Economists will tell you that American-style tipping is wildly inefficient. If you really want good service, you should bribe, er, tip your server before the meal begins. That way, you reap the benefits of your own investment, instead of investing in good service that benefits the next customer. Economists will also tell you that European-style tipping, in which the tip is automatically added to the bill and the customer is not expected to add more, is also wildly inefficient, because the server has no incentive to improve the quality of the service. The American system of tipping post-meal is the worst of possible worlds.
As a server, I'm writing this letter as a means to inform (or remind) the general public of the federal minimum wage standards for tipped employees such as waitresses and bartenders. In Pennsylvania, the law requires a pay of only $2.83 per hour.
Some people may not be aware of that fact or may choose to ignore it. Yes, there is such a thing as bad service. We've all had that experience. But instead of not tipping, speak to the manager so the problem can be corrected for the next patron. And if you can't afford to tip appropriately, maybe you should think twice before dining out.
Fortunately for all concerned, I'm not an economist.
I'm a teacher. I used to be a lawyer. Around teaching circles, occasionally you will hear a wry joke along the following lines: Teaching would be a great profession if you didn't have to deal with all of these students. Lawyers sometimes say the same thing about clients.
When I was starting out as a lawyer many years ago, I used to hear that joke, and occasionally I would repeat it. And then I stopped, after I heard a partner in my firm repeat a simple, obvious proposition:
It's a service business.
Sure, when you're working hard, what you get paid doesn't always match what you think you deserve, or what makes sense from society's perspective. Teachers are often underpaid and sometimes overpaid. Lawyers are often overpaid and sometimes underpaid -- but other things being equal, the actuarial tables will get them in the end. Students raise hell and underachieve. Clients bitch and moan and won't pay their bills. Add it up: No whining. It's a service business.
Restaurant servers (not to mention all of the other folks who staff restaurants)? Almost certainly underpaid, all of them. And restaurant jobs are hard, and these days, like almost any job, they can be difficult to come by.
But do not blame your customers for their alleged ingratitude when service -- your service -- is lousy. It's a service business. When I eat out, I walk in with a default setting that says I will leave a 20% tip at the end of the meal. For some people, that default is 15%; for others it is lower. That default, whatever it is, is part of an implied bargain: hold up the restaurant's end of the deal -- adequate service, not even spectacular service -- and that default is yours. Keep it all, or share it with your colleagues; that's up to you. Drop the ball, and the deal's off. No whining. It's a service business.
Occasionally I wonder whether Pittsburgh's reputation for mediocrity across a wide range of services is deserved, and whether the entitlement mentality indirectly reflected in that letter has something to do with it. I can't say; maybe Pittsburgh simply reflects a broader national trend. But I can say that I am surprised and impressed as hell when I do receive great service in Pittsburgh, that is, when I see a local shoulder and there is no chip on it.
Take Casbah, for example. It's a very good restaurant, though in my view not a great one. I've eaten there a lot, both lunches and dinners, and the food, while good, is a little uneven. The wine list is excellent, but the main part of the restaurant can get so crowded and noisy that conversations are difficult. Still, the service is a regular delight, and it's a big reason that I keep going back and using it as a main destination for dinners with out of town guests. You want to know how to earn a tip? Have what they're having.