A World Without Tipping?

Do you ever wonder – as you carry your dishes from your restaurant table across the room to the bus tubs, after eating a meal that you ordered and paid for at the counter, and went back to the counter when your name was called to pick up your food and carry it yourself to the table – why you dropped money into the tip jar on the counter before you even saw a glimpse of your food?

Near the end of the eighteenth century, a strong antipathy against restaurant wait staff grew. They were characterized as rude and interested in serving only in proportion to the presumed size of a patron’s order. Even more distasteful to diners was the expectation of a tip.

To remedy this situation, Max Sielaff, inventor of the vending machine, opened the first Automat in Berlin. The walls were lined with little glass doors, behind which sat sandwiches, slices of pie and assorted other delectables. The diner put a coin through a slot, the door unlocked and the customer pulled out the food. No servers, no tipping. The Automat’s success caught the attention of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, lunch counter entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. They purchased Sielaff’s technology and opened their first Philadelphia Automat in 1902. Ten years later, they expanded to New York City. Their business, providing low-cost meals, grew rapidly during the Great Depression. At their peak during World War II, Horn & Hardart operated eighty Automats in Philadelphia and New York. “Automat” became synonymous with cheap food, delivered quickly.

The Automats still needed people to put the food into the little compartments. In the mid-1900s, fast-food places such as McDonald’s, employed people to hand food to customers and collect the money, eliminating dropping coins into a slot. The number of Automats went from eighty to zero by 1991. What goes around, comes around: fast-food chains are working to make their restaurants self-service, eliminating all human contact.

But back to tipping… What about the people who clean up after us when we stay a night in a hotel? 27% of us always tip hotel housekeepers; 31% never do. Unlike restaurant servers, there is little direct contact with hotel housekeeping staff and so less pressure to compensate them. Housekeepers often earn minimum wage, more in unionized hotels in large cities. A housekeeper typically services twelve to fourteen rooms a day. If all guests tipped $5 per room, the day’s total is $60 to $70. 27% of $70 is less than $20 for cleaning up people’s messes.

Random Thoughts About Eating Out

  • I always feel validated when the response to my order is, “Perfect!” I am relieved when a request elicits, “No problem.”
  • The person or persons delivering order to table should know who ordered what. It’s not that difficult.
  • I often tip a higher percentage of the bill at a café than I do at an upscale dining house. The server should be rewarded based on effort and pleasing the customer, not simply on the price of the food.
  • Tip should be based on corkage fee, the charge for service when a diner brings his own wine, not price of the wine. A $100 bottle of wine requires no more effort than a $35 bottle.
  • When calculating gratuity, subtract a dollar or two if you had to ask your waitperson the prices of the specials.
  • I’m from Oregon where there is no sales tax. I don’t include tax in tab when I calculate tip.
  • Restaurant bills sometimes include a helpful tip calculator at the bottom, telling the diner what 18% or 20% or 25%(!) of the tab is. The amount was usually figured on the total of the food and beverage plus the tax. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that it’s calculated on the meal cost alone, before tax. Maybe somebody had complained?
  • I recently ate in a couple Seattle restaurants where a 4% additional charge was added to the bill, to be distributed among kitchen staff. In San Francisco, where employee health care is mandated, a surcharge is common. The message I get is, “We love our employees but not enough to pay them what they’re worth, so we’re making our customers do it.” Here’s an idea: Why not increase entree prices by a dollar and pay your staff what they deserve?

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