Tag Archives: waiters

How Americans learned to tip

Tipping began in the U.S. in the 1840s, probably imported from Europe by Americans who began traveling abroad on the new trans-Atlantic steamships. By the end of the 19th century all the aspects of tipping we know today were widely practiced – and widely criticized..

Before that, people believed, Americans considered themselves social equals no matter what their economic circumstances and wouldn’t demean another person by treating them as an inferior (excepting, of course, slaves, Indians, and indentured servants), nor would any self-respecting person accept a gift of money for a helpful act.

Tipping wasn’t so much linked to restaurants as to hotels, applying to porters and doormen as much as to dining room waiters. There were few restaurants outside hotels then, especially when it came to places patronized by the rich.

Affluent Americans initiated tipping, beginning at summer resorts. The custom was to tip hotel staff upon arrival at a “crack watering hole” such as Saratoga or Newport, guaranteeing good treatment for the stay — and an expectation of more before the guest’s departure.

The word tip was British English and many critics blamed England for the custom, but it wasn’t purely English. It had many names, such as fee, gratuity, honorarium, and the French douceur and pourboire – plus the loaded terms bribe and baksheesh. But, overall, fee was used more often than tip in the 19th century, inspiring a popular quip in the 1870s, “When you have feed the waiter of the summer resort, then he will feed you.”

Tipping had many critics. But who to blame? At first public opinion singled out the rich for unfairly using their wealth to get special favors from waiters, leaving everyone else to suffer neglect – or even abuse. Failure to tip in the dining room could mean pointed rudeness, slow service, small portions, or even having food spilled on you.

Waiters came in for plenty of blame, with criticism often devolving into bigotry. According to an 1873 editorial, Black and Irish waiters comprised “two classes of imported persons in this country whose insolence and absolute indifference to the wants of those whom they are well paid to serve is sufficient to make this country stink in the nostrils of any tourist.” Another opinion piece stated that, if not tipped, insolent “ebony” waiters would “spill soup down the back of [a customer’s] neck, and ‘swipe’ his beefsteak over a dish which has recently held a broiled mackerel.”

Coney Island, where waiters were said to regard tips as “the sole absorbing object of existence,” was also singled out, particularly its fancier eating spots such as at The Oriental Hotel with its turrets and 480 rooms. In the 1880s as many as 3,000 waiters worked at Coney Island, some making as much as $25 a week in tips, about double the weekly wages of male office clerks at that time.

As waiters began to expect to be tipped – or else! – more customers began leaving tips. Some employers refused to permit tipping saying it eroded their control over the standard of service. But, according to critics, a more typical reaction was for restaurant owners to take advantage of the situation by reducing waiters’ pay. An 1883 reader’s letter to a Cleveland paper voiced a quite modern view of waiters’ pay: “Until the hotels pay living prices the waiters must look to well-disposed guests who have the means, to give them extra money, for which they will receive extra attention.”

It was also alleged that some restaurant owners stopped paying waiters any wages at all, sometimes even charging them a fee to work at places where tips were large. This is quite believable considering that some drive-ins of the mid-20th century did the same.

Tipping first became common in the Northeast, New York City especially. In 1883 Charles Delmonico, then head of NY’s Delmonico restaurants, told the NY Tribune that tipping had become so well established throughout the U.S. that it could not be stopped.

But that wasn’t quite true – yet. It was not often found across the country until the end of the century, particularly not in the West where the “spirit of independence” reportedly caused hotel, restaurant, and railroad employees to refuse tips. A Portland OR paper reported in 1886 that tipping had not “obtained any very strong foothold on this coast.”

How much to tip changed over the century. An early consideration was how big the dining group was. Since it was more trouble to serve a table of four than a table of two, the latter was supposed to leave proportionately more. By the end of the century it was based mainly on check size, 10% generally viewed as the right amount.

A writer in 1877 asked plaintively, “How many centuries do you suppose it will require to eradicate the custom of ‘tipping’ waiters?” By now we can answer “definitely more than one, going on two.” Attempts to eradicate tipping failed, including those by waiters’ unions in the 1890s. Instead, some clever individuals experimented with mechanical contraptions that eliminated the need for waiters.

Self-service restaurants offered another alternative. Near the end of the century many people cheered the emergence of waiterless eating places such as Chicago’s cafeteria-style lunch clubs and European automats. These and “quick lunch” eateries would become popular after the turn of the century – and still are.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

For the record

SamWoRestaurantRecently I read an amusing story about “Edsel Ford Fong,” a legendary waiter at Sam Wo (aka Sam Woh), a former restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who yelled at guests, ordered them around, and often refused their requests. For this outrageous behavior he earned lasting fame and is still remembered fondly long after his premature death in 1984.

As is usually true of  legends there are a few errors. In this case they encourage a somewhat distorted view of Americans of Chinese descent.

His name was not Edsel Ford Fong. It was Edsel Fung. His army, marriage, and divorce records give his middle initial as Y. The insertion of “Ford” – reproducing the name of Henry Ford’s son — must have been either an irresistible bit of showmanship on his part or someone else’s joke. How Fung became Fong I’m not sure.

According to R. B. Read’s The San Francisco Underground Gourmet, published in 1969, Edsel was commonly known as Eddie in the 1960s, his name not yet ossified into Edsel Ford Fong. Read wrote that the restaurant’s dining room on the second floor “is the province of Eddie, the archetypal Chinese waiter, so famous for his rudeness that he cultivates it. For Eddie, every Caucasian diner is a challenge and he moves in, barking, before you’ve sat down. If you don’t order within two minutes, you get a relentless verbal prodding which reduces many customers to the jellied state Eddie prefers, where they allow him to order for them. He shouts all orders down a dumbwaiter in a voice of heroic size. If Eddie doesn’t like you (he doesn’t like anybody, at least until the fifth visit), you have to ask for tea while awaiting your food.”

As the photograph shown above reveals, the restaurant was quite small despite its three stories. It readily comes to mind that Eddie’s performance tended to speed up diner turnover in this tourist-attraction spot which often had guests waiting to be seated.

Although it’s true that Edsel was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he was not a “Chinese waiter” as he is often described. His parents were born in China but he and most of his siblings were born in California. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Often the legends quote his quips and remarks in broken English. Given that he was an American I have no doubt he spoke English like the native he was, not like a 1930s Hollywood character. He was no Charlie Chan, but he may have used broken English as part of his act. He was an actor. In fact, he had a role in the 1981 Chuck Norris movie An Eye for an Eye. It’s quite possible he was one of the legion of Californians who wait tables while trying to make it as an actor.

He may not have gone far in Hollywood but he was a smash hit at Sam Wo’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under proprietors & careers


busboyHave you ever wondered how many items in a first-class restaurant are placed on and later removed from a table of two diners? Think of tablecloths, napkins, bread plates, water and wine glasses, candles, flower vases, six or more separate pieces of silverware for each, some of them replaced during the meal, salt and pepper shakers, condiment bottles, butter and olive oil holders, bread baskets, not to mention all of the food-bearing dishes in a multi-course meal . . .

In 1929 a highly systematized hotel chain that kept track of these things – probably the Statler – declared the number was 100. Most of the items were brought and removed by the waiter’s waiter, the busboy. (There were no busgirls then, few now.)

The busboy’s job also entailed ferrying heavy loads of dishes, glasses, and silverware – clean and dirty – to and from the kitchen which was often in the basement. And, should anything be broken or spilled by anyone, it was his job to clean it up. And to keep the waiter happy. In European restaurants, and perhaps a few in America, the waiter never entered the kitchen, this being delegated to his busboy.

Omnibus boy was the name of the position in the 19th century, meaning a restaurant worker who does all kinds of menial jobs. Around the turn of the last century it was shortened to busboy, and after World War I the longer word was rarely used. The word “boy” of course is routinely applied to holders of lowly jobs, all the more so if they are black or ethnic minorities as so often happens. Historically many busboys were in fact in their 30s and 40s.

The job can work out as an apprenticeship particularly useful for those who are learning English as an additional language. Many stories tell of those who began as busboys, such as Oscar Tschirky of Switzerland, maître d’hôtel of Delmonico’s and the Waldorf, who rose to high positions in hotels and restaurants. This was unusual. Mere survival was difficult enough in a position so strenuous and poorly paid. A bus boy revealed in 1920 that he received $15 a week plus meals  for working an 11-hour shift that ran from 7:30 pm until 6:30 am. Meals were no small thing to busboys, nor to other restaurant personnel. Some hotels and restaurants paid no wages to busboys, considering them in the employ of the waiters. In any case, waiters were, and are, expected to share their tips with busboys.

The classic European uniform for busboys – not often adopted in the US — consisted of a short black jacket, black tie (in contrast to the waiter’s white tie), and a long apron. Over time busboy uniforms have become varied, though usually inconspicuously so. However, in the 1980s busboys at Sonny Bono’s restaurant in Palm Springs wore T-shirts decorated with his picture.

© Jan Whitaker 2013


Filed under proprietors & careers

Waiters’ games

Since this post is about server dishonesty I’ll start off with a couple of disclaimers. First, I don’t mean to imply that all, or even most, servers – or kitchen staff – are dishonest. Also, the stories I’ve found are mostly about men but I don’t take that to mean that men are more dishonest than women or that women are less skilled in larceny and chicanery then men.

The history of servers and kitchen staff cheating and stealing reveals an extraordinary degree of laxity in restaurant management, which did not begin to change significantly until the Prohibition era when the idea of system and efficiency took hold in some eating places, especially chains.

For most of the 19th century and well into the 20th many restaurants operated on a cash basis and kept no records whatsoever. Servers didn’t even use written customer checks. Under a (non)system such as this, exemplified in restaurants such as Gonfarone’s in Greenwich Village as described in the book Papa’s Table d’Hôte, waiters needed little larcenous intent to end up with money that should have gone to the house. As author Maria Sermolino recounts, “even a waiter who tried to be honest might find his pockets unaccountably bulging with dinner money which, somehow, got confused with his tip money. There was so much of it pouring in, that everybody shared.”

Waiters at Gonfarone also regularly made off with bottles of wine, roasts, and chickens, according to Sermolino, daughter of one of the restaurant’s owners. Her father refused to crack down on the practice, claiming that there was plenty to go around and if the waiters felt distrusted they would steal even more. A similar winking attitude evidently prevailed at the New York hotel described by Gay Talese in A Writer’s Life. There, in the 1950s, the waiters routinely did their daily grocery shopping from the kitchen provisions, taking home whatever was on their list. The practice was referred to as “valising” and was so strongly identified with the waiting occupation that the staff referred to each other as valises, as in “Who’s that new valise the chef just hired?”

Probably pilfering has gone on as long as there have been restaurants, yet complaints about it seem to begin with the influx of immigrant waiters in the later 19th century. Written checks and checkers who wrote down and totaled up whatever food orders waiters carried out of the kitchen came into use in some restaurants around the 1880s. Waiters were required to pay cash for their checks when they came on duty; at the end of the shift their used checks would be totaled and they would receive change and/or a commission if that was due to them.

The check-checker system was supposed to put an end to the days when waiters palmed off sirloin steaks as porterhouses, pocketing the difference, or colluded with patrons to charge 25 cents on the dollar for a meal and receiving a very generous tip in return.

But, of course, it didn’t.

At first checks weren’t always written in ink, numbered, or marked paid, permitting them to be altered, discarded and replaced, or reused – with the end result of unaccounted for cash going into the waiter’s pocket. But even when these gaps were remedied, the games continued. Food was held under the tray and smuggled out of kitchens right under the eye of the checker. Worse yet, for the patrons, their meals might be assembled, completely outside the system, from uneaten scraps left behind on the plates of departed diners. A penciled check would be presented, then erased after payment was taken.

As more safeguards were put in place, collusion became necessary. Waiters conspired with checkers who would leave certain items off the tally. At the Chicago’s World Fair, where waiters were required to buy a set amount of tickets each day with which to pay for food orders from the kitchen, the workers who collected the tickets resold them at a steep discount off face value to restaurant managers who then resold them to waiters at a discount. The syndicate of ticket takers, managers, and waiters all made money at the expense of the Fair’s restaurant concessionaires.

Bartenders, too, have enjoyed lucrative schemes, such as pouring drinks from their own bottles of liquor and keeping the payments. Proof that larceny behind the bar hasn’t ended is found in a 2009 book The Hungry Cowboy. Its author Karla Erickson reveals how a bartender in collusion with a server and an assistant manager diverted a significant amount of cash by ringing up a large number of sales as voids. The manager noticed liquor costs rising in relation to receipts but didn’t investigate further until his usual sales bonus was withheld.

The beat goes on. Computerized orders and credit cards have created new barriers but have not, I have no doubt, foiled cheating completely.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant customs