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The Tipping Point

Adventures in Fine Dining

As the fine dining room slows and the remaining guests saunter out, the manager’s choice of rough-edged house music patiently waits its turn at the speakers.  Beer, the preferred wrap-up beverage of fine dining servers, performs its nightly workout of soothing staff whilst they hash out the evening’s adventures.  Tonight’s fodder: a diner who wrote “Sorry single mom” in her bill’s tip field would no doubt be a gem of a story to pass around, according to a recent post on Reddit. Leave it to the viral social media to explode one of these little dramas into national exposure.

In the past I was a bit of a bastard when it came to tipping.  I played a game of “Save Your Tip.”  Each restaurant experience began with a full gratuity of 15%.  From the time I walked in, the tip monitor was active.  Make me wait at the host stand too long, lose one-half percent.  Forget to fill my water, just lost another half percent.  Even conditions out of the server’s control like an unclean bathroom, food that was slow to arrive or a dining room that was too hot yielded punishment.  For me each meal was some kind of weird reality show where an unknowing server was subject to my judgment.  Sure you could earn your way back toward that magical 15% and beyond, but it was a hard road a’hoe!

My misguided attitude toward tipping stemmed from not working for tips until I was well into my thirties. My income as an investment professional during my twenties was often based on commissions.  One could argue that a commission and tip are similar in that if you do the work, you earn your payment.  But the key difference is that with commissions, there’s no flexibility.  Your payment is well defined before the service is executed.

Fast forward to my thirties when I entered the wine business via retail and eventually ended up working alongside servers in a fine dining restaurant.  It didn’t take long to get the message loud and clear: 20% is the industry standard, never less.  I can imagine for those who have not worked in restaurants this seems a bit dictatorial.  But I can tell you from experience, this is what servers expect, especially in a fine dining establishment.

And as diner, if you don’t meet this standard, it will be noticed. At best, bad tippers receive a lower standard of care and diligence.  At worst, the repercussions could be more distasteful.  Whatever the ramifications of bad tipping, you can rest assured that unaccommodating patrons receive ill wishes among the wait staff at the back of the house “water cooler.”

The Devil’s Contract?

Isn’t a tip optional and should there be an expectation that a server must earn it?  In my experience the answer is No and Yes. Tipping is not optional to many servers, your tip is required as a matter of honor.  To the average server, part of the unwritten understanding between diner and waiter is that the server is not being paid a living wage by the restaurant.  For those who’d suggest that a restaurant pay a better wage, consider that all restaurant expenses eventually pass through and you’d end up paying less tip and more for the meal.

So ultimately in the mind of a server the onus is on diner to compensate.  The expectation for this service is at least 20% of the check.  Anything less is often seen as stealing, much the same way as if you shorted your accountant or lawyer for their professional services.  It would seem customer practices tend to support this line of thinking.  According to a Zagat survey of the nations finest restaurants conducted in 2012, the average tip on a full service restaurant bill is 19.2%.

Most servers agree that they should earn their tip.  But while in my misguided youth I started with a figure and deducted for bad service, waiters often consider a 20% gratuity to be a minimum amount for performing their work adequately.  In fact, many servers expect more than 20% if a diner requires extraordinary service or attention.

The Service Dilemma

In the US, the restaurant service is not often considered a true profession. This is in direct contrast to many European countries where service is a dedicated profession pursued and recognized.  But here, unskilled labor comes to mind.  This is unfortunate because an experienced and talented server can be an incredible asset.

Perhaps it’s this lack of recognition for the service profession that crates a shortage of career minded people in restaurant service positions.  Indeed many fine dining restaurants experience a crisis in finding and keeping high quality servers.  For those that do chose restaurant service as a career path, they usually are forced to make a choice.

A talented server my step out of the tip pool and into management?  The immediate ramifications are reduced income, more hours and extra responsibility.  What’s the upside?  It’s the hope of senior management and even ownership.

Or a talented server may choose to revel in the sweet manna of cash tips and the comfort of less responsibility when compared to their bosses.  This choice has its advantages and while the work of any server is intense, one can make a fine living as a skilled server.  The downside is that until that server steps into management, there will always be the static ceiling height.

The implications of these career path choices are important because the best talent in the food service business either evolves into management or languishes in a position surrounded by non-career minded servers who may view the “professionals” as bane to their very existence, how fleeting that may be.  I believe the end result is a lower level of overall service for the guest.  We can circle back to that 2012 Zagat survey that identified service as the number one complaint issue for guests in fine dining restaurants.

Obviously service is a core issue for the fine dining industry and one that demands recognition.  I’d like to think that restaurateurs can tackle the problem progressively and find an answer to the question: When guests offer a tip, what is the purpose of this act?  Is it obligation, recognition, gratitude or some combination of the three?

Do the Right Thing

I started my tipping methodology as Punisher:  Removing basis points from tips as errors accumulated.  This attitude grew from a place of not understanding the nature of service and the inspiration of expressing thanks via tipping.

I evolved into Obliger: Servers received 20% because that’s the industry standard and I’d offer more if the service was excellent.  But I gave my tips because it was expected of me.

Today I’ve become Recognizer:  I accept that a 20% gratuity is the industry standard.  But I offer at least this amount because I understand the value and work that goes into good service.  I do my best to allow a server to care for me and my guests and to focus not on their work (good service it is said is invisible) but on the experience of sharing this encounter with my guests.  And most importantly when I fill in my gratuity and sign the bill, I feel the pure joy of expressing gratitude for the wonderful experience that is fine dining.


GUY and Tina, Partners
PROTOCOL wine studio


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