L’addition: on tipping

In an interview for the story “What do we tip waiters for?” in the online magazine Salon, Steve Dublanica, author of the blog (and book) Waiter Rant, says that in his experience restaurant patrons, no matter what they may say in surveys, do not actually tip servers based on the quality of service. Rather, there are numerous other factors that influence why and how much they tip, such as social convention, mood, guilt, shame, or who knows what.

The subject of tipping is, in my opinion, a fascinating one with endless dimensions. There are so many wrinkles in this aspect of the server-patron relationship that I’ve tumbled upon in researching restaurant history that I find it hard to put it all together into a coherent post. So, for now, I’ll skip that and simply comment on one of Steve’s suggestions for how servers can influence the size of their tip. He recommends concentrating on cultivating regular customers: “You remember their favorite wine, their anniversary, their favorite table. You make them feel special so they’ll feel loyal …”

Good advice. But it reminds me of one of cruder methods (“dodges”) servers used to employ in the 19th century to curry favor with regular customers — one that the restaurant industry has done its best to stamp out but that undoubtedly still goes on in places that have lax checking systems. It is to give selected patrons more or better food than they ordered – a porterhouse rather than a sirloin – while charging them for the cheaper item. The customer still comes out ahead even after rewarding the server with an extra-large tip.

As early as the 1880s management tried to head off the game by installing a spy box (sometimes occupied by the restaurateur’s wife) in the pickup area of the kitchen, or by stationing a checker at the door to the dining room to see and record exactly what the server was delivering to the customer. Of course these tactics didn’t really work.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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