No Tipping, Please. Our Service Is Free.
April 28, 2009 § 2 Comments
For the past two-and-a-half months, I’ve been working part-time at a popular full-service restaurant for myriad reasons—social, financial, to gain new experiences, and sometimes, just to keep busy. As a 32-year old who had his first job at thirteen (caddying) and worked many traditional service jobs throughout high school and college, I hadn’t worked in a restaurant since I was nineteen. Needless to say, after 7 years (and counting) in corporate America, it’s a bit of culture shock to work primarily with 20 – 25 year olds scraping by while they figure out what they want to do with their lives, others working two or three jobs, some with kids, and some just college kids trying to work their way through school. However, the real culture shock has been the nature of how the restaurant model works and what it says about America’s values.
In many ways, working at a restaurant is a true meritocracy: Serve well, get better tips, prove your long-term worth and in return, you get the more lucrative shifts, which gets you more money and if you like, more responsibility. This is a nice cycle of positive reinforcement in a job you can leave at the door at the end of each day.
The other edge of this sword, though, is this: Serve poorly, make less money, get less responsibility, and find yourself looking for work elsewhere. Quickly.
In this time of a down economy, there’s a seemingly-unending supply of workers. Here in Indiana, the unemployment rate is about 10%. (Captain Obvious: That’s a lot of people who need work and are ready to fill the payroll sheets). The benefit to customers who can afford to dine out is that they can expect exemplary service. Why? It’s not just because restaurants are trying to make the customer happy at all costs to keep revenue up, it’s because workers are fighting to keep their jobs at ever-increasing rates. And if not, there are more waiting at the door. This keeps the quality of service high, because the best workers stay… while the lesser workers go.
This is the part that can rub workers the wrong way. Basically, the ball is in the restaurant’s court. In a strong economy, a restaurant may be loathe to get rid of average workers because there just isn’t a strong pool of candidates. But in a weak economy, the restaurant can be more footloose and fancy-free with their workers. Granted, the restaurant can’t be completely inhuman, but it can be choosy, make very stringent rules, and with high employee turnover rates at restaurants, the ability for workers to organize into a cohesive force to fight this is practically nil.
I’m not saying the solution to this is the unionization of restaurant workers, not with restaurants working on a razor-thin margins that sees long-term failure as the rule, not the exception. What I’m getting at is that the entire system for restaurant service in America is generally whacked.
At base, restaurants compete on two things: 1) Price, and 2) Service. To accomplish lower food prices, restaurants pay a pittance to their front-of-house staff: Servers make $2.13 an hour, while hosts might make $5.00 an hour plus a small tip-share. Lowering the up-front costs to the customer places a keen focus on service. How? It makes servers work hard for their money. So hard for it, honey. This leaves the restaurant to manage overhead, food prices, menu items, marketing, employees, and other issues involved in running a restaurant.
In this way, you could say that the restaurant is the medium and the servers are the message.
But what this arrangement does is place the up-front financial risk firmly in the server’s hands. How? Everything could go right with a customer’s meal, but then the customer doesn’t tip well and everyone has made money besides the server busting their butt all over the restaurant. All of which hardly seems fair.
It isn’t like this in other countries. In those countries, the server’s wage is included in the price of the meal. And maybe that’s why service can be notoriously bad in some of those places. However, this arrangement also protects the worker. I wonder what would happen if an American restaurant chain bucked the low-wage + work-for-tips custom? What if customers had to pay an extra 15%-20% premium on their food and drink, but didn’t need to leave a tip? Would Americans go for that if it was understood up front that the business model at so-and-so restaurant was “No Tipping, Please. Our Service is Free.”
What the current American set-up reveals is two-fold: 1) Americans like to reward hard work, using a system that creates up-front stress to produce back-end results; and 2) We don’t value the service worker nearly enough. We tend to think of service jobs as “starter jobs”, as merely one point in a long line of other jobs the server is (hopefully) working up to. Whether we like it or not, the current system may be set up to reward hard work, but it ultimately sends the message that servers are only worth $2.13 an hour and whatever somebody else has the good graces to give you. Which, frankly, never stops stinging.
Addendum: Many restaurants show their appreciation to servers with free food, compensation cards, rewards, parties, and other “treats”, but it never is lost on the server that an empty section or poor tips means they’re up the creek, no matter what they do. What if the service model was different? What if?