Thursday, September 8, 2016

Just a Tip

by Tristan Heath, Associate Degree in Culinary Arts, excerpted from La Papillote


                                                   photo courtesy: www.wsj.com

If I were to compile a list of tasks that humans should be good at, but tend to perform poorly; 'treating each other fairly' and 'math' would be high on that list. Therefore, it befuddles me that some countries (including the U.S.) continue to employ practices of gratuity determined by the patron. I know it might seem very simple and logical: potential for tips should make servers more motivated to perform better, right? In a world where we humans are unbiased at our core and decent at math maybe, but that is not the world we live in unfortunately. Motivation in itself is a complex issue that cannot simply be controlled by money as a carrot on the end of a stick. Whether examining studies that discredit the effectiveness of tipping, or considering the disparity in pay it contributes to with regards to Back of House and Front of House, tipping emerges as a broken, old-fashioned practice that we as potential industry leaders should try and phase out moving forward. 

Let's start out by examining the science behind the issue. There are hundreds of studies on the topic. I will summarize some of the larger points that often get brought up but I encourage you to research the topic yourself if you are curious about the statistical math or any other finer details. Here is a quote from a study done by Professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University that hits a lot of points at once: 

"From a theoretical economic point of view, gratuities solve the principal-agent problem, and many managers believe they provide incentive for greater worker effort. However, studies of the real world practice show that tipping is often discriminatory; workers receive different levels of gratuity based on factors such as age, sex, race, hair color and even breast size, and the size of the gratuity is found to be only very weakly related to the quality of service."

The stereotypical situation of the young, attractive waitress pulling in far more tips is not only a cliche but a true occurrence that indicates how biased patrons can be. An interesting, commonly known fact in the service industry is the power of a smiley face. If a server draws a smiley face on the bill, their tip average will increase across the board. That is utter craziness. Again, this shows that until we can escape our own subconscious impulses, we humans really shouldn't be determining the welfare of servers. 

Having a system of included gratuity may seem strange to our American mindsets, but it is actually quite common (and effective) in many parts of the world. Most of Europe has gratuity included on the bill, and many Asian countries as well. In fact, if you try and tip in some of these countries, it is interpreted as very rude. Despite the lack of motivation for tips, the level of service is still held to a high standard in these countries. Even here in the states we are starting to see industry leaders going the route of 'gratuity-included' bills. Recently, Danny Meyer has made a splash in the fine-dining world by eliminating customer choice tipping from his restaurants. I doubt the quality of service in Danny Meyer's restaurants will dip as a result of this move.

Tipping can almost be seen as an indication of inconsistent quality. The guest experience should be at the same level with each visit. When you are cooking in a restaurant setting, your goal is to recreate the same plate of food every single time at the same caliber. The service aspect of the experience should be no different. Servers should try and deliver the best possible experience to each and every guest. 

The way tipping fluctuates between restaurant price points doesn't make much sense logically. The higher the bill, the larger percentage of the tip. I understand that a server at a fine-dining restaurant might have higher standards and expectations than a server at a chain restaurant, but this can only go so far. Let's just do a basic hypothetical. The server at a chain restaurant turns a $50 table and gets a $10 tip, if they are lucky. The server at the fine-dining restaurant turns a $500 table and gets a $100 tip. In my heart of hearts, I find it hard to believe that the fine-dining server is doing $90 more work than the server at the more casual establishment. I understand the more casual place is turning more tables but the system still seems broken, mathematically. 

                   photo courtesty: www.wsj.com

While eliminating tipping across the entirety of the industry will likely take time, I think we will see it becoming more common in the future which will serve as motivation to others who are more hesitant to take such actions. I feel that as potential future leaders in the industry, we ought to strive to make a life in the service industry more sustainable and realistic for people in entry-level positions. If we do not take steps to make these jobs more desirable, we will likely continue to suffer a shortage of talent.