June, 2011

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Tipping point

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

My lesser self wants to giggle when a waiter introduces themselves as, “My name is –– , and I will be your waitron.” What a dehumanizing term. It says: I’m a sexless cog in a machine to serve you. The other extreme is “I’m your service ambassador”.  How pompous. It fills me with dread. I know the service is going to be hard work, like negotiating a trade agreement. These are true believers. The specials will be recited with immoderate detail. You will be menaced by a three-foot-long peppermill. If the ambassador isn’t looking down their nose, they will be complimenting you on your choices, one of several idiotic habits waiters develop, such as the presumptuous inquiry, “Is everything alright?”

There are places where three waiters will ask this in succession giving the impression the establishment lacks any confidence. A waiter should simply ask if there is anything else they can get one, just once and suitably timed.

Then the crux: what is an appropriate tip for an ‘ambassador’? Is it more or less than for a ‘waitron’?

If you’re like me, irritations, pet peeves, sheer folly and shabby service makes no difference. I still tip upwards of 10%. Tipping usually feels somewhere between a toll fee and an act of charity.

If the idea behind tips is to incentivize, anyone who eats in Cape Town knows it doesn’t work. The cheapskate is not going to tip well, no matter how good the service; and no matter how bad, most people are shamed into adding 10% regardless. I’ve had appalling service where the waiters are 100% dependent on their tips, and brilliant service where the service charge is added automatically.

Tipping is a messy business and many diners find it stressful and confusing. How messy it gets, I’m about to relate. Unlike New Zealand or Japan (where to tip is to insult), we’re stuck with it.

Governments don’t like it either. In some places the taxman presumes waiters earn 10% of turnover. In Paris a 15% service charge is added by law.

In the United States tipping is a national scourge. A waiter in Los Angeles once gushed breathlessly when she brought me the check, “I do this for all my clients,” she said. “15% is the minimum, 18% if you liked the service, 20% if you happy with me.” On the slip she had written down the total next to each percentage with a smiley face in blue ballpoint pen.

In New York 20% is now standard, though many diners calculate this on the before general sales tax total, and some tip lower on the bar portion.

In China you never tip, but in New York’s Chinatown my exit from a cavernous restaurant was blocked by a stocky man with folded arms and the demeanour of Oddjob in the Bond film Goldfinger – the one with the lethal bowler hat. “Where’s the tip?” he demanded.

In London, a ‘voluntary’ service charge of 12.5% added to the bill has become common. South African tourists are mostly unaware of this and regularly add 10% on top.

The argument against tipping that says parsimonious restaurant owners are just foisting their wage bill on the diner is fallacious. Yes, you are covering the wage bill by tipping, but the personnel are in theory being paid what you felt they were worth. The alternative would probably just be higher prices on the menu.

In parts of Europe, where waiters are paid adequately, tipping is not expected. In South Africa, waiters in upmarket restaurants are earning fairly well actually, considering the skills for the job, and relative to the average income of the population. Many also escape tax. In a high end restaurant that has 200% markups on the retail price for wine, it is quite possible that the waiter is earning more from the bottle than the estate that made it. Seriously.

But waitering can be tough. This column was prompted by a dreadful altercation I saw in a Portuguese eatery in my street. A middle-aged, rather nasty-looking couple had left no tip. The perplexed waitress asked if anything was wrong. The male half of this villainous pair released a torrent of abuse, repeatedly shouting, “An outrage! How dare you?” No comment was made on the service, only her audacity to expect a tip. The waitress stood helpless, tears streaming down her face, trembling.

A compulsory service charge however gives the restaurant owner full power. In the UK, several cases were exposed where the service levy was not paid over to the staff. In one, it was used to pay the minimum wage and the balance retained by the owners. In another, it was used as bonuses for the management. I know of one five-star hotel in Cape Town where years ago the shop stewards took the vast amount of tips (several hundreds of rands for each of them) and handed the waiters R20 at the end of the evening.

In many places, credit card tips never reach the waiters. Deducting 5% for credit card commission before paying on to the staff is however sensible accounting.

I recommend where possible pay cash directly to the waiter. Of course, you don’t know if the place is operating a tronc or if the plongeurs are to get a share, but at least you have completed your side of an established expectation.

Article appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 3 June 2010