A couple of Saturdays ago, my wife and I found ourselves idling in a strange land with an hour to kill before a beer festival. She was rolling on an empty stomach, and I hadn’t eaten much of anything for a good 20 minutes either, so we went to a brewpub not far from the train station for lunch. It’s silly to drink beer on the way to a beer-drinking event, but it’s sillier still to order lemonade at a brewery, so we got an ESB for me and an IPA for her. Mine was perfectly good, and hers was otherwise.
She gave it a few sips, then decided to forget about beer and focus on bobbing for the few solid bits of protein floating in the pulled-pork swamp at the center of her sandwich. I’ll usually rescue her abandoned beers, but this was a truly bad one—not “unusual” or “not to my taste,” but either poorly made, poorly cared for, or served in a poisoned glass—so we let it sit, and the bartender noticed. She asked if my wife wanted another beer, and suggested either the kölsch or the amber. Before my wife could decide, the friendly, proactive bartender brought samples of each, and ultimately delivered a free half-pint of the pretty good kölsch.
Overall, not a very good lunch, but the bartender was pleasant and went beyond the call of duty—my wife didn’t complain about the IPA, she just didn’t want to drink it, and therefore had no reason to expect a free replacement. This means we were in a common, crappy pickle when the check came. The bartender deserved every bit of our standard tip percentage, and she got it. But that means we paid a 20- to 25-percent surcharge for a bad meal. This is why tipping is a ridiculous system, and why we’re all going to be better off when it finally goes away.
If we’d just been charged a flat, all-inclusive fee for our meal, with the restaurant shouldering the responsibility for paying its employees—a burden that nearly every other American industry manages to pull off—then we’d have been left with no decision other than vowing never to return. Caveat emptor, no hard feelings. Some places serve rotten beer and swampy pork, all part of the gamble you make every time you put on pants and venture forth into the sunlight. But instead, we were forced to assume the role of paymaster for the poor woman who, through no fault of our own, delivered unto us a bad lunch.
Let’s say the check was $30. If you believe in tipping your server a fair percentage under almost any circumstance—i.e., if you willingly partake in this game and agree to pull your weight; i.e., if you don’t suck—then it’s really $36, minimum. But we’ve been trained to think of the phantom $6 as a discretionary charge that we’re entitled to bestow, withhold, or adjust based on our whims. Since that’s how tipping is presented to us, it seems perfectly reasonable to knock this $36 back down to the $30 we’re contractually obligated to fork over—why pay a bonus for soggy meat and musty beer?*
*The $2 worth of bonus kölsch was a very nice gesture, but it came late in the meal and didn’t improve the overall experience outside of making us like the bartender, which is something, but not the reason we walked in the door. We set out looking for a bartender to admire for persevering through a tough situation; we wanted lunch.
If the entire price of our meal had been based on an after-the-fact negotiation where we sat down individually with the brewer, the pork-puller, and glass-washer, and the bartender, that would have been one thing. An insane and unmanageable thing, for sure, but not a philosophically deviant one. We would have conducted a thorough investigation of what went wrong, rewarded the people responsible for what went right, and divvied up the $36 accordingly. But that’s not how tipping works. Everyone involved in designing, brewing, and maintaining the beer, as well as everyone complicit in buying, soaking, and plating the pork, got paid the exact same wage they would have received if it had been the best lunch of our life.
But the bartender, for some dumb reason, was left twisting in the wind, with her paycheck dependent on my willingness to decide, “That was a bad lunch. I bought subpar food and drink, for which I am only technically obligated to pay $30. But what the hell, let’s make it $36!” In the end, I upped it to $38, because she did a better than average job; that makes sense within my interpretation of the tipping system, especially since I was trying to provide a token counterweight against all the reduced tips she surely gets from people who, reasonably if incorrectly, take out their beer and pork problems on the messenger.
Thankfully, there’s a movement afoot to scrap this busted set-up. It’s focused for now on higher-end restaurants, where a service staff’s effective wages after tips can be several times higher than those of the kitchen staff and, often, the management; its primary stated aim is income redistribution. In this scenario my lunch would have been a fixed $36, which would be divided, via a common hourly-wage pay system, more equitably among the entire restaurant staff.
At a more middlebrow place, like my brewpub, it would likely shake out something like this: The bartender’s wage would go from minimum wage plus tips to, say $20 an hour. That would likely be a paycut overall, but it would come in handy on a slow Tuesday afternoon shift, and also when she gets in an hour before opening to slice fruit, since minimum wage plus tips minus customers equals minimum wage. The pork-despoiler out back would see a bump from $12 an hour to $15, and everyone else along the way would get another couple bucks too. The restaurant would adjust prices such that they would not lose a single penny in real revenue; costs to the diner would be pegged directly to the percentage the payroll increased.
This is good for the kitchen staff, and neutral for the restaurant and the customer, which means the money’s gotta come from somewhere. This system, if implemented, will end the era of bartenders walking out the door with $500 cash at the end of a busy Friday night. I am emphatically pro-bartender, which is why I tip more than custom requires, but even I can admit that’s a pretty extreme (if rare) wage for restaurant work.
It’s not for me to advocate for or against bartenders or prep cooks, though. I speak for the eaters and drinkers, and from our perspective, it’s just easier to have all the costs fixed up front. Tips very rarely function as incentives or rewards; ask almost any bartender or server and they’ll tell you that by far the biggest factor in their take-home pay is sales volume. We might add or subtract a few bucks here or there for better or worse service, but that doesn’t impact a bartender’s finances as much as we wish it did. The more drinks you sell, the more money you make. A dour grump who sells 100 Bud Lights is always going to make more money than a charmer who sells 50. Or even 90. And no matter how friendly or even excellent a bartender is, he ultimately doesn’t have a ton of influence on how many people walk through the door on a given night, or how thirsty they are.
There’s a bit more wiggle room at the craftiest cocktail lounges, but even there, volume rules a bartender’s pocketbook. The worker’s incentive to be pleasant and professional at a place like that is the same incentive the rest of us non-tipped laborers have: Personal satisfaction in a job well done, plus the reality that if you’re not good, you’ll lose your gig; and if you’re extra-good, maybe you’ll get a raise or a promotion (in the bartending world as currently constructed, that means getting to work higher-revenue shifts).
The woman who makes your $14 Manhattan isn’t friendly and efficient because she’s trying to squeeze an extra buck out of you. She’s that way partly because she’s a high-achieving person who is wired to give her best effort, and partly because she’ll get canned if she doesn’t. That’s a gross sentence to type, until I examine my own motives for trying to get all the commas in the right place in said sentence: I get paid the same for a bad column as for a good one, but bad ones bum me out and also bring me a step closer to unemployment. That’s just how work goes.
But with all that said, I think everyone who can afford to should increase their tipping percentage by a few points for as long as this rigged system remains in place, if for no other reason, then out of simple altruism. How many opportunities do you have to make a significant positive impact on a stranger’s life? I realize that a lot of restaurant and bar service workers earn more than people with comparable—or greater—skills, training, and responsibility in other industries, but I don’t want to hear “Why should a bartender make more than a schoolteacher!?” He shouldn’t. But unless you’re going to stand outside the local elementary school handing out two-dollar bills to all the teachers on their way into work every morning, you have no simple way to address their low pay. And if you want to skimp on bar tips and redistribute your savings via $5 handshakes to your bus driver, be my guest. Otherwise, pony up.
The one silver lining to the impractical and illogical way we currently pay our bartenders is that it gives us the rare opportunity to express concrete appreciation for another person’s work. And remember, this isn’t some random shmoe—this is the person who just made you a Manhattan! Isn’t that worth an extra couple bucks?