A Rant on the Concept of Modern Tipping
Friday, June 30, 2023

At the beginning of Covid, I stopped eating out. We all did. The restaurants couldn't stay open at the height of the pandemic. As the dangers eased off and services started opening up again, I adopted the take-out approach to restaurants. I was thrilled that so many places were able to survive the difficulty of social distancing by offering their products for take-out, and I continue to use that service quite a bit to this day. However, take-out food did highlight a curiosity in the way modern tipping works. At least it did for me.
If you look up the definition of GRATUITY in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is defined as "something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service." I'm 100% behind this definition. When I eat in a restaurant, physically sitting in the building, the wait staff answers my questions about the menu, brings me my food, refills my drink, checks in to make sure everything is satisfactory. At least they should. Assuming they do a good job, I'm happy to leave them a tip for their service. If they do an outstanding job, I will leave a larger tip. If they do a poor job, i.e. the food arrived cold or was not what we ordered, or heaven forfend they were rude, I will leave a small tip, or perhaps none at all. The tip is a GRATUITY. It is "voluntary or beyond obligation." To me, this translates to: You go above and beyond, and so will I. My tip will match the level of service.
Okay. Assuming we can agree on the fundamental definition of what a tip is, here's where this social tradition starts to break down. When I place a take-out order at a restaurant, there is no wait staff asking if it's acceptable or refilling my drink. The cooks make the meal (which is covered in the base price because providing the items I order is the bare minimum required for them to fill the order) and put it in a box or bag instead of on a plate. I then drive to the restaurant and pick up said bag and take it home to eat it. There's no service above and beyond that bare minimum of cooking my food, which I've already paid for. And yet, on every single online order site, there's a place for the tip, which is usually auto filled to around 20% of your total order price. Why? No one is bringing my food to me, I'm picking it up myself. No one is going to refill my drink or make sure everything tastes good after I get it home and start eating.
And here's the real kicker. The part that makes me vaguely queasy when I think about it. You have to enter the tip amount BEFORE you place your order. That means everyone who looks at your ticket can see exactly how much you've decided to pay above the standard amount. And that could impact the product. If an order comes in with a ridiculously generous tip, and another comes in where the person left no tip at all, who's to say the people making those meals won't take the tip into consideration? The generous tip will probably receive exactly what they ordered, which again, should be the bare minimum to be expected of any order, tip or no. But what about the non-tipper? Maybe the person who carries the box to the shelf gets angry they weren't given a tip for walking across the length of the restaurant from the kitchen to the pick-up counter and decides to spit in the meal to get even. (Please note, I'm not actually accusing anyone of doing this. I'm using a hypothetical example to prove a point.) Maybe they just put it at the bottom of the priority list so the person has to wait longer.
Now, instead of tips being a form of reward to praise service providers for a job well done, it has become a kind of threat against consumers. Leave a good tip for fear that you may not receive the minimum acceptable service if you don't. Even with a tip, I have received orders that I would have sent back to the kitchen if I'd been in the physical building. And what recourse do I have at that point? I've already paid. Sure, I can leave a bad review, which may minimally hurt the restaurant as a whole, but where is the individual accountability in that? I find this flip-flop of the definition of gratuity totally unacceptable. It is no longer about appreciation for excellence. It's an expectation for mediocrity.
"But servers' wages are paid through their tips," you say? My response is, "Why?" Why not pay wait staff and other service professionals on the same scale that other workers are paid? They should be paid a standard amount for a standard level of service, just like cashiers at a grocery store or clerks in a library. Why should the customer feel obligated to accound for what should really be the employer's responsibility. I say let gratuity return to what it is supposed to be. I will pay the base price for products and services. If said products or services are exemplary, then I can choose to leave a tip in appreciation. The key word there is choose. I'm totally behind workers being paid for their work, but tips should be earned, not assumed.