Tipping points for diners, servers and restaurants
How you feel about tipping has a lot to do with who you are.
If you're the one paying the bill, you think about tips differently than the person who is bringing you your appetizer and aperitif, which is different from how a restaurant owner or manager thinks about the topic.
Whichever role you're in, one thing is for certain: The practice of tipping isn't going anywhere. A few restaurants have tried a tip-inclusive model, raising menu prices while also raising employees' hourly wage and offering benefits. Despite a few notable exceptions (such as Lazy Betty in Atlanta), most have backtracked.
Even most servers don't want to do away with tipping. They want the opportunity to make more money by providing stellar service.
As the saying goes, if you want to understand someone, walk a mile in their shoes, so I'm going to take the next few hundred words looking at the issue of tipping from the points of view of diners, servers and restaurant owners/managers.
Just about all of us are diners at some point. There's evidence that, as inflation is eroding paychecks and monthly Social Security benefits, restaurant spending is being affected. People are still eating out, but they're spending less, sharing appetizers, desserts, even entrees, and maybe forgoing the cocktail. With the bill getting smaller, the tip is also getting smaller even if you tip the standard 20 to 22 percent.
The bill comes and you're asked to tack on what seems like a fairly significant percentage. Some restaurant bills come with "suggested" tip levels ranging from 15 to 30 percent. Should you use your tipping power to reward or punish a server for the service they provided? It's tempting but remember that sometimes poor service is the result of poor scheduling by a manager.
I also believe diners are experiencing tip burnout because they are being asked for tips at places that didn't ask for them before, like the doughnut shop or deli. Or their restaurant is assessing a 3 percent charge for credit cards. I get it -- being nickel-and-dimed when all you want to do is support your favorite restaurant feels frustrating.
Things look a little different when you're the one taking the orders and bringing the food (unless the restaurant employs food runners). Being a restaurant server is a tough job. Although the working atmosphere can be fun, the food and beverage industry is known for its long hours and physically demanding environment.
In addition, few restaurants offer health insurance or other benefits, and servers often can't afford to take time off when they're ill. Shifts can be erratic, making it difficult for a server to hold another job or arrange child care.
Then there's harassment, sexual and otherwise. When a diner creepily asks, "Are you on the dessert menu?" the server is supposed to smile and let it go. It's not right, yet a customer usually isn't held responsible for how they treat a restaurant employee.
Finally, there's the matter of pay. The minimum wage in Illinois is $13 ($14.50 to $15.40 in Chicago), but the tipped minimum wage is $7.80. Servers need their tips to add up so they're earning at least $13 an hour, which -- let's face it -- doesn't go very far. In addition, tips may be pooled and shared with bussers and food runners.
So what if that server isn't getting enough in tips to reach $13 an hour? The employer has to make up the difference, which could put a dent in profitability. But there are larger issues here.
Many believe that the food and beverage industry perpetuates racism, sexism and classism. A restaurant owner who wants to do well by doing good has to take into consideration who's staffing the "front of house" and who's toiling in the "back of house." The attractive, outgoing person is the one out front, while the quiet, dependable hard worker -- who is more likely to be a person of color -- works in the shadows.
Yes, restaurants could charge more to better support their employees with health insurance, regular schedules and paid time off, but there's a tipping point (no pun intended!) at which they will start losing customers. If it's one thing a restaurant can't afford, it's to lose business.
As you can see, it's not a question of whether to tip, it's a question of how much to tip in order to keep the wheels of U.S. hospitality turning and to ensure workers are earning a living wage. The next time the bill comes, consider at least 22 percent, and as much as 25 percent. Or more, if you had excellent food, stellar service and a wonderful dining experience.
• Izzy Kharasch is president and founder of Hospitality Works, Inc., a bar and restaurant consulting company. He can be reached at (224) 688-3512 and Izzy@hospitalityworks.com.