I actually read an email ad the other day. Even stranger, I liked the message. It was from Alice’s Tea Cup, a bona fide chain of (fairly vegan-friendly) tea houses in Manhattan that has been a long-time favorite of my daughter’s (and therefore by default of mine and my wife’s as well). Alice’s Tea Cup, it would seem, is doing away with tips. Better yet, they are recognizing the inherent disparity in the entire tipping culture that is, speaking as one who now has a modicum of international travel chops under his hat, indecipherable to the rest of the world. Wait, what’s so wrong with recognizing and rewarding good service? I thought you’d never ask.
We don’t tip any more to recognize and reward good service. Tipping has become little more than, to use the Yiddish term that is beginning to creep into the American vernacular, “schnorring.” For those uneducated goyim, the definitive Uriel Weinreich Yiddish-English dictionary defines שנאר simply as “beg.” Good old Uriel is pretty laconic with his definitions, but Yiddish, as fluent speakers will tell you, isn’t meant to be defined, it’s meant to be experienced. Schnorring isn’t the same alms-for-the-poor, open palm of desire, brother can you spare a dime begging. Schnorring is much craftier. A classic example might be this exchange from Fiddler on the Roof, admittedly from the town beggar:
– Alms for the poor!
– Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek.
– One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.
– I had a bad week.
– So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?
Schnorring is begging with attitude. Like Reb Nahum, the schnorrer believes it is deserved and owed. The schnorrer has a right to be indignant if the schnorree is less than generous. It’s this pervasive attitude of just being expected, without having done anything to earn it, that has infiltrated the tipping culture.
My local bagel eatery, in addition to placing the ever-present tip jar front and center, now also provides the digital equivalent on credit card purchases, swiveling the iPad device around with the 20% tip already calculated in. You’re a cheapskate bastard if you conspicuously swipe that bar lower, or godforbid take it to zero. Worse, the snarly counter help has done absolutely nothing to warrant a tip. She took my order and shoved the bagels in the bag. Next? The tipping culture is everywhere. My kids will all retell with glee the family lore, when more frequently than we could reasonably afford, we took all five of them out, which immediately promoted us to a “party” of six or more, which automatically triggered the apparently non-negotiable 18% gratuity that appeared on the check. This in turn, automatically triggered the conversation between my wife and the manager.
To be fair, there is another side to the tipping story. The summer after graduating high school I waited tables at our local Lums. (Look it up.) The formula went something like this: you were paid less than minimum wage. You “declared” enough of your tips for tax purposes to make minimum wage. Maybe just a bit more so you weren’t too conspicuous, wink wink. But, if you really sucked and didn’t get tipped, you didn’t make minimum wage. One of my colleagues, Jay, was an absolute genius in seeing to it that this didn’t happen. One day, he decided to tell customers that the “chefs” had decided they would no longer make chef’s salads, but not to worry, because he himself would make them. Orders for chef salads suddenly spiked. Of course, at Lums the cooks never made the chef’s salad to begin with, but the absolute, almost mommy-look-what-I-made! pride that Jay beamed when serving the absolute crappiest, ugliest, most lopsided chef salads ever purposely created carried the day. He pretty much earned a year’s tuition that night. I had an opposite incident where a “party” of 8 came in 5 minutes before closing and ordered everything on the menu, very much angering the cooks, who had pretty much broken everything down for the night. When the party left an hour and a half after closing, they tipped me… nothing.
My aforementioned daughter had a summer job at a local water ice establishment. Here, the tip jar was not front and center, but not completely out of sight either. She was paid minimum wage, but the act of receiving a tip was meaningful to her. Although tips usually took the form of “keep the change” they nonetheless marked the success of any particular shift. That and not getting yelled at by some rude customer. Simply put, in water ice and bagel counter jobs, it’s pretty difficult to provide any kind of outstanding service that is clearly and repeatedly demonstrable to a customer, let alone have them recognize said service and respond accordingly. These are not tip-worthy positions, and it isn’t the minimum wage kids who are the schnorrers here, it’s their employers. Enter Alice’s Tea Cup.
I’ll provide the full text of their new policy below, but basically they’ve decided to address this issue honesty and fairly, recognizing their employees, their customers, and their own interests. The cost of service will now be included in the product, the idea being that they can pay their employees a fair wage and no longer play the under minimum wage game. The new policy not only addresses the out-front service staff, but the behind-the-scenes staff as well (cooks, porters, etc.) who typically would either never have received a tip or would have been at the mercy of those who did to dole out a percentage of their own otherwise meager earnings.
Alice’s new policy does away with the accursed tip line and with it, the expectation of the tip. It eliminates the schnorring aspect of tipping. Best of all, I suspect that if a server really did something extraordinary, and one felt truly inspired to recognize and reward that something, the gesture, whatever it might turn out to be (recognition to management, or yes, perhaps monetary) would be genuine and not coerced or provided under a dull sense of duty. A small step perhaps in eliminating the culture of schnorring and entitlement that is in many ways unfairly foisted upon the post baby-boomers. Bravo, Alice’s. We’ll be there often.
Text of Alice’s Policy:
Starting October 30th, you will see price changes on most of our menu items at this location. First, this new pricing won’t cost you a penny more. The prices you see will have the cost of service (your gratuity) baked-in. Why the change? We’re glad you asked!
For years, there has been a growing wage disparity between the more visible members of the restaurant (the server, the busser, the barista) and those who are behind-the-scenes (the cook, the porter, the pastry chef, and more). We do our best to give each member of our team a fair, living wage, but the mounting costs that come with running a restaurant leave our hands tied. This has led to our having an open and honest conversation.
While it’s customary to leave a gratuity for the staff helping you at your table, there are certain laws that determine who exactly may share in this generosity. We feel that the whole team, even those you don’t see, contribute overall to your experience. That’s why you will no longer see a tip line at Alice’s Tea Cup, Chapter 2. This will be our test store and give us the opportunity to measure the success and viability of this new system. By eliminating tipping, adding in revenue share and raising minimum wage for previously tipped employees, we can ensure that the service that is now “baked-in” to the cost of your food can be shared by all our magical and hardworking team members. This change is simply a sincere effort to reward all the employees who make Alice’s such a special place.
Servers and support staff will continue to make a fair wage and one that is based on sales, so their hard work will still be rewarded. It will, though, make a HUGE difference for those other team members we mentioned above: those who contribute to your overall experience but could not previously share in your generosity. We will now be able to increase their wage without having to increase the price of food or sacrifice anything in the service we provide.
One other thing to note: since our new pricing derives from what would have previously gone to the server for dine-in service (and not, for example, the cost of goods), all to-go pricing will remain the same. And, yes, that includes scones!