Restaurants: Putting fair in the fare

Because our immediate and extended family includes cooks, oyster shuckers, restauranteurs and a sommelier, we've seen the restaurant business up close; it is not known for fair, let alone laudatory, employment practices.

As of this year, several Canadian provinces (and some US states) are increasing the minimum wage for restaurant workers. Happy Hour for them? Depends on where you're seated. Many think that employers will try to cut jobs or reduce hours, while still trying to increase the average cheque, the plasma of any operation.

What does this mean for us, as customers? Tips will still be customary, and form a significant part of the North American server's salary, even with a $3/hr pay increase.

You may notice that when a bunch of women 50 or older enter a restaurant, a waiter can deflate like a twenty-minute old soufflé. There's a stereotype that women are lousy tippers, as well as fussy, inattentive (so specials have to be repeated), and prone to leaving bags in a server's way. One of my favourite cartoons shows a waiter stopping by a table full of women to ask, "Is anything all right?"

When the cheque comes, usually someone asks what I'm tipping—but I'm not the woman you want. Mothers of restaurant workers—even former ones—view every worker as Someone's Child and thinks, Has she paid her rent this month?

No matter what you decide to add, be alert when using payment systems. When you use a credit or debit card and enter the tip by percentage, that percentage is calculated on the entire bill, including tax. It's easy to choose the 15% option, the rule of thumb for a tip for good service here, but you're actually paying more. (In the fine-dining category in large North American cities, 20%-25% is the norm, a figure that blows the minds of my European visitors.)

But if I order only, say, a $4 cappuccino in a café, I tip more, because leaving only sixty cents feels really cheap for the at least two trips to the table.

Another intangible powerfully influences ordering and tipping behaviour: the sense of how good a time you had, and you may even be psychologically manipulated. Not talking about that extra glass of chardonnay, either.

That happened to me at a posh bistro. A girlfriend and I settled in. The waiter approached the table, and, after greeting us, said to me, "Isn't this the most gorgeous evening? Such a marvellous night to be out! You two sure know how to have fun!" As he said that, he touched the back of my shoulder in the lightest, glancing way. He said, "You've been in before!" and smiled widely when I said yes.

And I thought, Holy Smokes, he's using Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques on me, specifically those of pacing and leading. He was pacing by using those positive emotional words ("gorgeous", "marvellous", "fun") and tying them to my experience (the touch, the nod, the smile) and leading me further: to think of myself as a favoured, carefree patron... who will just naturally order the bottle of premier cru he has pointed out.

Though never an NLP practitioner, I had learned enough to spot it.

Most waiters only go as far as trying to up-sell extra drinks or a dessert, which can easily net    another several hundred dollars in tips a shift on a busy night. (This annoys me; if I wanted whipped cream in my hot chocolate, I'd order it, dammit.)

Tips aside, expect to see other changes on the heels of the mandatory pay hikes. Industry consultants such as Michael von Massow predict smaller portions, more vegetarian options, and fewer exotic or out-of-season ingredients on plates.

All of these strategies will please diners who have long thought that serving sizes were too big, or  who long for more meatless choices, but don't expect restaurants to lower the prices.

Frugality bloggers routinely tell readers to eschew dining out altogether, but either by necessity or by habit, forty-two percent of Canadians buy takeout or eat in restaurants once or twice a week, according to a 2017 Dalhousie University study.  (Source: Global News)

Danny Meyer, one of the industry greats and author of "Setting the Table",  has said that his mission as a restauranteur is "to make money while giving the impression of generosity", a job that just got harder. Meyer calls tipping, "one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated on the American culture", adding that it lets restaurants get away with underpaying. As of 2017, he includes gratuities in the bill (following the European model) and most of his restaurants have a revenue-sharing plan.

These days, I look for a place that serves what we can't replicate at home, in an enjoyable setting, which is rarely the hot place to be seen. And if everyone in the house is being paid decently and treated with respect, that's the icing on the cake.


Madame Là-bas said…
In British Columbia, servers employed in an establishment with a liquor license are paid a lower minimum wage even if it is a "family" restaurant or some of the shifts are morning shifts. I find this to be a deplorable practise. I am so much more comfortable with the European system. I believe that everybody deserves a "living wage" and that restaurants should pay adequately. You have started the New Year with some thought-provoking blogs. Thank you.
A very timely post - and something my friends and I have been talking about - especially since the new minimum wage legislation came into effect. As you know - some of the "Tim Horton's" locations have shot themselves in the foot and have generated a lot of negative publicity with how they have responded. I just wish restaurant workers were paid a decent wage and that tips were truly something we could choose to leave for exceptional service!
I eat out probably twice a week and I still run into that situation - even when I've made a reservation - where, as a woman I am shown to the worst table possible - I feel that I am forced to become (politely) more forceful and vocal before I'm ever given a decent table. Not a good way to start. Yes, I do understand that women have a reputation for being more fussy - or perhaps not tipping enough - but it is my experience that this is completely false - and that in fact we tend to overtip rather than the other way around - even when we aren't treated as well as the table of males seated next to us! Perhaps the reason that some women may not tip as well as many waiters would like is because we are treated as second class patrons right from the start and if we didn't have to insist upon equal treatment before we even order our food we'd be more inclined to leave more. When I have a good experience - as I had with 5 friends this past weekend when we had TEA at the Art Gallery of Ontario - then the wait staff gets a very generous tip of 20 o 25% from all of us! It is a two way street.
PS - I also don't like to be "managed" - nor do I want my waiter to treat me like a best friend or that I'm his grandmother - I am a customer, be friendly and polite, but really, I don't need to hear all about your bad morning or the friend who is ill or where you are going after work - I like a wee bit of formality makes me much more comfortable.
Venasque said…
I could not agree more with Margie - you are not my friend, I don't care what your name is, just be professional and don't throw my food at me. We never eat out, and it's not because of the cost. It's because people here don't know how to behave in restaurants - they talk loudly to each other (because the entire room consists of hard, reflecting surfaces), they talk loudly on their phones and their children have no idea of how to behave when out in public. So it's not pleasant in any way. And if, as you say, you can make as good at home, why would you go out?

On the other hand we were recently in Quebec City and had the most wonderful evening and meal at a restaurant there. Quebec seems to have a more French (France) approach to restaurant behaviour and French people are usually quiet and well behaved in restaurants and in public generally.
Susan said…
I love your suggestion of seeing the employees in a restaurant as someone's children. I want to suggest that this can carry over to other service businesses as well.
LauraH said…
Strongly agree that I would much rather drop the tip system and pay more on the bill knowing that the staff are paid a good wage. I enjoy eating out, especially food I couldn't or wouldn't make at home. Lunch or dinner is my go-to when meeting friends, it's just so much easier when people are coming from different areas of the city. Also, people tend to feel a lot of pressure if they invite guests to eat in their home - tidying the house, making a special meal, etc.

Bad tipping rep? I've noticed that some of my friends tend to cheap out on the tip, perhaps because they don't eat out much and aren't up to speed on current practice (15-20% here) or have generally got out of the habit of spending money. But that's another whole topic.
I'm an insane over-tipper in the US, because I know how hard some of the service staff works, and how appalling badly they get paid. Couple that with living in a really tourist-heavy neighborhood, where tips from European patrons are small, and some of my favorite staff really can struggle to make ends meet.

Could we not just pay these people a decent wage, and we as diners will pay for the food and service? I don't expect my electrician to work for a fraction of a living wage and depend on my tips...

Always timely, always thoughtful - you write one of my very favorite blogs!

The one part about tipping rates that I have never understood is why they continually go up when they are proportions. So a meal that cost $20 thirty years ago would have gotten a $2 tip at 10%. The same meal might cost $100 today, so a 10% tip would proportionately increase to $10.
That said, unless the service is bad, I tip the customary 15%, and since in BC we don't have PST on meals, I don't worry about tipping on top of the tax. (When I eat out in Montreal, I always mentally prepare to add a third to the cost of the meal for tax and tips). I also tip a higher percentage if we're not drinking because I figure the wait staff should not suffer because I choose not to imbibe.
I've heard that in the US, wait staff get a couple of dollars an hour only; at least here in Canada they get the minimum wage. My American friend tells me that Canadians have a bad reputation in regards to tipping in the US as evidenced by this joke: How can you tell the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? Canoes tip...
Venasque said…
I should have added as far as tipping is concerned, I much prefer the European model. Having said that serving is a profession there and it is well done. That is not always the case here, however everyone deserves a living wage. I would prefer to pay a little more for the food to ensure that happens.
Leslie M said…
Many restaurants in Seattle, my home, have implemented no tipping policies. Minimum wages were raised to $15/hr and a service charge added to the bill, typically 20%, that is shared by front of house and back of house workers. I fully support the change for the benefit of all the workers, though the price of a good meal has risen. I’m okay with it, because I, a 58 year old woman, typically tip 20 - 25%. I don’t think I’m in the minority, at least not among my group of friends and acquaintances. It will be interesting to see if this works over time.
Swan said…
I always tip generously. Our youngest son is a server. I never knew they have to share tips with other servers and the bus boy. It comes down to a pitiful amount once everyone else gets their share. It such a hard job to do.
Duchesse said…
Mme Là-bas, Janice, Leslie: The European "service compris" system is far preferable- for both patrons and servers- and I do not know why we don't have it everywhere. Do you?

Margie from Toronto: How a woman or group of women is treated has in my experience improved somewhat, but I too have seen and occasionally received that worst table. One time, in a now-closed but very good Toronto restaurant, I was greeted with palpable coolness by the maitre d'- until Le Duc arrived a few minutes later. Needless to say, last visit.

Ghisele et Nadine: The disproportional increase is a form of inflation that lives outside the math of the cheque and I have wondered about it too.

I do not tip more if I am not drinking wine (or whatever), because service that would have been provided (opening and pouring the wine, and possibly advising; sometimes decanting) is absent. I don't tip more if I don't eat a dessert, just because I'm choosing not to eat it. However, any rationale you have for tipping more will be appreciated by the server.

A son worked in a hip Mtl restaurant that was a favoured hangout for movie stars, F1 drivers, pro athletes. They tipped insane amounts, because they did not want it said, "Mr. Big was here last night and left a lousy tip." But Mr. Big also got the celebrity chef to sit down with his table and do shots.

Re the joke, ever notice it is told to persons identifiably Canadian? I think it's a way to guilt them into leaving more, because I have never seen more low tippers among my Canadian family versus my American one. Queen of Low Tippers was my mother, who thought that 10% was entirely appropriate and also thought in 1935 dollars all her life. We used to sneak back and leave more.

Leslie Milligan: In Canada, some restaurants have adopted that model too, and several who did went back to the old system because they had complaints- some patrons apparently felt they were not free to leave the tip amount they wanted.

Babycakes: Different restaurants have different breakdowns for sharing tips but usually the back of the house gets something. At a super high end restaurant where one son worked, the waiters had to wear special canvas and leather aprons that cost $70 each and the money for those was taken out of their tips before they were paid out. If he showed up for a shift and the restaurant had low bookings, he was sent home without pay. It's against the law, but this kind of practice happens often, and the level of the place does not guarantee equitable treatment. A horrible industry for employment practices.

And as food writer Lesley Chesterman has said, a terrible industry for all kinds of harassment and bullying, sexual and others. There is an aura around a certain kind of male chef/owner who is proud of swearing at and berating his staff and reducing them to tears.

And this harassment is not restricted to female workers. A gay male friend of mine constantly got hit on; it is not because he likes men that he likes you, Mr Boss!

A local note, pizza at Notre-Dame des quilles!
Duchesse said…
lagatta: NDQ is my favourite dive bar though there infrequently. Have to try that. We like the pizza by the slice at San Gennaro, but you can’t get it in the evening.
Julie said…
Thank you for another insightful topic.

In school days my funds were made from serving so now I’m sure to make certain the tip is representative of the service.

There definitely is a preference given to male occupied tables. The servers create their own tips. I would only tip poorly if you treat me that way.
Mardel said…
Interesting topic. It made me smile when I read your comment about sneaking back and leaving more when out with your mother. I do the same. I usually tip 20% or more, if it is a small bill and someone has had to come back more than once. But it would be much better if people simply were paid reasonably and it was all figured into the bill. I still find the idea that prices are set on the assumption that you will tip somewhat offensive, but I never take that out on the service people, because they have no control. What I think I actually wish is that we realize how much human effort and labor and work goes into having someone prepare and bring food to you, as opposed to doing all the labor yourself, and pay accordingly. But I realize that may be a dream world of my imaginings.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Your dream world can be achieved by using the 'service compris' model (and also by pricing so that the restaurant can make enough profit to pay decently.) As I said to Leslie, some restaurants that shifted to "service included" went back to discretionary tipping because (they said) patrons complained about not having choice. That indicated that they wanted the power to leave less.

When Le Duc returned to leave the tip Mom should have left, the manager told him, "Oh, this happens all the time! We're used to it. Thanks."
Tiffany said…
In Australia we don't have a culture of tipping - we might tip up to 15% for excellent service, but no one would ever tip for just having a coffee or a drink in a pub. My son works in a cafe and makes a fair living for a 20-year-old, above minimum wage. I have found tipping a minefield when in the US. In one Manhattan bar we left a tip of about 15% but the barman pushed it back at us because it was in $1 coins not notes!
Abigail said…
These comments remind me of a couple of experiences I had in restaurants back in the 70"s. While on a trip to my husband took me to a restaurant in the then thriving "Underground Atlanta". We had wonderful food, good service, and just a lovely evening. A few months later I took my mother to the same restaurant. We were placed at a table next to the kitchen door, our order was eventually taken and food was brought, but we had no silverware and could not get anyone's attention to get silverware despite waiters going in and out of the kitchen. I was too young to be as assertive as I would be now and I was embarrassed that I was not providing a pleasant experience for my mom. Later I went to lunch with an older woman in my home town and as we finished eating she made the comment that she never left a tip--waiters don't expect women to leave tips. I wondered if that was the reason waiters sometimes treated women so badly.
Duchesse said…
Abigail: I am sure you see the circular logic operating with the older woman who did not tip, and the treatment they receive. Today, if clients pay with cards, chip technology enables the server to conduct the transaction standing before the customer as she punches in the details, including tip. (I once witnessed a waiter, who was left no tip, inquire politely if there was a deficiency in the service, but in some countries, where waiters actually "rent the table", it would not be so polite.)

Entering "0" on the machine with the server standing right there is more obvious than leaving nothing on the table. I wonder if a person who thinks he or she is "not expected to tip" would be able to withstand such scrutiny.

The posts with the most