The Tipping Point


An op-ed contributor condemns the practice of tipping at the New York Times today. I've got no strong dog in this fight either way; if customers, waitstaff, and restauranteurs prefer their service compris, whatever, and that model will eventually become more prevalent. But some of the arguments offered are a little silly. For instance:

Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, has conducted dozens of studies of tipping and has concluded that consumers' assessments of the quality of service correlate weakly to the amount they tip.

Rather, customers are likely to tip more in response to servers touching them lightly and crouching next to the table to make conversation than to how often their water glass is refilled—in other words, customers tip more when they like the server, not when the service is good.

This is an awfully narrow concept of "quality of service": When I think of places where I feel like I've gotten "good service" I'm likely to remember feeling as though the interaction with the waiter was friendly and pleasant, that they didn't get irritated if something needed to be sent back, and so on—at least as much as the speed with which my dishes were sprited away when I was finished with a course. And I can recall plenty of friends who, precisely because they associated friendliness with better tips, would make an effort to be pleasant and polite even when they were in a bad mood. Then there's this:

The best service in the Western world is at the Michelin three-star restaurants of Europe, where a service charge replaces tipping.

Well, yeah, of course. At a three-star, the level of screening of waiters at the hiring stage and oversight thereafter is sufficiently intense that it doesn't make that much difference to move to a tip-pooling or compris model. (As the op-ed notes, there's also rigorous supervision at McDonalds…which is easier when manager and staff are all squished behind the same counter.) It's silly to apply that example to diners and mid-range restaurants more likely to be staffed by college kids pulling in some pocket money. As the op-ed points out, not all waiters are "transient employees"…but lots are, which is why different models will make sense for different types of restaurants. Possibly the silliest part, though, is this:

For their part, restaurateurs believe it is their right to have consumers pay servers, so they don't have to pay their employees a living wage. They prefer the current system because it allows them to have a team of pseudo-contractors rather than real employees.

Err…what? "Consumers" are ultimately paying the servers either way; doing away with the tip and then filtering a "service charge" equal to the average tip amount filtered through the restaurant to the server via a higher wage doesn't have an obvious effect in either direction on the restaurateur's balance sheet—are we supposed to think people who run restaurants are too obtuse to appreciate as much? Again, I'm perfectly prepared to believe the service charge model makes sense for many restaurants, but the idea that it's better for all of them only works on the incorrect assumption that all restaurants are basically the same. Surely this isn't too subtle a point for a guy writing a book about restaurants?