The tip of it all

Photo by Sam Dan Truong on Unsplash

If you follow me on Twitter (which I appreciate, though I mostly tweet in Spanish), you can expect at least three tweets a few times a month: one where I complain that I haven’t slept enough, one where I am thankful for something good that happened, and one where I rant against the human being who dared not tip me. And only one of those has truly cost me followers. Take a wild guess which one.

Since moving to the country, being a server has become my new life, sometimes even taking precedence over my love of writing (as this blog has proven). And as such, tipping has become a frequent reason of research, discussion, argument, and bemoaning. The highs when I get a good or great tip are followed by the flings of rage or flights of despair when I feel my service has been neglected. And really, isn’t that what’s wrong with tipping in general? But more on that later.

After almost two years of getting them, I can say tipping is one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to me. It has made me more aware of details, it has helped in my math skills, and has helped me raise a modest home. It has also increased my anxiety, made me painfully self-aware of moments when I’m doing a lousy job, and is making me wonder if I’ll ever be able to return to the office space. Is this how it’s always been?

Tipping as a such, or so it is generally agreed so, started in the 17th century in Tudor England, because of course it did. According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping, the most widely known history of the practice (only if you haven’t followed this guy), if you stayed overnight in a private home, you were expected to give a small amount of money to their servants (whether the staff spat on the food of those who didn’t is unclear). The amount was then known as vails, and the practice began showing up in coffee houses and other establishments across London. In one frequented by writer Samuel Johnson, there was a bowl with the words “To Insure Promptitude”, and many speculate that “tip” is an acronym for that phrase. The more formal word for tipping, “gratuity”, goes much further than that, dating to either the 1520’s and from the French gratuité (graciousness), or from the Medieval Latin gratuitas (free gift). (Isn’t Wikipedia grand?)

I don’t think you’d be surprised to know that tipping used to be abhorred in the early United States. Wealthy Americans traveling to Europe after the Civil War brought back the practice of tipping –where there was no aristocracy and, therefore, seen contrary to American values. Per this article in The New York Times Magazine, the Grey Lady led the charge against the practice. In a 1916 piece titled “The Itching Palm”, William Scott wrote: “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape”. And in 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America appeared in Georgia, where 100,000 members pledged to not tip anyone for a year (the bastards, I think with a grumble). Heck, Washington state became the first of six to pass anti-tipping laws in 1909. Laws, my friends.

But tipping was here to stay. So much that, by 1926, all anti-tipping laws were repealed. And so we have come to this point in time. Tipping is not only standard, it is expected in all the United States. “If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip”, is the standard practice. Waiters earn sometimes as little as two dollars an hour, so they have to rely on tips. (I don’t make that little, but sorry, I’m not comfortable revealing how much I make.)

In recent years, a handful of restaurants have started going against the practice. In 2015, a handful of restaurants decided to pay their front-of-the-house staff full wages and, of course, raised prices. At the forefront was Danny Meyer, of the Union Square Hospitality Group, who in 2015 said, “I hate those Saturday nights where the whole dining room is high-fiving because they just set a record, and they’re counting their shekels, and the kitchen just says, ‘Well, boy, did we sweat tonight,’”. Meyer also famously wrote in the Group’s newsletter:

The American system of tipping is awkward for all parties involved: restaurant patrons are expected to have the expertise to motivate and properly remunerate service professionals; servers are expected to please up to 1,000 different employers (for most of us, one boss is enough!); and restaurateurs surrender their use of compensation as an appropriate tool to reward merit and promote excellence … Imagine, if to prompt better service from your shoe salesman, you had to tip on the cost of your shoes, factoring in your perception of his shoe knowledge and the number of trips he took to the stockroom in search of your size. As a customer, isn’t it less complicated that the service he performs is included in the price of your shoes?

As quoted in Eater NY

Oh did I mention this was in 1984?

This movement seemed to be gaining momentum. A 2016 American Express survey published in May of that year of 503 random restaurants showed that 18% already had no-tipping policies, 29% were planning on doing the same, 17% would do it if others did. And there is a Subreddit called EndTipping that showed that at least 200 restaurants in the US –true, a fraction of the more or less 650,000 all over the country, but still– were at one point or another a no-tipping zone. Until…

Eater reported in September 2020 that, in 2018, most restaurants brought back tipping. David Chang ended his no-tipping policy at the famous Momofuku Nishi after six months. Even Meyer capitulated in July 2020. What happened? Grub Street offered an answer and I encourage you to read the piece lest I be accused of complete plagiarism, but long story short, established staff walked out, prices looked higher (and in many cases were), and let’s face it (grudgingly, in my case), tips make guests feel empowered. You think your server did a poor job? Believe me, nothing stings more than a less-than-flattering tip. (No tip reflects poorly on you, of course.)

So are tips going to ever go away? Not in a post-pandemic world, they’re not. That Eater piece I linked to earlier shows that tips had increased in the first three months of 2020, not only in restaurants but in gig jobs like Uber Eats and Instacart. Of course, that creates an even bigger wage gap between front and soul of the house (namely, between servers and hosts and, say, cooks and preppers), which contributes to the general problem of tipping.

Which brings me to my own little rant. I’ve only been in this business three years, and while it has brought me a lot of joy (heck, it’s what’s let me live in a new country) but, as I’m sure many fellow servers think, it takes a toll on my mind. It is truly a humbling experience (and trust me, I’ve had those) to do the bidding of people who sometimes don’t care that you might have a life outside of this place, and that entitles them to treat you however they want to as long as they get their way. And you truly have to walk a thin line between saying “Ma’am, but” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”, because it’s in that line that lies your livelihood. You can’t take the abuses personally… but how can you not?

And a tip can be such a blow to the ego, good or bad. A bad tip truly made me feel worthless when I started this; then it made me hate humanity. One time I had a party of 15 rack up a tab of $600. The head lady pulled me aside, gave me a wad of cash and some credit cards. “Should I charge my tip from the cash?” I mistakenly asked. The bitch laughed. They left me nothing. And they had been all smiles and thankyou’s till then. They left nothing. I felt like my time was worth the same. That’s what tipping can do to you. It made me question every life decision I have made, every single step I had taken that night.

I hate it and love it, tipping. And it won’t leave any time soon.

So I need to get out of the game if I want to avoid it.

Let’s see what happens.

Your post is coming right up, sir

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I’ve frequently heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. There was quite a bit about it that bothered me, to be honest. It was generally said to me with this sneer of cynicism, like God is this huge bastard that looks down on poor li’l us, thinking we have a say in our lives. I refused to accept it.

Now? Not so much.

I still believe in a benevolent God that is there to protect us from evil and harm, that would never throw us a challenge we couldn’t face, because He knows what we’re made of. But now I have no problem thinking of Our Lord as this funny guy with a mischievous twinkle in His eye that lets out a kindly chuckle when we tell Him our plans, because He knows we better wrote them in pencil.

Guys… I’m a waiter!

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