North American tipple customs, hold the fairness
// Katherine Alpen

Although you walk away after a restaurant meal, your tip remains, leaving more importance and cultural significance than the few dollars may seem worth.

There are two kinds of tips in restaurants: controlled tips, where the employer controls the flow; and direct tips, which go directly into the pocket of the employee from the wallet of the patron. More and more, direct tips are being phased out in restaurants. Pooling tips is popular, because it encourages a more team-based work environment and minimizes squabbling between staff members. In larger, less full-service restaurants, the controlled tip system may be less equitable, as the work is more divided and there’s more non-serving staff to divide the profits between. The bad servers and good servers are rewarded equally in this system, negating the reason for tipping in the first place.

Christine Brown, a server of one year and hostess of five, says, “I used to feel bad about tipping out my supervisors at the last place I served, but when they help, it’s no problem. I wouldn’t make the tips that I do without help from hosts and all the staff. Definitely the kitchen, they work so hard.”

As a result of a poorly-managed controlled tips system, servers working at a Cranwell Resort in Massachusetts sued their employer for $7 million for withholding tips. Cranwell Resort, who settled the case with staff this October, was guilty of violating state law and not distributing the full customer-required gratuity to the staff. Laws addressing the distribution of gratuity aren't commonplace in North America.

Where patrons are concerned, there is always a divide in the value and purpose of tipping, but in reality, the wage and tip are one in the same. Brown elaborates: “No one would do this for minimum wage. It saves the restaurant money: no restaurant (in Canada) would want to pay the servers what they really make after tips.”

Tipping does vary by region. However, it’s hard to discern which system really proves a win/win for both staff and patron. “In Australia, you don’t tip,” explains Brown. The servers are paid $20 an hour. It’s a job that they get paid for.”

In Finland, there is no minimum wage, and a tip is not expected; however, the lowest wage paid in restaurants is around $13 (CAD) an hour. In Iceland, the gratuity is included in the bill, leaving the quality of service delivered up to the self-motivation of the server, or the level of intimidation laid on by the boss.

Brown offers her opinion, stating, “I think [tipping] ensures good service; it’s incentive for the server and despite popular opinion, serving is not an easy job. The customers' experience relies entirely on the server.” When asked if she would consider working the same job without tips for a 50 per cent pay increase, she was quite certain. “No, not at all … because I wouldn’t make as much money as I do now.”

Steve Dublanica, the author of Waiter Rant, a widely popular blog with a focus on serving anecdotes and customer un-appreciation speeches, has made a huge success off of terrible customers. Serving horror stories are not only fun to hear about, but often interacting with the public so closely and so consistently reveals a lot about people, often more than one would wish to know. A prevalent trend is stereotyping races and visitors from other countries as awful tippers.

“Tipping varies widely. [I think] it’s a tourist’s responsibility to know the practices of the country they are visiting. I’ve had tables that say ‘I’m not from around here, what’s the average tipping percentage?’ I say, thank you, its 15 per cent. Other people aren’t interested at all in norm …there are those people who don’t think it’s their responsibility to pay the wage of the server,” says Brown.

In such a touristy destination as Vancouver, this question comes up a lot with service industry workers. “In Whistler, at one of those ‘pick whatever you want and we’ll fry it for you’ places, on the bottom of the receipt it said something along the lines of ‘The average tip percentage in Canada is 15 per cent’. At first I wondered if they should get away with that, but then it makes sense after working for a while,” explains Brown.

This raises the question of whether it is fair to leave the decided tipping amount up to the guest, given that it is such a temperamental, subjective decision that can have a negative impact on the server and restaurant staff. The weakest link of our system is that the well-being of the staff depends on the good nature of patrons. Amazing service can turn the tables, but not always. It would be nice to say that everyone is fair and generous with those who serve him or her, but it isn’t consistently the case.

Over all, Canada doesn’t do badly in their tipping customs; however, the system can't ever be fully perfected. A world where tips are divided fairly, where amazing service is ensured and receives fair and generous compensation is the pipe dream of restaurant owners all over the world.

Op-ed: It's worth noting a few studies debunking the belief that a server is tipped for how hard they work. According to a study by the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, although there was a positive correlation between tipping and service quality, the difference was marginal. The research concluded that “while tips are a reward for service, they are not a good way to motivate servers, measure server performance, or identify dissatisfied customers.” Further, according to an article in the New York Times, that same researcher Michael Lynn found that “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."

// Katherine Alpen, Writer
// Illustration by Kira Campbell

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