sex at Dawn, a 2010 nonfiction bestseller by researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, details how human culture may have changed as we moved from being nomadic to agricultural. The book is fascinating, well-researched and too intricate to sum up in this blog post. However, relevant to our discussion is this: the authors make a compelling scientific case that, for most of our history, humans lived in polyandrous, matrilineal groups. By this, I mean the authors show that pre-agricultural women probably usually had sex with a lot of men. And that at least sometimes, salaciously enough, women had sex with a lot of men at more or less the same time, consecutively. (The colloqualism I’m dancing around here is “gangbang”.)
In our pre-agricultural past, it wasn’t really important who your father was, since there was nothing to inherit, and child-raising was a responsibility shared by the group. The very idea of paternity was a social construct that didn’t arise until men owned farms, and passed possessions to their children.
After agriculture, our sudden interest in knowing our paternity meant that female monogamy (technically, monandry) became, out of the blue, essential. Human culture had developed around female appetites, but now we had to denigrate anything that reminded us of women’s sexuality. Thus, in contemporary culture, women with strong sex drives are “hysterical”, “wanton”, “nymphomaniacs” or “whorish”. Parents agonize over their daughters dressing “like sluts”; boyfriends worry that their girlfriends are dressing too provocatively in bars.
As a culture, faced with this fear, we go on to develop roles for women where any display of their sexuality can be negated as being just another form of prostitution. Thus, the subtle, sneering undercurrent of the phrase working for tips.
To sum up: I’m proposing that tipping allows us to assign women a role where any sexuality they display can be attributed not to their desires but instead to their greed for money. In doing so, we both dehumanize and desexualize women, in large numbers. We do this to shield ourselves from the cultural memory of a time not too long ago, when virile women called the shots and nobody was too concerned if your wife was getting around. (Because she was.) (Maybe she still is.)
Tipping, as we use it in America, allows our culture perpetuate the meme that women aren’t themselves sexual, but only pretend to like sex in order to make money — because a woman who isn’t sexual would never cuckold her man.
I’ve come to believe that propping up this meme is the more important role of tipping; and the suggestion that tips insure better service is just a ruse, misdirection.
About the time this was all sinking in, I met some folks from the University of Guelph, near Toronto, who clued me into a whole world of research about the role of tipping in the workplace. Through them, I was exposed to new insights about how tipping also serves as a “workaround” to — or more properly, how it defeats — values we demand of employers and managers. In the next post, I’ll look at tipping through the lens of civil rights and social justice, and see how it’s plausible that courts or legislatures could make tip compensation illegal in the next decade or two.
This is part 4 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here; and Part 3 is here.
A few years into operating the Linkery, we got the opportunity to open a second restaurant, which became our “gastro-cantina”, El Take It Easy. While the Linkery had proven successful with a menu driven by housemade sausages, local produce and craft beer, our personal interests were taking us further afield. Specifically, we were becoming involved in the exciting cuisines developing a few miles to south — on the streets of Tijuana, along the sea in Ensenada and in the valleys of Mexican wine country.
Creating a separate restaurant for our Baja-influenced food would, we thought, both make the Linkery more focused on its core cuisine and also give us the opportunity to do our best work in the contemporary Mexican idioms. More importantly, we hoped to help spread the news, well-known in North Baja but well-hidden in the US, that San Diego/Tijuana is functionally one city, albeit one with a wall running through it. We aimed to encourage San Diegans to enjoy some of the best parts of our region, specifically the chefs, artisans, winemakers and brewers that worked next door to us, who in many cases call upon the resources of both San Diego and North Baja to create their art.
It now seems our project was surprisingly successful in its cultural goals. Over the last few years, we’ve seen San Diegans embrace the culinary world of Baja as a regional treasure, and many of our friends from the Mexican side of the region have become much better known in San Diego and in the US as a whole. We don’t know how much of this we caused, but we do know that we had a lot of success with dinners featuring visiting Baja chefs, with other events featuring Mexican producers, and that we got our message out through a lot of media outlets. We think that all this helped bring the culinary region together.
In spite of those successes, though, we never did get El Take It Easy to work right as a restaurant. The were times when we couldn’t make anything in the restaurant work well. There were also brief moments, a year or two in, when we felt we were serving some of the most compelling and delicious food that you could get in the city, in a fun environment with good hospitality. Ultimately we came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter — either way there wasn’t a very big market for what we wanted to do. In the end, the small size of our (awesome and loyal) customer base made it impossible for us to achieve the level of excellence we envisioned. In fact, our quality started to go in the other direction. We closed the restaurant, accepting that we were not in the right business. I own all the mistakes and miscalculations: I thought El Take It Easy was going to be a vibrant part of the neighborhood, and I was wrong.
That said, there was a huge contrast between leading the Linkery and leading El Take It Easy, which unlike the Linkery accepted tips.
When we opened El Take It Easy, we used the Linkery “no-tipping” system, because it had proven to give us a competitive advantage on several fronts. However, a little while in, we introduced liquor and craft cocktails to El Take It Easy, and things changed. In a crowded bar, bartenders are expected to just say the price of a drink order to a guest — we wouldn’t present physical checks. And it was during the presentation of the physical checks that we could best explain the service charge/no-tipping concept. The check also had the policy explained on it, so guests had a pretty good chance of understanding what was going on.
In a loud bar, even if we had insisted on presenting checks, we observed that guests weren’t listening or reading much — they just wanted to know the price, and to pay. Given that the line item service charge seemed like a lost cause, we switched to building the service cost into our pricing. This is known as service compris, and a lot of people advocate for it, but it wasn’t a success for us.
With service compris, an $8.50 cocktail became a $10 cocktail on the menu, and that was a huge psychological leap for our market, where $8.50 craft cocktails were still a fairly recent development. Talking to people in our community, we got pushback on the idea of $10 drinks. Not many people were subtracting the now-missing tip from the price. Explaining service compris at the bar itself every night was an issue, too, because the explanation “don’t tip, it’s already included, anything extra you leave goes to charity” is frankly too damn confusing for someone who just wants their G&T, ASAP.
So this, then, is my answer to a question I’m commonly asked about the Linkery, why didn’t you dispense with the service charge altogether and just increase the prices on the menu? When we included the service charge in the menu prices at El Take It Easy, many people then thought our prices were more expensive than equally-priced competitors who accepted tips and listed lower menu prices. When people see prices on a menu, they don’t look deeper to calculate how many surcharges (including supposedly “voluntary” surcharges like tips) will be added on. People just assume the place with higher prices on their printed menu is more expensive.
If we wanted to charge a fixed amount for table service, then, we’d need to have a line item charge — but we hadn’t been able to make the line-item charge work in the bar environment.
Faced with these logistical and competitive constraints, we looked once again at the tipping model, and decided it was probably our best option. If it was good enough for every other restaurant and bar in the US, we reasoned, surely we could find a way to make it work. So we switched back to the tipping model, at El Take It Easy only.
Which created a context, in my opinion, where we could never get our service as good as we wanted it. Tipping got in the way of us helping people get better at their jobs. In many ways tipping culture made leadership of the restaurant an unpleasant chore, no matter who stepped into the breach.
At both restaurants, like most businesses, we would always have a certain spectrum of abilities in our team. Some team members were excellent at hospitality, some were well-intentioned but inexperienced, and a certain number really needed to re-think how they did things if they were going to get good at their jobs. At the Linkery, we had a lot of successes in helping people improve all the way to the top level. At El Take It Easy, it rarely happened, and when it did, it was in my observation due primarily to the talent and drive of that person, not due to the culture or leadership at the restaurant.
For starters, Michael (our company’s Director of Operations) and I found that we just didn’t like working there. We felt that even though the service quality was almost always below our goals, we had a hard time getting buy-in that improving our service quality was important. Our sense was that our weak team members looked at their tips — which of course were close to normal since most people don’t adjust their tips much for bad service — and concluded that, in spite of what we were suggesting, they were already doing sufficiently good work. If I’m good enough to make my tips, it’s obvious that I don’t need to improve.
Restaurant owners and managers are encouraged to embrace tipping because, supposedly, the customer’s tipping decision holds the server accountable for quality, relieving the restaurant of costs spent on supervising and supporting their servers. But in truth — as shown by the Michael Lynn research mentioned in the last post — customers largely abdicate that role. Instead the customers give only very weak feedback to the server with their tips, and in my observation even the worst servers take the lack of strong negative feedback as confirmation that they are providing acceptable service. So here’s yet another, profound, way that tipping promotes bad service and hurts both businesses and customers: Because tipping correlates weakly to service quality, and because individual tips are always subject to interpretation, tipping removes the incentive for poor performing servers to improve.
At El Take It Easy, our top servers were aware that some of their peers were not doing good work, and spoke openly with about it with the managers. In fact, I’d say the whole team was at least somewhat aware that, as a team, we were not consistently providing excellent service. But few of our servers, if any, felt that they themselves could improve the team’s service by improving their own work. In any business, if the working team leads (in this case, the senior servers) aren’t setting the cultural expectation of accountability for the success of the group, it’s impossible to achieve excellent work.
To contrast, at the Linkery, we continually found great leaders in our floor team. It seemed like they came out of nowhere; someone would work with us for a while and then one day we’d notice that he or she was going the extra length to make the rest of the team better. Simultaneously, we had a system of raises and promotions like most companies do, and the people we saw as doing their jobs the best tended to rise through that system. So the very traits that made our business successful, and made working fun, were rewarded.
Meanwhile, at El Take It Easy, we would encourage our better servers to take a leadership role, but when they tried to do so, they’d soon let us know that they were getting too much resistance from their co-workers to have any positive effect. And, of course, at El Take It Easy payment ultimately came from the separate contract between server and guest; there was no meaningful path through the company for our most effective performers.
Obviously, accountability doesn’t end with the service leads, it goes all the way to senior management. I clearly was the core of the problem, and I accept that. There was something I was doing — I never really figured out what it was, but I know I’m the culprit — that was allowing our service to be consistently less than excellent. But here’s the thing: tipping made my job, all of our jobs, much harder to succeed at. The difference between me being good enough to run a restaurant with generally-quite-good-though-not-perfect service at the Linkery, and me being only good enough to run a restaurant with occasionally-good-but-usually-inconsistent service at El Take It Easy, was, in my opinion, mostly tipping.
To summarize: At the restaurant that ran like a small business in any other industry, we found it easier to do our best work and we had more fun doing it. At the restaurant that ran like a restaurant, but unlike other businesses, we found it much harder to be on the same page with the whole team, and much harder for all of us to be truly excellent at our jobs. Tipping was just one higher mountain we had to get over, if we were going to do great work.
So, I hear you asking now: if tipping promotes bad service, and hurts businesses, why do we still have tipping?
I’ve wondered about that question quite a bit myself. For the first few years, I thought it was just that people are threatened by change. I still believe that that is part of what’s going on. However, over the years, as I had more experiences with “no-tipping-fury” and read more research, I’ve come to believe that tipping promotes certain very important norms within our culture. Those norms have nothing to do with quality of service. The patently false idea that tipping improves service is just a blithe assertion that keeps us from talking about what tipping really does.
The reason we don’t want to talk about what tipping really does is that it gets into some dark subjects. Tipping hides some of our deepest discomforts with sex, gender, and power in contemporary culture. It’s to these discomforts that I’ll turn in the next installment of this series.
This is part 3 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.
Probably the most common reaction to our service-charge-no-tips policy, from people outside the service industry, was along the lines of, if there’s no tipping, then how will the servers be motivated to do a good job?
When you step back and think about this for a second, it’s actually kind of hilarious. The person asking this question would have a full-time job as a software developer, or lawyer, or journalist, or doctor, always working to a pay rate that was negotiated ahead of time. We would never suggest that a code jockey or surgeon would be motivated to do better work by the thought that their clients, if pleased with the service, might toss in a few extra dollars.
And yet, we restaurant-goers (and I include myself in this, in the days before I worked in restaurants) are not hesitant to suggest that, unlike all other working Americans, restaurant servers are a class of simpletons who require a drip of money every few minutes to keep them on task. By perpetuating the idea that servers, and servers alone, won’t perform without the threat of pay withheld, we dehumanize our neighbors and peers who work taking care of us. I think this helps us not feel bad when we sometimes treat them badly. It’s the Stanford Prison Experiment meets Yelp.
Meanwhile, restaurant workers know what’s up. People who worked in the restaurant industry wouldn’t ask us this question — what will motivate servers to do a good job? Because, inside the restaurant, we know that while the customers think their tips allow them to control the server, in fact the control is illusory. The story of the server being motivated by the customer’s power to tip, is instead a fiction created to make the customer feel important.
This was one of the first things I learned as a restauranteur.
When we opened the Linkery, I was 20 years removed from my most recent restaurant job, at a gourmet sandwich shop where I had worked as a prep cook and dishwasher. I had never in my life waited tables. I, like many restaurant patrons, assumed that my tip decision was the primary thing on the servers’ minds while they worked.
One night a few months into the Linkery’s existence, I asked our best server about a table of high-maintenance guests who had just left the restaurant. Specifically, I was curious, given how demanding they were, if this group had tipped high or tipped low.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I never look at the tips until the end of the night. It basically always evens out, if one table tips low, someone else tips high. You always make about the same percentage of sales.”
Another of our better servers joined the conversation to say that she did the same thing. Because, she said, “there’s too much to think about already. You have to not think about the money so you can take care of your tables.”
I wasn’t expecting this attitude from high-performing servers; I had accepted on faith that it was only the tips that motivated them to do good work. Now curious, I started an informal study of our team, watching how they handled the tipping part of the job over the weeks and months. Without exception, the best servers never talked about their tips — as far as I could tell, they never even thought about their tips — until after their shift was over. The best performers were fully engaged with simultaneously filling the needs of 25 people in a busy, crowded restaurant. It’s a complex job and they brought their full selves to it.
Meanwhile, I found that if a server did talk about tips during service, that server would invariably be among our weaker team members. Which made sense once I understood it — how can you be thinking about your guests’ needs when you’re thinking about your money? By raising the thought tips during service, these poor performers were, I think, subconsciously trying to bring their coworkers down to their level. The better servers would have none of it — they would reliably decline to take the bait of discussing money instead of hospitality.
When in time we started contemplating the elimination of tips from the Linkery, I looked for actual research on the subject, and found Michael Lynn’s then-recently-published “Tip Levels and Service”. This paper shows that in spite of what people think motivates their tipping calculations, the quality of service has only a tiny effect on how much a restaurant customer actually leaves as a tip. In fact, the percent tip left by a guest is as much influenced by whether the server (if female) draws a smiley face on the check, or predicts good weather, as by the guests’ happiness with the quality of service. As you read the study (a PDF of it is here) you see that, if you’re a server who wants to maximize your income, service quality should not be your focus.
Instead, a server who wants to maximize her tips first needs to maximize her personal sales. In a a time when the restaurant is not busy, this means using sales techniques to sell more food and drink to her guests. But when the restaurant is busy — which of course is the time when most people are in restaurants — the high-revenue server shifts her focus from maximizing sales per guest, to maximizing the number of guests she helps. In other words, she is better off financially, providing service to the highest number of guests, even if that stretches her capabilities past the ability to go a good job.
Here’s the underlying math of the whole thing. Let’s take a typical, Linkery-like restaurant (but one that accepts tips) where the guest spend average is about $25/pp, and our server can count on serving 40 guests in her five-table section on a busy weekend night.
- At 21% average tip, her base level of tips is $210 before tipout
- If she is able to increase her quality of service to top-tier, and things also go well with the parts of service she can’t control like the kitchen’s work, she would likely increase her average tip to 23%. Now she has increased her tips by $20, to $230 before tipout. She’s pretty dependent on the kitchen for this to work though, so she’ll probably tip out more to them in this case. I’ll estimate she ends up with a raise of $15 for the night.
- If the server instead focuses on using the “Mega-Tips” techniques — such as calling the guests by name, touching them on the shoulder, squatting to meet the guests at eye level, and drawing smiley-faces on the check, all things which don’t require assistance from the kitchen — she’ll probably increase her tip average to 23% (or more) as well. In this case she’s less likely to increase her tipout to the kitchen, so she’s really increased her income by a full $20 for the night.
- If she focuses on increasing sales to her section, she might get her guest spend average up from $25 to $28 — a very big increase from the business’ point of view. This, at 21% tip, would get her to $235, a raise of $22 from her original base.
- Lastly, if she instead focuses her attention on increasing her section size — something which can be done in many ways, from coaxing/bullying the host or swooping in on tables, to emphasizing to the shift manager that it would save labor costs, or even telling a manager that the server next to them is overloaded and should cede some of his section — our server could bump her section from five, to say, eight tables, increasing the number of guests she serves in a night from 40 to 64. If she maximizes her section size, this will at some point stretch her to a point where her guests start getting poor service and are unable to purchase as much as they want. Let’s that happens here: sales per guest drops to $22 (a huge drop from the business’ point of view), tip percentage drops to 19%, and guests are less excited to return. This is a nightmare scenario for the business, and also lousy for the guests, but our server’s income before tip out has risen to $268, by far her highest yet. By pushing number of guests to the maximum possible, she’s made a raise of $58 on the night.
You can play with the numbers and scenarios to get slightly different results. But in general, in most restaurants, increasing the number of guests served is the surest way for a server to increase her income — even if the quality of service decreases markedly. This is because people don’t actually decrease their tip much for lousy service; and that total decrease is not nearly as much as the increase in total tip revenue gained by the server squeezing in some extra guests.
This is the plainest mathematical explanation I can give you to show that the tipping system, which is believed by customers to maximize quality of service, and believed by many restauranteurs to minimize the amount of supervision required of servers, actually works against the interests of both the guests and the business.
The business’s priority is for the server to create the best possible best experience (to increase future sales from return business), and also to focus on increasing average sales per guest (to increase that night’s sales).
The guest, in turn, would prefer the server focus on increasing quality of service (so the guest has a better time) without worrying too much about up-selling.
But the financially-driven server is motivated, by the math of tips, primarily to increase the number of guests she serves at once, and secondarily to engage in tip-increasing behavior which is specifically unrelated to the quality of the guests’ experience.
Which means that tipping incentivizes bad service, all while tricking us into thinking that it promotes good service.
Of course, just because servers are given monetary incentive to do a worse job, doesn’t mean that most, or even many, servers do less than their best. Most servers take pride in their work and do their best to create great experiences for their guests. It’s just that they’re often doing their best work in spite of their pure economic incentives, not because of them.
People are funny that way, they’re full of love and joy and wanting to connect with other humans and they like to go home and look in the mirror and feel good about how they touched people’s lives that day. In my experience, this was easier to achieve when tipping was removed from the equation.
Now, don’t get me wrong — nothing was perfect. In the Linkery’s existence I estimate we served nearly half a million guests. After half a million experiences, of course you can go online and hear from somebody, plenty of people, who had a bad service experience at the Linkery. We wanted to do great work for every single guest, but some percentage of the time, we failed.
When that happened, some guests concluded that the reason they got bad service was because their server didn’t have the prospect of a tip as motivation. But that is an easy conclusion that doesn’t really intersect with reality. If we, the managers of the restaurant, found that one of our team didn’t have motivation to do good work, that person would be gone in matter of days, if not hours. Just like they would in any (non-tipped) business. My whole livelihood was at stake! I had no intention of keeping team members who weren’t interested in doing a good job.
Instead, for us at the Linkery, service breakdowns were generally caused by something small. Maybe the server hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Or the previous night’s dishwasher forgot to do one of his dozens of closing tasks. Or a line cook showed up twenty minutes late for her shift that morning, or maybe even a farmer, a couple months prior, decided to grow less of a product than we would turn out to need for a summer Sunday brunch.
Restaurants, particularly restaurants that aim to serve good food, have countless moving parts, and a hiccup deep in the machine will often manifest itself at your table. It’s an enormous challenge to get everything to go right, which is why the restaurant business is so fun — when we are able to give someone a brilliant experience, it’s because dozens of people did their job to perfection, working in concert to make something beautiful. The rush of that accomplishment is why those of us who love the business, love the business.
In trying to make our service as consistently great as possible, we the managers would look at ourselves, our management choices, to see how our work might causing any problems. Was the schedule properly designed? Were we adequately training newly hired or newly promoted people? Could we put better systems in to help people succeed?
In looking at how we could better create a environment for people to do their best work, never once did we think, well, if we let the guests step in with random financial reinforcement every few minutes, that will help us work more effectively as a team! In fact, that would have been the last thing we wanted, in trying to help everyone succeed. Tipping would have made all of our jobs harder, not easier.
And that is the dynamic of tipping that, in my opinion, ultimately defeated us at our second, tipped, restaurant. I’ll tell that story in the next installment.