When you think about it, the custom of tipping restaurant servers is nothing but a clever scam.
Under the guise of rewarding some employees for their skill in dealing with the public, many restaurant owners simply use their customers to reduce salary expenses.
We hear it all the time from those in the “hospitality” sector: “The pay is pretty bad, but the tips are good.”
Still, one wonders what the reaction would be if the person waiting on your table were to hold up a bucket asking for donations.
According to the book “Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities,” by Kerry Segrave, tipping originally began in England, when visitors to the homes of the wealthy were expected to bestow what were then called “vails” on the household servants, who generally stood waiting expectantly at the exits.
Needless to say, this custom wasn’t popular, but it was still transplanted to the United States during the age of colonization. Before long, it spread to restaurants and inns, then expanded even more during the Great Depression to include cab drivers, bellhops, restroom attendants, and virtually anyone who interacted with the public.
One “greased palm” after another, tipping eventually became cemented into the national consciousness. That’s why a news item from Bloomington, IN, this past summer was so surprising.
“After an especially challenging year in the restaurant and bar industry,” it was reported, “a brewery in Bloomington is making a significant change that impacts its servers, bartenders, and customers.
“Switchyard Brewing Company implemented a ‘no tipping” policy’ two weeks ago.”
Customers were a bit surprised at first, said the brewery’s hospitality director, Kyley Memmott.
“Definitely a shock,” she said. “No one’s used to that.”
Of course, tipping had already moved away from its original pretense of rewarding the help. Many restaurants now incorporate a “tip” — which has grown from five percent to twenty — into the bill. Under that system, it doesn’t matter if the person who served you was outgoing, surly, or computer-generated, and it makes about as much sense as charging diners rent for the eating utensils.
Moreover, restaurant tipping brings with it an unmistakable element of luck. In establishments where seating is random, a server might be lucky enough to draw a large table filled with people in a celebrator mode. Or, they could be stuck with a parade of penny pinchers.
For that matter, why should the amount you tip be connected to the amount of money you spent on the meal? In theory, the service should be the same in any case.
And there is another element, as Switchyard Brewery owner Kurtis Cumings explained. Calling the history of tipping “sexist, racist and classist,” he added, “It literally kept me up at night because of this issue in the service industry. I felt like we weren’t doing everything possible as a company to take care of our coworkers and our staff.”
Cummings said while studying payroll data, he discovered a glaring tipping disparity, depending on a server’s age, gender or race.
“I saw a very big differential between the young, white, millennial female and the middle-aged African American female. There was about a 25% pay difference,” Cummings said.
The catch was, the minimum wage for “tipped” employees in Indiana is $2.13 an hour (who came up with that figure, I wonder?), so eliminating tips called for a significant financial sacrifice on Cummings part. Nevertheless, he made it — servers at Switchyard now make $15, with an opportunity for raises.
True, he also raised the price of some beer selections by $1.
Certainly, Cummings deserves a lot of credit for that decision. However, it also reflects a new reality on the part of business owners everywhere. In the case of restaurants that had been shut down for months because of COVID-19, many employees found themselves thinking: “Do I really want to go back to work for $2.13 an hour? Do I want to keep having to work weekends to snag the most tips?”
According to the news report about Switchyard’s new policy:
“Server and bartender Carrie Burnett said the change has made a real difference in her work-life balance.
“‘I have two kids and a family, so being able to do stuff on Friday and Saturday nights and not have to always block that off for my workdays has been super helpful,'” Burnett said.
“Plus, paychecks are no longer at the mercy of customers, and servers don’t have to tolerate customer harassment to earn a tip.
“Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, in the brewing industry from customers is insane,” Cummings said. “70% of the sexual harassment claims that are brought every year are from the restaurant industry. We are now empowering our staff to stand up for themselves and say, ‘Hey, that’s not OK,’ and they don’t have to worry about their pay being affected. Again, tips do not provide better service. Tips do not correct poor service.
“Tips very simply say everything about the person tipping and nothing about the employee.”
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."