The Tipping Point

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We made the three-hour drive over to Riverside for a work meeting again today.  We always enjoy the opportunity to indulge in a good dinner, an amenity for which there is little opportunity in the remote desert outpost we call home.

We ended up at a well-known chain restaurant.  When we sat down with the menu, we were surprised to find the prices to be several dollars higher than they are at locations of this restaurant in the Coachella Valley, Arizona and Nevada.

What annoyed me most of all is that the higher prices meant that we are expected to tip more.  Now, we are good tippers who seldom leave less than 20% for the server.  We understand that restaurant servers are woefully underpaid but still have bills to pay and families to support.  But it galls me that just because a restaurant decides to jack up its prices, we are expected to leave more of a tip to hit that 20% mark.  Customers have the pleasure of taking it on the chin twice:  Once to pay more to the restaurant and again to pay more to the server.

At the risk of being mean and insensitive, I have to ask:  Do higher prices mean that the servers are more deserving?  Does the restaurant’s price increase mean that the financial needs of the staff increase proportionately?  Silly question, but I realize that it’s possible that the answer is “yes.”  Perhaps the restaurant’s increased prices are a result of inflation that also affects the servers’ abilities to support themselves.  As my understanding of economics is relatively weak, I just don’t know.

The website provides a place for restaurant servers to rant about the bad behavior of customers and how the restaurant staff gets back at them.  One article mentions that poor tippers are likely to have their food spat on, thrown on the floor and placed back on the plate, and worse.  Although I am not among the poor tipper brigade, I believe that a reasonable person must accept these things as risks of dining out.  After all, you don’t really know what you’re getting.  While I like to think my good tipping exempts me from these exploits most of the time, I am forced to hark back to advice my grandfather gave me:  What you don’t know can’t hurt you.  As long as I don’t know what you did to my food, I will shut up and eat it.  Should I end up with a case of Montezuma’s revenge or worse, chances are I will think that it’s the flu that’s going around or just another wacky side effect of my medication.  Most of the time, I will be right.  Many people automatically blame any real or imagined physical discomfort on the restaurant meal they ate the night before, but the truth is that the blame is probably misplaced.

The editors at Stained Apron suggest that the subminimum wage laws that apply to servers require customers to tip and that those who object to tipping should “take a real stand.  Stop eating out.  Lobby the government.  Don’t penalize the poor student or single mother making slave wages to serve you.”

The first part of this suggestion makes no sense whatever.  It is true that I should probably stop eating out; both my corporeal and financial health would improve immensely.  If many of us take this advice, however, the effect will be that fewer servers will be needed and fewer will be hired.  What of the poor student or single mother when she or he is unable to find a job at all?  Perhaps the website’s authors believe that refusing to eat out would force restaurateurs to capitulate and raise the wages of their employees.  Would that this were true.  It is, however, a pipe dream.  When the customers leave, the restaurant closes.  Exhibit A is Robert Irvine’s show “Restaurant Impossible” on TV’s Food Network.

By contrast, the second part of Stained Apron’s suggestion does make sense.  Lobbying the government is indeed the answer.  The logic used by state legislatures that permit eating establishments to pay their servers subminimum wages is that these wages are “supplemented” by tips.  In other words, our lawmakers are in cahoots with restaurant owners at the expense of the public.  Our legislators can get away with exempting restaurant owners from the minimum wage laws by which other employers must abide because there is no need for restaurants to pay their employees when the gullible public will do it for them.

So yes, if you object to the special treatment accorded to restaurant owners, do write or email your senator, your congressman and your state legislators to tell them that the laws must be changed.  If results are not forthcoming, speak your mind with your vote.

As for the servers, it is they and not the customers who should abandon the food service industry.  Remember, restaurants are not going to pay their servers more when they can get away with paying less.  That is economics simple enough for even me to understand.

The only way that restaurants will pay their servers what they deserve is if they can’t get any employees otherwise.  And if that means that the price of a restaurant meal increases even more than it has already, I, for one, will be more than willing to pay it.

Truth be told, I am already paying it in the form of tips.  And yes, we did provide our server with our usual 20% tip today despite the restaurant’s jacked-up prices.


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