Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Messy Business of Tipping in New York

Tipping is such a touchy issue, and moreso in New York. This opinion piece originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune's editorial pages in May 2006. It literally created a firestorm. Days later, an entire Letters to the Editor section was devoted to responses to this short essay, with about 70% in favor and 30% against.

To Tip or Not To Tip

New York – It may be very politically incorrect to publicly admit it, but the business of tipping in restaurants infuriates me whenever I visit the United States. I can’t understand why a payment that has obviously become so mandatory is not just factored into the price of the food or automatically calculated and placed as another category after taxes and service charges – say as “service tip” or “personnel fee” – to save everyone the grief of having to think about it each time they go out for a meal.

In its present incarnation, as a 15% to 20% supposedly voluntary add-on that you must nevertheless pay as “tip” at the end of each and every meal, this fee is almost hypocritical. It’s not a tip at all that you can bestow at your discretion, it’s forced payment or a tax; and if you somehow pay an amount deemed unsatisfactory, certain parties are going to do something about it. Some establishments actually ask you to increase the tip or else they change it themselves if they're not happy with what you've given.

This happened to my husband last year on a trip to New York from Tokyo, where we live. After dinner with three colleagues at a fancy Upper East Side restaurant, he signed a credit card bill for close to $600 and added what he thought was an appropriately decent tip. The maitre’d literally chased after him on the street as he started walking back to his hotel and, after catching his breath, pointedly inquired: “Was there a problem with your dinner, sir?”

Fortunately for the maitre’d, my generous husband quickly caught on and returned to the restaurant to revise the amount, adding $50 more to that night’s damages. If that had happened to me, I would have given the maitre’d my sweetest smile and said, “No, absolutely none at all. Thank you for asking.” And then walked away.

Meanwhile, at a luxury spa resort in Arizona some time back, for instance, I was surprised to find at check-out that all my tips for breakfast (buffet) had been revised upwards by the resort staff to reflect not the 10% I had placed for simply showing me to my table, but 15%. I crossed this out and reverted to 10%. In hindsight, I should even have canceled everything entirely to protest their impunity.

In general, I actually have no problem paying tips – and large ones at that – for extraordinary service above the call of duty, which is what I have always thought tips were for anyway. Like at places you’ve been going to for years, for waiters who actually go out to buy you a pack of cigarettes at the corner store or for a waitress who patiently dishes each course onto two plates so that you and your spouse can share the whole meal. Or for the elderly waiter at a great little neighborhood trattoria who steers you towards a dinner close to perfection and shares a few stories as well.

I just don’t like being forced to pay a so-called “discretionary tip” for perfunctory service, especially at places with only basic service or at obviously profitable high-end restaurants where I believe a dinner costing at least $150 per person more than covers the cost of bringing my meal from the kitchen to the table. I don't like it either that I should tip someone who opens a $50 bottle of wine an amount between $7.50 to $12.50, but then need to "upgrade" this tip three times to the range of at least $22.50 to $37.50, if this same person opens a $150 bottle of wine for me. I usually don't nitpick -- but did this person use a different corkscrew for the more expensive bottle? Or is a special technique involved in opening a $150 bottle vs a $50 bottle? And, in the first place, aren't restaurant personnel really supposed to open the wine for you anyway, when you order an already overpriced bottle at their restaurant?

I also don’t buy the explanation that we need to pay tips because waiters and waitresses are paid so little that they live off these. I’m sorry, but most of us work hard for a living and if anyone wants to be paid more, they should do some other job instead. Or perhaps restaurant owners or star chefs who have grown rich on the success of their ventures should plow more of the profits back to their employees instead of keeping the profits for themselves and shoving the burdens (and the guilt) to customers. Or raise the prices of food to already include a tip if it’s expected each time anyway. If we're really supposed to pay a certain amount anyway, why don't restaurants just factor this in or compute this for us and save us the extra mental hassle?

Japan, for example, is a no-tipping country but prices reflect service employees’ wages and service is almost always excellent. Once, an American restaurant in Tokyo initiated tipping by placing a notice on each table. Everyone almost furiously refused to do so, anxious to avoid introducing into Japan the stress of having to think of such matters each time one is out to dine. The restaurant eventually changed back its policy.

Last night we arrived from Tokyo and walked to Grand Central Station for two bowls of soup and one glass of wine at a casual diner. The waiter quickly took our order, wordlessly plunked the food and drink on our table, and then we didn’t see him again until it was time to pay $29. In my gut, I didn’t think we needed to follow the 15% to 20% rule for a waiter we hardly saw, but as tourists we ended up doing so anyway.

Back at the hotel, I emailed my college friend, who now lives in Manhattan. “What’s the tipping policy for New York these days?” I asked.

The reply came quickly. “15-20% at restaurants. And everyone else, from taxis to delivery people, about $2 to $3 each time.”

I emailed back. “15-20% for food and $2 to $3 at every corner on a daily basis. How can ordinary New Yorkers afford to live?”

“No kidding,” she replied. “I hate it. That’s why I never take cabs, do most of my own errands and avoid going to restaurants nowadays.”

Good idea. Or maybe I’ll just avoid going to New York at all – at least until people start calling a spade a spade.


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