Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why tipping gives me indigestion

English: Looking northeast at Morris Canal basin.
Maritime Parc Restaurant overlooks a Jersey City marina.

How did restaurant owners manage to create a tipping system that pits servers against customers, and takes the focus off the price and quality of the food?

The history of tipping really doesn't matter. We appear to be stuck with a system that puts the burden on the customer -- not the employer -- to provide servers with a living wage.

Most restaurant servers earn minimum wage or less. In New Jersey, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Several years ago, I read in The New York Times that in the United States, the highest wage paid to servers was about $10 an hour in Las Vegas, where unions are strong. 

$7.25 an hour or less

At $7.25 an hour in North Jersey, how many hours would a server have to work to make a decent salary and how much would he or she have to collect in tips? Tips are often pooled and shared by busboys and other waiters and waitresses.

Last month, I spent a week in San Francisco and ate in seven restaurants, ranging from a Vietnamese place that packs them in for a $5.95 seafood noodle soup to an expensive American grill at the airport, where I blew more than $50 on a two-course lunch and a glass of wine.

Service was as good or better than I've experienced in North Jersey, but there was some glitches, though nothing I would want to penalize a server for. I actually saw one young waitress break out into a trot on the way to the kitchen.

Maritime Parc

The tipping tradition came to mind after we had a bad experience at Maritime Parc, an expensive seafood restaurant in Jersey City's Liberty State Park. 

The food and service were good, but the restaurant has so much trouble luring customers to its isolated location that it is open only four days a week in winter.

One way it attracts customers is by issuing a $65 voucher for dinner for two through Travelzoo, but the restaurant recommended we tip the staff 20% on the full value of the meal, $130. That's $26. A 15% tip on $130 would be $19.50.

I left a $26 gratiuty, but encountered three problems: The Travelzoo menu has no prices, portions are small and I wasn't convinced the meal was worth $130.

$12 glass of wine

For example, our $12 glasses of wine were only one-third full. And my wife's entree held a small piece of fish that looked like it weighed no more than 3 ounces.

What recourse does a customer have? I could have left a smaller tip or I could resolve to never return. Both leave the restaurant off the hook.

A friend recounts his experience at a Theater District restaurant in Manhattan, where his wife remembered she had a discount coupon only after their party was presented with the credit-card slip.

The manager came over and said he couldn't adjust the check. He suggested my friend and the others not tip the waiter. Eventually, the manager pulled out cash from his own pocket and gave it to them.

Restaurant owners often leave us no choice but to vote with our feet, if we don't like the food or how it is prepared.

Misspent millions

They often spend millions on a renovation, but turn around and serve low-quality, mystery food to customers to boost their profits. Just think of how few North Jersey restaurants serve naturally raised meat and poultry.

They know that if we don't like it, we might, out of frustration, stiff the server. It's a lousy system that needs changing.

Of course, good luck trying to get restaurants owners and some celebrity chefs to take less profit, pay their servers more and increase the quality of the food.

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