Wednesday, June 08, 2011

My Theory of Tippability: Why It's Not All Relative

Tonight, I'd like to write about tipping. Not cow-tipping. Restaurant tipping. Or rather, fast-food restaurant tipping.

I kind of have a pet peeve and I feel torn about it.

But first, a little background. I used to work in a restaurant. So I know how to tip. I know what it means to tip. I know who tips the most (Lovers and other Waiters), who tips the worst (Christians, Teenagers and PWT) and who tips to the penny (Asians).

I also know that when I worked at a restaurant, I made $2.13 and that's not because I'm a hundred years old and that's what minimum wage was back then. I'm only 33. And this was just after Y2K, so minimum wage was well over four dollars. Yet, I made $2.13 and hour. And yes, there were days (Monday lunches) where I never got one table and therefore walked home with less than minimum wage.

Most days though, we did fine considering the restaurants I worked in were in Waco. Actually, I should take that back. One restaurant I worked in was fine. The other was... well, not fine.

We'll call that restaurant, Chochkies (my second Office Space reference of the week, hmm...) to protect the guilty. While Chochkies didn't make me wear flair (because the restaurant I worked at wasn't actually T.G.I. Fridays, but somewhere very similar), they did make me wear all white tennis shoes, which I had to purchase, because who in their right mind owns all white tennis shoes besides grandmas and nurses? So right there I'm out $40 or so for those damn white tennis shoes. But I'm missing my point.

My first week at Chochkies, I didn't make much money and so on the final evening of that week, I worked until closing. The shift leader was sweeping the carpet (weird, I know) and a family of seven came in to eat. "You can have 'em" she said, and I was so thankful. I couldn't believe she'd given me a table of seven! She must have been taking pity on me since I'd been complaining about not making much money. Maybe I'd been underestimating these people I worked with at Chochkies...

The table ordered, ate, paid their bill (split checks three ways, I think) and got up to leave. I scurried to the table to begin busing it since it's late and I too wanted get home and that's when I saw their tip: $2.


I said this out loud. As in, not to myself, nor in my head.

This may be why when my family heard I was waiting tables to make money during grad school, they laughed.

A couple of the people from the table turned around when they heard me. "Two dollars?" I said, shocked and defeated, and let's admit it, a little defiant. One man fumbled in his pocket and threw down another dollar or two. And then they all left.

"What the hell?" I complained incredulously to my shift leader. They left me less than 10% on a table of seven people and a bill of almost $70!

"I know," she said nonchalantly. "That's why I let you have that table. Hispanics always tip bad."

And there you have it. My first (but not last!) encounter with racism in Waco, Texas, and my first of many "lessons" on tipping and waiting tables. I called my mother that night, traumatized. "She can't say that," I whispered into the phone. "It's so racist!"

And I'm pretty sure that in defiance I took as many "ethnic" tables as possible for the next week.

And then I quit.

Turns out Applebee's, oops, I mean Chochkies, and I weren't a good fit (I also couldn't stand my managers). So I moved on to a local Wacoan restaurant with a slighter different clientele, and I began serving customers there. "I need a Coors for me and a Coors Light for the little lady... oh and a dozen oysters."

All that to say, I know how important it is to tip at restaurants. When you get paid $2.13 an hour by the restaurant, your salary comes from the people you serve. Which is why you want to give good service. Everyone should know this. The managers of the restaurant know it (they adjust the prices of the food knowing that part of what the customer pays goes to the servers), the cooks know it (they're paid by the hour, which is why they can yell at the waiters all they want and not get in trouble - they don't get tipped), the waiters know it (obviously, it's their paycheck), and hopefully the customers know it.

So, if you can't afford to tip when you go out to eat at a sit-down restaurant, don't go at all, because tipping is part of the package.

But I've digressed again. This was supposed to be a post about fast-food restaurants.

You see, I was in line recently at a local chain sandwich shop that had a drive-thru window. I ordered in front of a screen showing me my options, I pulled forward and paid for my sandwich (extra for the pickle slices) and received my sandwich wrapped in paper and stuffed in a plastic bag. I drove away from the window and continued on my journey.

I did not put a tip on the line that said tip when I scribbled my John Hancock at the bottom of the credit card receipt. Because I think it's wrong to tip at fast food restaurants... for two reasons.

One: you're not really getting service.
Two: it's racist.

Let's start with the service as it's easier and less controversial. Maybe.

When you go out to eat at a sit-down restaurant, you are usually escorted to the table, seated, brought your drink, told of specials, answered any questions, given recommendations, your order is taken, you receive complimentary bread, your food is cooked to your desire, it's put on a plate and made to look nice, it comes with specialized condiments on the side, it's delivered to your place setting where you are given additional utensils if needed, in a few minutes you are asked how it tasted, do you need anything else, you receive a refill on your drink, more complimentary bread is brought to your table, your asked if you'd like dessert or an aperitif, your empty plates are cleared, leftovers boxed, and your bill delivered. After you leave, any remaining plates are cleared, washed and set out to dry, your table is wiped and sanitized and any salt, pepper, sugar or ketsup is replaced if necessary.

At a fast food restaurant, you walk up to the counter to order, you pay, you receive your food wrapped in paper or cardboard, you pick up your own condiments, you leave.

That's not service.

No one waits on you, no one washes your dishes, no one refills your drinks, and if you're lucky the table you sat at gets wiped down at the end of some kid's shift. And those people don't make less than minimum wage. So in my opinion there's no need to tip. Whether you're at a local chain sandwich shop that charges extra for the pickle or whether you're at Starbucks, I think tipping for that "service" is dumb.

The other reason I don't like to do that though, is because I think it's racist.

And it's racist, because we're not consistent with our "fast-food" tipping. Think about the places that put tip jars next to the register. (First indicator you shouldn't be tipping. if you're paying at a register, you're not getting tip-worthy service. You just had to stand in line for someone to punch in numbers and take your cash. Give me a break). Starbucks, Ben & Jerry's, sometimes Quizno's, Thundercloud Subs, Freebirds, Amy's Ice Cream (local chains here in Texas), or a local coffee shop in your town. Now, think of other places that give you food wrapped in paper or coffee poured in cardboard, i.e. "fast-food" places, that don't have tip jars next to their registers: McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Hardee's, Long John Silvers... you get the picture.

Now, think about who works at Starbucks, Ben & Jerry's and Thundercloud Subs and where those restaurants are usually located... and now think about who works at McDonald's and Taco John's other such chains and where they are located.

You may have guessed I'm poor. If I were rich, this might be a different post. I'd tip anywhere there was a tip jar just to share the wealth. I also vote democrat for similar reasons. But because I'm poor, I have to pay attention to my money. And if I don't have enough to tip at a sit-down restaurant, then I buy fast food. And I've no intention of tipping at such places because I think it's wrong to tip at restaurants where wait service isn't offered. And I think it's wrong to tip at restaurants where the kid behind the counter is either the daughter of that lawyer who goes to your church because you're ordering from the Starbucks at the end of your block in your predominantly white, middle class part of town, or it's that kid with all the tattoos who wants to be in a rock band so they dropped out of college and they're working at a local sandwich shop cause it's local and that's awesome, and mom and dad still foot the rent, because well, there's always a fall-back plan for poor people in their twenties who come from middle or upper class families who can pay the rent until said hippie or skater or musician finds their way or goes back to school.

I'm generalizing, I know. And maybe that makes me as "ist" as my shift leader at Applebee's.

But I don't think those people in those neighborhoods reeeally need the money. They need the money, don't get me wrong. They're college kids or graduate students, or people in their twenties who lost their job and now need a gig that comes with health insurance (thank you Starbucks), but they don't need the money like the people who work at McDonald's on the east side of Austin. The people who work fast-food on this side of town may think they world owes them something, but they're not going to put out a tip jar to show it.

And that's what frustrates me. The people who really could use the extra cash, that 50 cent tip for the coffee in a cardboard cup or that two dollar tip for a sandwich wrapped in paper aren't going to get it. They'll take their meager minimum wage check home and hand it over to their parents, or cash it and head to the dollar store (where for some reason it's legal to buy expired! food), or they give it straight to the bank who's threatening foreclosure on their two bedroom home housing three kids and their grandmother)...

I had an argument with a youth from Westlake High (one of the wealthiest parts of Austin) once about kids from Johnston (a school in the poorest part of Austin that closed the year before). He thought that dealing drugs was stupid (I agreed) and that those Johnston high teens have other choices they can make in their lives. They don't have to sell drugs, they choose to sell drugs, was his argument.

"What if their parents don't make enough to support their family?" I asked him. "What if they don't get enough to eat at their house? What if they want their younger siblings to get a Christmas present this year unlike the year before?" "What if their parents give them the drugs to sell and they don't know any better or know life apart from selling drugs to make money?"

"It's their choice," was his final answer.

I guess he's right. They could go get a job at McDonald's and work for minimum wage and take home $100 after 20 hours a week (on top of school) instead of getting $200 for 30 minutes of "work" early one Saturday morning.

But this isn't a post about drug dealing or the hard choices facing teens and young adults. It's a blog about tipping.

And my bottom line is, it pisses me off that Starbucks and Thundercloud Subs ask for or expect tips (and admittedly sometimes I do tip at these places just because they make me feel so guilty like I owe them something above and beyond the bill for my tuna sandwich with lettuce and tomato, add pickle, on wheat wrapped in paper and put in a plastic bag). And it pisses me off that we comply and don't stand up for or demand tip jars at other fast-food joints on behalf of other poor people. I think it's classist and racist, and I think it's wrong.

There you have it. Ann's Theory of Tippability. Stay tuned next week for Ann's Diatribe Against the FDA or Why the Eff Do We Sell Expired Food to Poor People?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the way your heart always leans toward standing up for the people on the fringes of our society.

Wondering, however, if part of the reason Starbuck's might have a tip jar and Wendy's not have one could have something to do with the expectation that Starbuck's customers might be more financially well off than Wendy's customers and thus more likely to tip.

By the way, I and most other grandmothers I know, do not wear white tennis shoes. ;)