The great tipping debate

Coming back to the states and experiencing reverse culture shock has been interesting. Most notably I’m back in Queens, New York, only to discover it’s the top U.S. destination for 2015 (!) according to Lonely Planet. That aside, there’s one big standout when I think about my readjustment back home. While it may seem frugal to some, the U.S. tipping policy is one of the hardest things for me to adjust to even though it’s something I grew up with.

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Living abroad, tipping is hardly a requirement. In fact some cultures consider it an insult to tip employees who are simply doing their jobs. In the United States, however, we’ve created a tipping culture I often struggle with. And while I’ve mostly felt alone on this, the more I inquire, the more I find others who are equally frustrated about the customer’s burden to tip.

A recent trip to L.A. was the tipping point for this post (pardon the pun). While I can rest easy knowing California doesn’t allow employers to pay a lower wage to tipped employees, I experienced the gamut of new tipping pressures I wanted to share:

Maid tips  

My little guestroom actually had a tip envelope for maids. Despite how cute the graphics were, I felt it was a bold move on the hotel’s part to ask a guest paying close to US$350 for a 350-square-foot (32.5-square-meter) room to tip their maids. You’d never find a tip envelope at a luxury hotel, and on the flip side, you’d never find a tip envelope at a youth hostel. So why are hotels starting to take this stand?

Takeaway tips  

The takeaway juice bar had a nifty iPad where I could sign my bill. When the cashier turned it around for me to sign, there was an option to add a 0%, 18%, 20% or 22% tip. There I was with the stylus in hand deciding what to do while she stood over me waiting as I made a decision. I quickly selected “no tip,” signed and hit enter. I left feeling horrible, but if it isn’t expected to tip the Starbucks barista, why are we pressured to tip the team that makes cold-pressed juices?

Healthcare surcharge

At Republique a 3% surcharge is added to the bill to cover healthcare costs for staff. Trust me when I say I don’t mind paying more to ensure staff are properly taken care of, just like I don’t mind paying a premium for local produce, but I’d prefer if the increase in labor costs was simply built into the price just like it would have been if there was a rise in food costs. You’d certainly never see a hotel add a healthcare surcharge — I hope.

Barista tips  

Tipping the Starbucks barista who makes a latte, but not an Americano. Have you heard that one?

Kitchen tips  

Bestia in the Arts District has a separate bill line for a mandatory kitchen service charge of 3%. The purpose is to incentivize good kitchen staff by putting the onus on the customer like any other tip. Now to be fair, the owner did consider other options. He considered raising menu prices, eliminating tipping and the possibility of a built in 20% service charge. Ultimately he didn’t think customers would find such systems to be transparent and felt tipping was too embedded in the culture. But isn’t “mandatory tipping” an oxymoron? And even if we decide how much to tip on our own, do we actually know where that money is going? And is tipping part of the culture or more an obligation when dining out?

Spa tips  

If I’m going to tip US$50 on a US$250 treatment, trust me, I’d feel a whole lot better if you’d just make the price US$300 and include the tip.

On the flip side, I also experienced:

The rejected tip

Uber includes a service charge. All in it was still only a fraction of what a taxi would cost me excluding the tip. When I wanted to tip the driver extra he was grateful, but turned it down.

Service included  

Katzu Nori and other restaurants include tip. While this isn’t much different from asking you to tip on top of the bill, I appreciated that the pressure wasn’t on me to decide how much I’d be leaving. It reminded me of Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and other restaurateurs who have taken this stance.

Flight attendants  

I purchased a snack from my economy seat on United. No tip expected. Great. In fact, we’ve never tipped flight attendants who lift our bags, serve us food, clean our toilets, et cetera.

I love tipping someone who has done a great job, but are there some long-term risks we aren’t acknowledging?

Are we encouraging tipped employees to provide preferential treatment to high tippers? Are we encouraging heavy pours at the bar? Shorter wait times to the guest who greases the door? Are we discouraging growth in an organization when a line employee can make more than a manager? Are all staff tipped equally?

Tell me what your thoughts are, and take this survey. I want to know what the rest of the industry thinks, and stay tuned for the survey results.