The act of tipping is thought to have originated in the late 18th century in English pubs. According to Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, the tradition began when pub patrons began attaching notes to coins "to insure promptness," a.k.a. a tip. Two hundred-some years later, the tip has evolved. Today many people in different industries receive tips. But for the purpose of this column, let's talk about the tipping practices in American bars and restaurants. Should tipping exist in its current state? Or, should we move to a fixed percentage service charge tacked on to every check — a mandatory tip, of sorts? I think so. Here's why.
The tip, as it pertains to Charleston servers and bartenders, makes up the vast majority of those individuals' income. The difference is due to the fact that bartenders tend to get a slightly higher hourly wage compared to servers — servers make $2.13 an hour, while bartenders tend to make about $4.50, though this can vary from establishment to establishment. The main point I'm making here is that regardless of the difference, the tip is the main source of income for both groups. As a society, we've come to see this as normal, but really it's quite odd.
Americans tend to tip anywhere between 10 and 20 percent, with the average being in the high teens. That may seem normal, but consider this policy transposed onto another industry. Take for instance everyone's favorite group to pick on — lawyers. (Sorry, lawyers).
Imagine you hire a lawyer to, let's say, execute a will. Now, the lawyer does his/her job adequately. Then, upon completion, you get to decide if you want to pay him/her somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000. The average rate is about $1,800, but, you think to yourself, no one's going to care if you give them $1,500 or just a measly $600, or if you choose, pay them nothing at all. Does this seem like a fair system? Would any lawyer agree to work under this pay-what-you-want system? Lawyers are known for their selflessness, but I doubt they'd be down to work under these conditions.
Tipping has even more troubling problems built into the practice. Discrimination has been known to show its ugly face more than once. Studies have shown that attractive servers get better tips than unattractive servers. Racial discrimination has also been proven as well, with white servers/bartenders out-earning Latinos and other minorities. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, working alongside a smoking hot server, as wonderful as that is, can be a frustrating experience. Watching a coworker make 30 percent more than you, doing the exact same job, is a bummer — just ask any woman in corporate America.
Another issue with tipping that most non-industry folks aren't aware of is the tip-out. The tip-out has huge ramifications on a server's income.
Let's say a server sells $1,000 in a shift, does a great job, and receives 20 percent in tips for a total of $200. If that server works at a restaurant with support staff — meaning back waiters, hostesses, etc. — that server will tip-out about 5 percent of their sales to the support staff. Now, don't get me wrong, the support staff completely deserve this money, but that means the server that made $200 will tip-out $50 (5 percent of $1,000), therefore walking away with $150. Meanwhile, a server that sold the same $1,000 but only received 15 percent in tips, walks with only $100 after the tip-out. To make the point more obvious, and I promise the math will be over soon, if Server A gets 20 percent in tips and Server B gets 10 percent in tips, you might think that Server A would simply make double what Server B makes, but, in reality, Server A makes triple what Server B makes: $150 vs. $50.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, "Philip, I don't want a 20 percent service charge added to my bill because sometimes the service is really bad and they don't deserve 20 percent." I'm certainly aware that bad service exists, and with Charleston's talent pool thinning out from the 800 restaurant openings here every week, bad service might become even more prevalent (I said SWEET tea!). Here's what I would say to that: If the service is bad, tell a manager. I'm sure they'd be willing to waive the service fee. If the bad service persists, stop going to that establishment. There are plenty of good ones out there. In fact, a new one just opened up while you were reading this article and I heard it's fabulous.
If a mechanic, plumber, or dentist does a poor job on your car, house, or teeth, do we stiff them? No. We begrudgingly pay them and never use them again and proceed to talk trash about them all over town so others don't make the same mistake. That's business. There are plenty of bad [fill in the blank_____] professionals getting paid every day. I think servers and bartenders should be no different. I do not support bad service, trust me. When I dine out, I dissect the service and, just like everything else in life, I love the good stuff and am bothered by the bad, but I still tip poor service because I feel like even though they did a crap job, they still deserve to live. For the record, 18 percent is my way of saying, "I think you're horrible."
That said, I believe we should move to a built-in, 20 percent service charge that ensures servers and bartenders compensation for their work. Great service (and the hotties) will likely still receive a little extra, but that tip would be a bonus, not the foundation of their income. Servers and bartenders are a huge group of people that are literally paid by the honor system — which sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud. The honor system might be fine if we were a vegetable stand in some tiny farming community, but as a national protocol that affects millions of people's lives, it should be abolished. Workers deserve a secure income, not one that will most likely be there, and not one that varies depending on a server's looks or the color of their skin.