Observations From a Tipless Restaurants, Postscript 1: Crime & Punishment

This is a postscript to 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. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

It was August of 2008 and we had a crisis.

Actually we had a lot of crises. Three months earlier, we had moved into a new location three times bigger than our previous location, and the expansion had been a rocky one. I had been totally unprepared for how much busier we would really be, and we hadn’t raised enough capital to properly hire and train a large staff. Our management team and I were working past our capacity, trying to make up for our lack of resources with effort.

In the kitchen, our experienced team was cooking great food despite the challenges, which was important as that was the core promise of our restaurant. But in the dining room we were bringing servers in on the fly, and throwing them onto the floor hoping they already knew what they needed. Some days were fine, some days were rough. Our best hope was that our guests would have realistic expectations of what we were capable of doing, and have a good attitude about it.

And one August day the local alt-weekly food writer published her review of the new Linkery. She had come anonymously, and the review that ran went mostly how I expected: medium star rating, food was good, unpolished service, and there had been some confusion about corkage, because we hadn’t trained the servers to waive corkage if the patrons bought ample subsequent bottles.

But there was thing about it, one thing I’d never seen in any other restaurant review.

In the middle of the piece, she addressed an admonishing paragraph directly to her server, belittling him for making a mistake with their table. The mistake had been subsequently caught by a manager, who comped them desserts, but that apparently had not satisfied the writer. She wrote to the server, in the review:

(…Right now, approximately a quarter of a million San Diegans are reading that you blew it. For about the last 300 years, we in the Western world — except for those individuals raised by wolves — have been eating our meals in courses, except when we go out to Korean restaurants. You can tell which course is which by the headings on the menu: The category called “Market Starters” means dishes to start with. “Mains” means main courses, to follow. Got it now?)

What blew my mind was that she called him out using his real name (which I’ve redacted here), even though she was writing from behind a shield of anonymity. It was, in my opinion, bad enough for the worker to have made a mistake at his job; even worse that he has to find out his mistake was to a reviewer; but now he’s been ridiculed by name in the paper, in an attempt to have his parents, siblings and friends all shame him, as well.

Of course, the server was a really great guy, a college student with minimal serving background, who we were trying to train on the job. He was doing his best, and whatever errors he made were my fault, for putting him a difficult position without giving him the tools for success. I knew that, and I expected that a professional reviewer would have, too.

I emailed the writer.

I wrote something along the lines of, hey, I get that you had a bad experience, but that was out of line to call the server out by his real name. You could have easily made the same point while using a different name for him.

She wrote back along the lines of, I write my experiences; just because you have good intentions I’m not going to hold back my criticism. It’s your fault for not having trained him properly.

I responded, I agree that the bad service is my fault. I’m saying you should have ripped on me and not him. I’ve apologized to him for putting him in that position, but it is still not right of you, writing under a pseudonym, to publicly embarrass him using his actual name.

And she came back with the clincher: Well, with your fixed service charge you didn’t give my any choice. I couldn’t give him a lower tip. How else could I punish him for his mistakes?

That made it all clear. She, like some other patrons, felt the burden of having to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Obviously, some people like that role, and some people don’t, but at the very least our culture has trained diners that it is their job. When you go to restaurants, you are responsible for rewarding and punishing your server.

This explained another bizarre phenomenon we had seen with our service charge — a small number of guests who got angry when we removed the charge from their bill.

We had a policy that if a guest brought a notable service problem to a manager’s attention, we removed the service charge from the bill. Our position was that we were professionals charging for service, and if we failed to meet our service goals, then we refused to take payment.

It would happen that a guest would bring a problem to our attention, often as a way to show that the lack of tipping had somehow “caused” the service mistake. Our floor manager would apologize, thank the guest for bringing the problem to our attention, and remove the service charge from the bill. And that, sometimes, would make the guest furious.

I suppose the idea was that the guest evaluated the server’s transgression as worth a small amount of the tip, but not the whole service charge. And now we were making the guest look bad because his bringing the gaffe up had led to a punishment which was overharsh for the crime, and that made him appear unreasonable.

This is where I really started to lose patience with the whole thing.

It had been demonstrated by research and our experience that this punishment message doesn’t get through to the offender — servers correctly don’t view their tips as reflecting the quality of their work. So the right to punish the server is solely for the benefit of the punisher, and no larger benefit is created.

We were trying to run a good restaurant. If a guest pointed out a mistake we made, the guest was doing us a favor. Our first reaction wasn’t going to be to punish the workers who made the mistake; it was going to be to make sure the server had the tools they needed to do the job right. No business in any industry builds a great team by looking for mistakes to punish. It just doesn’t work that way.

These people who were fighting to keep their punishment rights, were keeping us from getting better.

We came to the conclusion, though, that the fixed service charge — and our removing it when a problem was noticed — would drive these negative customers away. They would go to other restaurants where they could resume their role as arbiter of consequences. One of our managers emailed me around this time: “It would seem we’re on the right track. We’ll eventually weed out all the punishers…and then we can do our jobs.”

I think this is pretty much happened, within a few months of that review. People who come to restaurants to punish other people came to our place, discovered we didn’t offer that service, and moved on. It’s an open question whether we would have made more revenue if we had not lost these customers. I tend to think not, because their absence really did let us focus on doing our jobs better. But maybe there are just so many people like this, that they make up a huge market for restaurants, that we lost out on. I can’t say I know. I know we didn’t miss them.

We liked our jobs a lot better with the punishers gone, and having a job you like is a great joy in life. Our service charge policy, even though we adopted it for technical financial reasons, proved to be a gift in many suprising ways.

I think we were making guests’s lives better, too. Sitting in judgement of your neighbor, and punishing him, is the highway to unhappiness. Plus, as we’ve established, whatever message you’re sending isn’t getting through. Which means the guest who is asked to serve as a judge, is being made miserable for nothing.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 2.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.