“I am really sorry that your waiter was rude to you — no one likes an unpleasant dining experience — but yes, you still need to tip,” writes VinePair CEO Adam Teeter. The article received plenty of comments from readers expressing their differences in opinion — some of whom feel the need to “teach servers a lesson for poor service.” But as our hosts discuss in this week’s episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” tipping comes with the budget of dining out — and is an act of human decency.
Join Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe as they discuss the tipping system in the United States. What factors may lead to poor service? Should employees be penalized for their mistakes in the form of reduced gratuity? And finally, are we moving away from tipping culture and toward fair wages for servers?
Tune in to find out.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Before we kick things off, I want to air some grievances.
Z: Oh, good.
A: I listened to the Monday episode last week. There were some comments made about how some people weren’t going to complain about service on this episode. But I will say in my absence, Zach talked even longer than usual. So I’m here to make sure we keep going, even if maybe once in a while, I have an issue with a server.
Z: It’s a good episode for that.
A: So anyways, Zach, since you’ll probably take the majority of this segment, what have you been drinking recently?
Z: Oh, I feel like here’s where I’m usually the most concise of the three of us, actually.
Z: I had the opportunity to open a bottle of wine that I’d actually got in France when I was there a number of years ago with my wife. We had gone to a few wineries in Saumur, which is in the west-central part of the Loire Valley area that specializes in Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. This was Chenin Blanc from a producer who’s actually an American. Which is cool, a rare American who’s a winemaker there and in anywhere in France, but especially in the Loire. It was the four-year anniversary of our visit to the winery, so Caitlin and I decided it would be a good time to open the bottle and it was delicious and fun. As much as I think that, you know, you and I certainly have talked before, Adam, about how that experience can sometimes not go the way you hope that the bottle you brought back doesn’t taste as good as you remember, this one came through it, which was nice. So that was delightful.
A: Great. And anything else?
Z: I’ll keep it brief. I know you did some traveling, so you probably have lots of cool stuff to share.
A: Well, let’s have Joanna go next. OK.
J: This past weekend, I was up just outside of Hudson, New York, with some friends who we haven’t seen in a while. We went to a restaurant called W. M. Farmer and Sons.
A: I love that place.
J: They have a really great cocktail program there, so I had a gin cocktail called the Cavalier with Amaro Montenegro and dry vermouth. And I guess it’s inspired by or from Attaboy. So that was really good. I don’t usually go for the gin cocktail, but I’ve been trying to do that more recently. And then back at the cabin that we were staying at, I made some Hot Toddies. First of the season.
A: And so what was your Hot Toddy recipe?
J: I tried to make a concentrate in a French press and with lemon juice, some maple syrup because we had it, and some cinnamon. I do a little concentrate there with some hot water and then whiskey in every cup. Pour the concentrate over, and then top it with hot water.
A: How much whiskey and what kind?
J: Two ounces of whiskey. This was just some whiskey we got in Philadelphia that wasn’t the best.
A: You guys need to cycle through. Yeah, that’s amazing.
J: How about you, Adam?
A: So I was obviously in California last week. I had birth-year wine. It was super cool. The person I had dinner with was in very jovial spirits and was like, Josh, Adam, what are your birth years? We’re both ’83 (now you all know how old I am). I had two really interesting things in Napa. So I had Rutherford Hill Merlot, which was really delicious. And then I also had this wine that was crazy. It was Calera Reed Pinot Noir. The label was crazy, it was ’83, right? It just said California Table Wine Bar on it, which was so funny. Both were delicious and then had some other really cool stuff, like an ’87 Frog’s Leap Zinfandel that was just mind-blowing. Some Stony Hill Chardonnay. Some fun stuff, I was spoiled by that trip. Then when I came home, I didn’t do a lot of drinking throughout the weekend. So that was me.
A: So there’s this column on VinePair that I started writing about five years ago called Ask Adam. I don’t know how I’m still writing it. People write in and I give my opinion, which is quite strong, and I have a very strong opinion about tipping — and that is that you should always f*cking do it. You know, it basically centers around, this is our system. I wish that we had a better system, the United States. I wish that we paid fair wages and that people who work in the service industry didn’t have to rely on tips to actually make their salaries when the owners are able to pay two bucks an hour at some places, right? I wish that that wasn’t the case. But it’s the system that was created here and therefore the tip is part of your f*cking bill, right? It’s not your way to lord over the server to be like, “You please me in the way I would like to be pleased, or I take away some of your salary.” That’s just not how this works. Someone wrote in asking, “What do I think about tipping and what do I do if there’s bad service?” Can you not tip? No, you cannot do that. You could reduce the tip. I would only reduce it to 18 percent because I believe that the person still needs to pay them because you don’t know whose fault it is that you have that service. But there were many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many emails and written comments that I’m wrong, that the tip should be allowed to be zero. The people need to learn their lesson. I love those emails that say I must not be a parent because you have to teach people when they’re bad and just really gross responses. And so I guess that’s why we decided to talk about it today because I’m in this position where I don’t understand the disconnect. I’ve never been in a service position. So for any of you f*ckers who called me out, I’ve never been in service, OK? I was a cater waiter in college. That’s not service, right? I actually got paid a fair wage when I was a cater waiter, which is insane. I got like 15 or 20 bucks an hour to be a cater waiter, which was great money. You weren’t allowed to take tips. It’s just the way the system is. It’s human decency to pay people for doing a job, for serving you. If there was a better system out there, we should move to it but there’s such a resistance to move towards that. This is the system. If you want to go out to eat, this is the cost of going out to eat. If you don’t want to be in a position where you need to pay someone an additional fee on top of the menu prices to serve you, then don’t go out to eat. And I’m telling you, if we did pay fair wages, it would be reflected in the price of the dishes.
J: Of course.
A: You would still pay this. So I just don’t understand the rationale that people have where they think that they can just be dicks to people. I just don’t know. Anyways, really asking the wrong way. I have a feeling you’re both going to agree with me because we’re decent human beings. I don’t know, what do you guys think about all of this?
Z: Well, I would love to hear Joanna’s thoughts first, and then I’ll give mine because I think, because I have a long career in that industry. Although I don’t know, Joanna, maybe you have some service experience?
J: I did a cater waiter gig as well, but I also worked at a country club pool bar kind of situation. So yeah, tips, welcome, of course. But I was paid a fair wage, probably. Well, it’s funny because when Adam wrote this column, I thought, this makes a lot of sense to me. Of course you’d still tip. Maybe you don’t tip as much if you feel like you had poor service. So you tip 18 percent instead of the 20 or 25 percent if you had really exceptional service. And then I heard of all the complaints and people who wrote in to disagree. Again, it didn’t really occur to me because I think that’s my personal philosophy as well. It’s what I was taught as a kid when I was paying for things myself or going out to dinner with my parents. Even if I was in another country, that’s how I would handle the situation as well. We’ve been having conversations about service a lot lately, as we come out of Covid. But over the past 18 months and how this hospitality and service industry has taken such a huge hit and how they’ve had to adapt to these changes. More customers and outdoor dining and things like that, and how diners needed to be patient. I think just people really lose sight of that stuff very quickly. Like you said, there’s an entitlement of going out to eat and you forget that people are working really hard to serve you. It’s a part of their job, of course. But the onus is on the diner to pay for that service. So yeah, I agree. I agree with Adam. I feel similarly and that’s what I would do in that situation as well.
A: Zach, I have actually specific questions for you. I feel like you, not tipping someone because you didn’t have as great of an experience or you lower your tip isn’t going to make the night any better for you. It’s just going to make that person’s night f*cking worse. Right? Do you really feel that much better that you were made whole if your dish wasn’t cooked the proper way or they didn’t approach the wine service the way you thought they should, or you thought they were gruff? Does that really make you feel that much better as a human being to then stiff that person who needs to pay rent, needs to get home, needs to take care of whatever else in their life — whether they have kids, pets, taking care of an elderly parent?. How does that make you feel that much better? I do think the tip unfortunately does give us this belief that we have this power over a human being that you didn’t interview. You don’t employ them, right? And again, I get it. The background that people have of like, well, then their bosses should pay them more. Yeah, I would like them to. But this is the system. So Zach, I think you do agree with us. So what I’m really curious about from you is your perspective of how things go wrong? Because I think a lot of people place all of the blame on the person on the floor. Sure. And so many times, it is not their fault at all.
J: I want to jump in before we move on to that because I feel like we haven’t discussed that tips are often pooled. So you feel like you have bad service from your person or your server, and then you don’t give them a tip, the rest of the team suffers. Sorry, go ahead.
Z: Just let me just put one point here, and then I will answer your question or give some examples of how things can go wrong in ways that might be hard to notice for the diner. My feeling about people tipping poorly or not at all is concentrated in three areas. So there is the misguided but maybe not completely asshole-ish notion that people have of, well, if something didn’t go right, here’s a chance for you to learn. It’s a very patronizing attitude.
A: There’s no lesson.
Z: But the honest truth is that as a server, bartender, whatever, that communication is muddied at best. Because you never know why someone leaves you a bad tip. Is it just because they’re a sh*tty tipper? They would have tipped you poorly no matter what you’ve done. It’s not like it comes with an outline of exactly what they felt did not meet their standards. Now I don’t know that I would have been all that interested in their opinion anyhow. But it’s not even like it’s an effective teaching tool. What I’ve always told people is that if you have a bad dining experience, bad service experience, tip and then write an email to the restaurant. You stand a vastly better chance of ending up with some form of satisfaction. When I was a manager, we would send people gift cards all the time because they explained or talked about a situation they had that was not to their liking, and we wanted them to come back. If you’re in it for some kind of recompense, that’s the best way to do it, not to stiff the server. There is also a chance that your concern will actually be addressed with the server. Because look, I’ve been a service professional for a long time. I’ve worked with lots of people and some of them are not good and some of them are having sh*tty days and take it out on their customers. It happens, all of us are human, and that doesn’t make it OK for them. In the same way that you as a customer should not take out your sh*tty day on your server, the server should not take out their sh*tty day on the guest. If they’re not capable of giving you a level of service, they shouldn’t be there. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It happens all the f*cking time. And that’s a broader topic than we’re going to get you in this episode. But the point is if you want your complaints addressed, then emailing or calling is the way to do it because it will actually get heard, and you could make your case. The other category of people who tip poorly are much more disingenuous about it and are cheap and are looking for excuses. Or they’re just like, everything tasted good, but there was that one point where I asked for a side of ranch, and it took two minutes to come instead of one minute, so let’s tip 15 percent. There are a lot of those people out there and those people, those of you listening, you suck. I don’t know what to tell you like, that’s just an incredibly sh*tty thing to do. As Adam said upfront, in this country, in most restaurants, most places, you are expected to tip. If you don’t tip around 20 percent, you are hurting the person serving you and/or the whole team of people serving you in a way that they don’t have another opportunity to make up for in a lot of ways.
A: How does this go wrong? I’m sorry, I think that everyone thinks that it’s always the server’s fault. Whether the dishes are late or things like that. So I’m just curious beyond the person who is having a bad day and just takes it out on diners.
Z: So I think the three ways where things go wrong is a broader restaurant issue of poor communication between the front of the house and the back of the house. We’ve talked on this podcast and it’s been discussed a lot in food or drink media a lot. There are plenty of people on both sides of that, but in particular in the kitchen, chefs and otherwise who are tyrannical in one form or another. Sometimes you have a restaurant where it may be imperceptible to the guests in most ways, but where the service staff is uncomfortable talking to whoever is in charge of things in the kitchen. That could be about something as simple as this guest has a nut allergy. It could be as big as this table that doesn’t like a dish, they’re unhappy with it. When you have poor communication, strained communication, things go wrong. Timing is wrong on dishes, there’s not good communication from the back of the house to the front of the house when things are going slowly. I mean, it happens, right? You get a kit, you get an order that comes in, or a few orders that come in at the same time that slam a given station in a kitchen. It can back things up, and it can be really frustrating when you’re the server. I’ve been this person more times than I care to count where the pantry station — people making salads and appetizers and desserts — is staring at a 15 top that all got different salads and you’re waiting for your one dessert. That’s a place where people don’t want to wait 20 minutes for dessert, generally. But that’s the thing where in a restaurant with good communication, the server can go to that cook or to the chef or whomever and say, hey, look, can you guys get me a table 24’s cake real quick. Like, this table needs to get out to go to a show or whatever. All that communication that in a healthy, respectful environment goes well can go really badly in environments where there isn’t that level of communication. And I’ve worked in both restaurants, unfortunately. Another area is, you can have the same kind of dynamic with the bar. Depending on how restaurants handle beverage service, all beverage alcohol service might be out of the hands of the server. There are plenty of restaurants where the bartenders pour glasses of wine and stuff like that. So again, a really graceful server might be aware of that situation in the bar and might note to a guest when they order a cocktail, hey just so you know the bar’s a little bit backed up that might take a little while longer. Can I bring you something while you wait? Can I get you a glass of wine, if that’s something they can do, right? Experienced, polished, graceful servers will understand when they need to cover for another part of the restaurant team that’s struggling or just behind or buried in a way that is gracious and seamless. That’s not every server, and that’s not a knock on all of them. It comes with experience. It comes with a certain kind of attitude toward service of anticipating possible problems and preempting them. The third one is not a small category, but your server does f*ck up a lot. They forget things, they put in the wrong entry into the system. Servers make mistakes all the time; everyone does. Yes, of course. But again, this is where experience and graciousness come into play. It took me a while to get to this place as a server. When I was new to it, this was not me and it took me a while to learn and to grow as a person and a professional. The thing to do when you make a mistake is to own it to the guest. To say, you know what, I’m really sorry for, I forgot to fire your entrees, I forgot to ring in that drink, I forgot to do X, Y or Z. And the best thing you can do as a server is to come to the table with that information and a plan. That can be, I forgot to fire your entrees, it’s going to be a while, it’s going to be 25 minutes, but we have another course coming for you, or I’ve got a round of drinks coming for you. Your job as a server is not to make sure that nothing ever goes wrong because something will always go wrong. That’s life. Your job is to make sure that your guests don’t feel like you don’t give a sh*t about their experience. I don’t know about the person who wrote in initially to you, Adam, I don’t know what their experience was. But at the heart of the issue is a feeling that can be really frustrating as a diner, and I’ve had it as a diner more times than I like where you get the sense that the person serving you does not give a sh*t about the experience you’re having. That can be for whatever set of reasons. I don’t want to get into all of them. That is not necessarily an opportunity where you would tip poorly, but that is an opportunity where I think as a diner you should communicate to the restaurant after the fact. I’ve done it, I have written emails to say, “Here’s the deal, I work in service and this was not acceptable.”
A: Don’t go to Yelp.
Z: No, no, no, no. Because in the end, you don’t want to hear someone else’s dirty laundry. You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life. You don’t know what’s going on in that restaurant. And it’s not your job as the diner to discipline them. If there are issues, that’s what management in restaurants should handle. If they’re consistently unable to serve their guests well, that’s a problem. And it’s a problem the restaurant has to deal with. But it’s not your job as the guest to solve it. That was a ton of me. I apologize. But I do want to throw a question back at both of you. Since the pandemic started, I haven’t really been doing service for a while other than some one-off things. I have wondered for a long time in the restaurant industry, you heard from all quarters of people within it that, just, tip culture in America was endemic. You’re just not going to get rid of it. Danny Meyer famously tried to get away from tipping and then had to go back because his staff was unhappy. I just wonder if that is as true now as it used to be.
A: Meaning you can’t get away from tipping?
Z: No, I think we can. I really do. I think in part because of a lot of things and, again, I don’t want to get into it all here. You guys brought up a bunch in the first part of this about how essential it is that service professionals get paid a living wage. To me, that only really can happen if we move from a system where service professionals are compensated outside of the employment sphere. It’s complicated these days. Tips are pooled in many places. They’re tracked more by the IRS because they’re on credit cards, things like that. There is still an element of when an operator only has to pay a minimum wage or a tipped minimum wage, that employee-employer relationship is weird and not normal. For most people listening to this, most people who dine, if there’s a 20 percent service charge on their bill, some of them might grumble about that. But you just get used to it, you just deal with it. The restaurant company that I worked for before the pandemic, we had switched to it a couple of years before, and after a while, people just got used to it. It just was the deal. They paid their bill, they signed the slip, and that was it. There just wasn’t drama about that. And I think we are in an era where we recognize you can’t just rely on diners or customers to pay your employees. That’s a silly model that has a lot of bad history behind it. We need to try and move away from it. I think for the time being, you do still need to understand that you can’t take your own personal stand against a broad system. But you can encourage the restaurants you go to and choose to go to restaurants that do compensate their employees fairly.
A: That was the classic, “I have a question, not a statement,” but then you make a statement.
Z: I guess that’s true…
J: Yeah, this is interesting. I just want to speak to some of the things that you said, Zach, and what we mentioned earlier. I was recently in Canada, as you may recall, and I was with my in-laws. We were at a restaurant outside of Montreal, and they were really understaffed and it was quite busy. My father-in-law was talking to the server about what that experience has been like. Afterward, I was trying to explain to him this issue with a service shortage and what’s happening and how the staff that they can get in is overworked. This restaurant had to close early because they didn’t have enough staff to keep it open, and the people had already worked the maximum hours that week. So I said, how do we solve this? We pay them more for their work. That translates to higher menu prices for diners. It was just such a foreign concept to him. He was just like, “So you mean everyone would be expected to pay more for the same food?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
A: A burger wouldn’t be $19. It would be $25.
J: Exactly. With that 20 percent service charge, how would people really respond to this? How long would it take for that to really be what we do instead of relying on tipping and tipping culture and people’s very subjective take on tipping for people to make enough money to live?
A: I think it may happen faster than we think. The reason for that is the current market, right? Prior to the opening up of the world, what we heard from a lot of restaurateurs was, “I need to go back to tipping because I need to lower my prices low and I need as many people back in as possible to make up for what I’ve lost.” But now what everyone’s realizing is, “Oh sh*t. Even if my prices are low and I’m slammed, I don’t have the service staff in order to serve those people. Because they don’t want to come back to work because it’s a tip-reliant business and they’re going to get treated like sh*t and they’re sick of that. I need to raise everything.” It’s going to happen because too many restaurants are still understaffed. The only way you’re going to attract and retain talent is to pay a premium. I have a lot of friends who own restaurants in New York that are fully staffed because they pay full wages. You can say all you want, that’s not what it is, that it’s the Biden stimulus, etc. It’s also that people don’t want to go back to a job where they’re totally reliant on you, the consumer, for their well-being when there are so many other things that go into their job. They owe so much to the restaurant and do so many other things. They have to clean up, they have to mop dirty bathrooms. There’s a lot of servers who are like, I’m not going to go and have to do all this other stuff in my job doing inventory, coming in early to fold napkins and stuff, if then the majority of my salary is relying on customers. It’s just going to switch because it has to, or these restaurants who also need to make a living, the owners, the chefs are not going to stay in business.
Z: And you think about it this way, too, right? People who go to work at Target don’t expect that their paycheck is going to vary based on how busy the Target is, right? Yes, your schedule might be determined based on to some extent how busy the store is at a given time. Obviously, if a store does really, really poorly, it might close and you might be out of a job. But it is weird that we have traditionally asked front-of-house staff to take on a level of risk about how successful the restaurant will be. That is the owner’s risk, right? If your restaurant is dead or unsuccessful, that’s your problem. Your employees’ pay should not be variable based on how busy the restaurant is. That is just not a model we would accept in any other industry, even other service industries. Or in the places where we accept it, it’s much more direct. If someone is a hairstylist and maybe they work at a small salon and they’re not busy, that’s a little more on them. That’s more of an independent contractor sharing a space. But as a server, as a bartender, you have a limited ability to bring in business for yourself. Maybe a little bit as a bartender, I guess. But you’re operating in this larger context and your employer should be the one taking on the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month risk in terms of business. And if they can’t afford to stay open, then that’s a problem, and you have to find a new job. But asking servers to take that risk, people don’t want to do it, and I don’t blame them.
A: Yeah, I agree. Moral of the story is: This is the system we need to go to. Hopefully, we’re going to get there sooner than later. In the meantime, don’t be an asshole. If you are going out to dinner, factor it in. It is part of going out to dinner. Everyone has to do budgets. If you have kids, you have to factor in the cost of the babysitter and the food. I get it. But that is the cost of going out, and part of that cost is, if you’re a decent human being, at least a 20 percent tip to the servers. If you want to disagree with me about 15 percent, I probably will not dine out with you. And that’s all I have to say.
Z: I’ve got nothing to add. You pretty well covered it.
A: Yeah. Cool. I will talk to you both on Friday.
J: OK, sounds good.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.