The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at Starkman Approved. This column first appeared on his blog.
By Eric Starkman
Recently I returned from a trip to Israel where I enjoyed some glorious meals, including two of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. But it wasn’t only the food that made my dining experiences so wonderful. Most of the servers at the restaurants where I ate made me feel welcome and were patient as I struggled to order in Hebrew. They didn’t teach how to say “medium rare” in Hebrew when I attended Toronto’s Talmud Torah Day School.
In Israel, restaurant servers have hand-held devices, and one doesn’t receive a printed copy of their bill until they pay for it. The customary tip is only 12 percent, and if you want to include a gratuity as part of a credit card payment, you tell the server the tip percentage you want to add. For the servers that gave me great service, I instructed them to add 20 percent.
Without exception, every server for whom I left a 20 percent tip looked up from their electronic devices and gave me a genuine and obvious heartfelt thank you. A 20 percent gratuity clearly wasn’t expected but was certainly appreciated.
Increasingly, I haven’t been feeling good leaving 20 percent tips at the U.S. restaurants I’ve frequented. In fact, the size of the tip is often no longer an option. Some restaurants just apply an 18.5 percent surcharge that supposedly goes to their servers, but I wonder given the frequent stories I see about restaurants shafting their workers. An upscale restaurant in the affluent Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles I ate at last week added a 3.5 percent surcharge “to support untipped kitchen staff,” which was posted at the bottom of the menu. Never mind that the kitchen staff overcooked my supposed grass fed Wagyu burger. (The burger was tasteless.)
At some restaurants, there’s now an expectation to tip for takeout service. I garnered that insight reading this New York Post story about someone who ordered takeout at an Outback Steakhouse and some employee circled the recommended tip percentages on the bill.
A 22 percent tip on takeout?
Americans are the world’s most generous people and that was abundantly evident during the pandemic when restaurant workers were displaced. Stories abounded in the media about people leaving $100 tips or more on meagre orders. The demonstrated compassion of the American public was unreal.
But President Biden months ago declared the pandemic was over, and despite the New York Times warning of a “viral onslaught,” experts who practice medicine and study science for a living say what America is actually experiencing is “just another example of what we used to call normal life.” Restaurant workers are no more at risk than those still lucky to have jobs and have been summoned back to the office.
Yet many who work in restaurants and cafes have developed a sense of entitlement, and believe they are owed bigly just for showing up for work and doing their jobs. One such person is Dylan Schenker, a 38-year-old barista at a Philadelphia café located inside a restaurant.
“Tipping is about making sure the people who are performing that service for you are getting paid what they’re owed,” said Schenker, who the Associated Press reported has been working in the service industry for roughly 18 years.
I imagine Schenker as one of those baristas with lots of attitude typically encountered at fancy schmancy places selling organic, single-origin, fair trade-certified coffee blends, along with locally sourced pastries and farm-to-table foods. It’s easy to run up a bill north of $15 at these sorts of places, which fuels Schenker’s sense of entitlement. Schenker said he has no sympathy for someone who can afford pricey food and drinks and then complains about having to leave a tip.
Schenker’s attitude is galling because some customers buying his overpriced coffee might be on a limited budget and their cup of Joe is a rare economic indulgence. Some customers might be like Schenker working for $15 an hour, but not receiving the $400 in tips that he reportedly does. Some might not even have jobs.
My former PR firm represented a Fortune 30 company my colleagues and I did some great work for and readily made ourselves available regardless of our plans or scheduled engagements. The client racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues, but we never received or expected tips for performing the work we were retained to do, even when we went beyond the call of duty.
As anyone who’s worked at a professional services firm knows, clients can often be demanding, unreasonable, and unfair. But you fast learn to suck it up because without clients, everyone is out of a job.
Keicha Halsell — a k a Keke Not Palmer on TikTok, a barista possibly still employed at Starbucks, sees things differently. In early January, Halsell posted a video listing her five worst customer “icks.” Just a few weeks earlier, Starbucks rolled out a tipping option on credit and debit card transactions at its stores.
Leaving a tip at Starbucks given the customer experience that company now offers? Here’s some of my “icks” about Starbucks and the people who work there, at least in west Los Angeles.
If tips are now expected for restaurant workers who pack takeout orders, why aren’t the baggers at my local Ralphs entitled to gratuities? For that matter, weren’t the wonderful Virgin Atlantic flight attendants on my flights to Israel worthy of tips?
Two legs of my departing and return flights exceeded ten hours. On those flights, Virgin’s flight attendants served me two meals, multiple beverages, taped up a broken table, and helped me make a fast exit upon arrival because of a very tight connection. As I flew business class, they also prepared a makeshift bed, tucked me beddy-bye, and secured my seatbelt so I wouldn’t get tossed while I was resting — and they continued working.
All this service was generously and flawlessly performed at 35,000 ft.
I suspect Schenker, the Philadelphia barista, would assume that because I flew business class I’m rolling in dough. I splurged for business class because it was my first air travel trip in three years and the savings on my annual pilgrimages to Detroit more than covered the cost of my upgrade. As well, I know someone in the travel business who snared me a deal I still can’t believe.
The Associated Press in its feature about tipping quoted a 35-year-old Pennsylvania woman named Clarissa Moore as saying that her mortgage company has been hitting her up for tips. If we are going to tip mortgage brokers, then physicians quite rightly should have tip jars on display in their reception areas. Seems to me the gastroenterologist who peeked up my rectum and successfully nipped some polyps while performing my colonoscopy last year was deserving of some extra appreciation.
I don’t begrudge restaurant workers or anyone else deserved or appropriate compensation, but I’m tired of the stress of determining what’s fair. That’s one of the major reasons I shut down my PR business and haven’t started another venture requiring employees. I had a great team of colleagues but determining salaries and bonuses took too much of a toll on me.
It’s the responsibility of restaurant owners and managements to determine their workers’ compensations and bake the costs into their menu prices so customers know in advance the ultimate costs of their orders.
The overcooked and tasteless burger I didn’t enjoy at the upscale Brentwood restaurant was listed at $18.95. But the 3.5 percent kitchen staff tip, plus Brentwood’s 8.75 percent sales tax, brought the bill to $21.27. The now expected 20 percent tip brought the bill to $25.53.
It’s now considered miserly in America to tip on the pre-tax portion of a bill. Some comments from the writers at St. Louis Magazine, posted online on November 11, 2022.
Posting menu prices inclusive of gratuities and taxes obviously wouldn’t be good for business, as many people, including me, consider a $25.53 burger pretty steep, particularly given that I live an easy seven-minute drive from an In-N-Out that serves an even better burger, along with fries and a drink, for less than half the price.
In-N-Out doesn’t solicit tips from customers. The company’s employees are motivated because In-N-Out is consistently ranked among the best places to work in America and those who perform well are promoted through the ranks and become managers earning more than $160,000 a year.
I’d rather be frugal and save my shekels so I can afford another Virgin Atlantic business class ticket to return to Israel and again enjoy those amazing steaks served by appreciative servers. If you are traveling to Israel, the restaurants that served the amazing steaks were Bistro 56 in Herzliya and West Side in Tel Aviv.
Both restaurants are kosher and Starkman Approved!