The tipping point
My lesser self wants to giggle when a waiter introduces themselves as ‘My name is ... and I will be your waitron”.
What a dehumanising term. It says: ‘I’m a sexless cog in a machine serving you.” The other extreme is: ‘I’m your service ambassador.” How pompous. It fills me with dread because I know the service is going to be hard work, like negotiating a trade agreement.
These waiters are the true believers. The specials will be recited with immoderate detail. You will be menaced with a three-foot-long pepper mill. If the ambassadors are not looking down their noses, they will be complimenting you on your choices—one of several idiotic habits waiters develop, similar to the presumptuous ‘Is everything alright?”
There are restaurants where three waiters will ask this in succession, giving the impression that the establishment lacks any confidence. A waiter should simply ask if there is anything else they can get you, just once and suitably timed.
What is an appropriate tip for an ‘ambassador”? Is it more or less than for a ‘waitron”?
Acts of charity
If you’re like me, irritations, pet peeves, sheer folly and shabby service make no difference. I still tip upwards of 10%. Tipping usually feels like something between a toll fee and an act of charity.
If the idea behind tips is to incentivise, anyone who eats in Cape Town knows it doesn’t work. The cheapskate is not going to tip well, no matter how good the service, whereas most people are shamed into adding 10% to the bill, regardless of how bad it is. I’ve had appalling service in places where waiters are 100% dependent on their tips and brilliant service where the service charge is added automatically.
Tipping is a messy business and many diners find it stressful and confusing. Unlike New Zealand or Japan, where to tip is to insult, many countries are stuck with it. In Paris a 15% service charge is added by law. In the United States tipping is a national scourge. A waitress in Los Angeles once gushed breathlessly when she brought me the check: ‘I do this for all my clients,” she said, ‘15% is the minimum, 18% if you liked the service, 20% if you are happy with me.” On the slip she had written down the total next to each percentage with a smiley face in blue ballpoint pen.
In New York 20% is now standard, although many diners calculate the amount on the total before general sales tax and some tip lower on the bar portion. In China you never tip, but in New York’s Chinatown my exit from a cavernous restaurant was blocked by a stocky man with folded arms and the demeanour of Oddjob in the James Bond film Goldfinger—the one with the lethal bowler hat. ‘Where’s the tip?” he demanded.
In London a ‘voluntary” service charge of 12.5% added to the bill has become common. South African tourists are mostly unaware of this and regularly add 10% on top of that.
The argument against tipping that says parsimonious restaurant owners are just foisting their wage bill on the diner is fallacious. Yes, you are covering the wage bill by tipping, but the personnel are in theory being paid what you feel they are worth. The alternative would probably just be higher prices on the menu.
In parts of Europe, where waiters are paid adequately, tipping is not expected. In South Africa waiters in upmarket restaurants are doing fairly well, actually, considering the skills required for the job and the money they earn relative to the average income of the population. Many also escape tax. In a high-end restaurant that has a 200% mark-up on the retail price for wine, it is quite possible that the waiter is earning more from the bottle than the estate that made it. Seriously.
But being a waiter can be tough. This column was prompted by a dreadful altercation I saw in a Portuguese eatery in my street. A middle-age couple had left no tip and the perplexed waitress asked if anything was wrong. The male half of this villainous pair released a torrent of abuse and repeatedly shouted: ‘An outrage! How dare you!” No comment was made about the service, only her audacity to expect a tip. The waitress stood there trembling, with tears streaming down her face.
A compulsory service charge gives the restaurant owner full power. In the United Kingdom several cases were exposed in which the service levy was not paid to the staff. In one instance, it was used to pay the minimum wage and the balance
was retained by the owners; in another, it was used as bonuses for management.
I know of one five-star hotel in Cape Town where, years ago, the shop stewards took the greater part of the tips (several hundreds of rand for each of them) and handed the waiters R20 at the end of the evening. In many places credit card tips never reach the waiters, or 5% for credit-card commission is deducted first.
I recommend that you, where possible, pay cash directly to the waiter. Of course, you don’t know whether the place is operating a tronc or whether the plongeurs get their share, but at least you have fulfilled your side of an established expectation.