Saturday, July 11, 2009

What are tips for?

It was a whitefish salad with which no reasonable person could find complaint, but it came in a container on the side of my bagel. I had to spread it on the bagel myself. Milk for my coffee? I had to walk from my seat at the counter over to a separate table and get it.

Again, no complaint; the coffee was fine. But if I had to garnish my own bagel and fetch my own milk, why had the café's owners put a big jar marked "Tips" by the cash register? What did they think I ought to tip them for?

Or, if customers were now expected to do work employees once performed, was tipping etiquette similarly turned upside down? Did the jar contain the owners' grateful offerings to customers for work well done?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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47 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Tipping is often a conundrum. I could write a long comment on it and resolve nothing, or we could all watch RESERVOIR DOGS together. The movie is more entertaining.

July 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps I shall take you up on the Reservoir Dogs suggestion. But these tip jars mark a decided change in North American mores, and a recent one.

July 11, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Personally, I always take it as a statement from the owner of the place that they have decided that they can't afford to pay their employees a living wage, so they hope we'll augment it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Personally, I don't expect anyone is getting rich off their tip jar earnings.

I suppose my own contribution to this is that I've noticed that they are quite common and even customary in food places, but not at all in retail places--including bookstores. So you stand in line and get a burrito and throw in some loose change for the counter staff, but you come and ask for information or get rung up at a bookstore, and the most generous thing you are going to do is leave a penny or two for the next person.

I'm not advocating for tips in retail, I just think it's an interesting contrast.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A statement that they can't afford or don't want to play their employees a living wage, which raises the question of whether they should be running a business in the first place.

U.S. labor law allows a lower wage for workers who receive tips regularly if that lower wage plus their tips equal at least the minimum wage. I'm not sure whether cafes fall.

Things might be simpler if this country conducted its retail business the way much of Europe seems to. There, a item advertised at 50 euros or 75 pounds costs the buyer 50 euros ar 75 pounds. The quoted price includes tax. And service charges are included at many if not most resaurants, I think.

I generally tip at non-restaurants where I'm a regular, where the staff may have rendered special courtesies or services from time to time. One example was the bookstore/cafe near a previous apartment, one of whose owners introduced Bill James to me. Now, that's a service worth a tip. Finally, I would suggest that you keep any talk about tips for retail yourself. You don't want to give American employers any more ideas for shifting burdens away from themselves and onto their workers.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In a previous life as a programmer I used to fantasize about getting paid piecework wages: a penny per line of properly executed code. Since there were some order of thousands of lines of good code on the system I was responsible for, I figured in about a month I'd have a million buck and could quit.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

When I worked in Barnes and Noble it used to nark me off that the cafe staff got tips but we didnt. Why was this? Were we less helpful?

July 12, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Of course the good thing about a tip jar is that it's perfectly easy to ignore it. I mean there isn't the expectation that you're going to put anything into it, unlike tipping for table service.

Yeah, bookselling is one of those jobs that falls between the cracks--no sales commissions and no tips. It would be nice to think that this was compensated by a higher wage, but it isn't.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good idea, Linkmeister. If I got paid for each piece of wretched syntax I transferred into proper English, I'd have made enough money to start a newspaper of my own.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, had I been in your position, I expect that I'd have raised that very question from time to time not with any expectation of getting an answer, but for the sheer pleasure of hearing some prime-quality boss-speak.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, yes, Seana, there is that: No one forces me to drop anything into the tip jar. Still, it would be intesting to know when tip jars started becoming more widespread in cafes. I remember being surprised and a bit put off when I first noticed the phenomenon in recent years.

One thing I neglected to mention about the cafe that sparked this vital dialogue: It seemed to be populated and run by current or recent students, which brings the spoiled-brat stereotype into play. Do these folks regard tips as a right rather than a reward for good service?

I thought about this when I returned to my regular cafe the next day, and -- would you believe it? -- was served a bagel with the cream cheese and butter already on it.

Maybe I'll put a tip jar on my desk at work just to see if anyone gets the joke.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I bet not. They will probably just put tip jars on their desks too.

If I put out a tip jar when I work the register, I imagine I would just find the 'helpful' comments I aleady get, just in written form. Wouldn't mind it too much if these 'tips' were written on a dollar bill, though. That's thei two cents, adjusted for inflation.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

That jar trips me up all the time. If the only duty of the person is to take your money, why the tip? Yet I feel obliged to drop something in there.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my tip jar would most likely draw no attention whatsoever. My workplace reminds me of a remark a Greek immigrant friend of mine attributed to one of her friends, I think upon her attendance at a sports event: "The great thing about America is that you can yell your head off, and no one will listen."

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nail right on the head, Patti. Someone whose only job is to take my money does not deserve a tip. He or she may well be underpaid, but that's the employer's worry, not mine.

A tip jar can seem a belligerent gesture even with smiley faces on the hand-illustrated "Tips" sign.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

The smiley faces might in fact be what make it belligerent.

If I was to make one, I would put pirate regalia all over it. I bet I would actually rake in a lot.

July 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right. Smiley faces are so Watchmen, so a few months ago.

July 12, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Btw, Peter, do you know what a bagel is in tennis?

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just looked up the term, and it turns out that it does indeed have something to do with zero -- a 6-0 set. So every bagel includes some love.

July 13, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

You didn't know then? I guess I'm much more of a tennis fan than you. And love in tennis derives from l'oeuf, so does every bagel include some egg?


my v-word:witabita sounds like a brand of breakfast cereals

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know, but it was not hard to make a good guess. Tennis was never a big part of my life; I was too busy paying attention to baseball.

I had "unity" as a v-word earlier today.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Montreal-style bagel does include egg, according to my research, but not as obviously so as an American egg bagel.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

When I was there one of the cashiers at B&N decided that the whole tip thing was ridiculous and decided to start taking tips of his own from the till. Over the course of a year he took 20000 dollars which was impressive. Unfortunately they put him in prison for three years.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I admire the man's initiative in eliminating the intermediate step of the tip jar. But I'm not sure he deserved the money any less than do cafe tips seekers. As Patti Abbott, mother of the talented Megan, wrote above, why give extra money to someone whose only job is to take your money?

July 13, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Oh, believe me--there are reasons. One of my friends just equated working the register here to being a bartender but without the alcohol. Which is about right, more's the pity. We've often also equated it to a free mini-therapy session.

I'd say that the number of people who simply want to pay their money and be done with the deal is actually in the minority. Still, I do agree that tip jars are confusing.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that is a novel sentiment to me, and I thank you for enlarging my range of experience. I had never heard retail clerking likened to tending bar. Is that the case only in wacky Santa Cruz? I think I am of that minority that pays its money and is done with the deal.

I envision a stage show consisting of a string of confessions and narratives called "The Cash Register Monologues."

July 13, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

No, I don't think it's just Santa Cruz. I think it's probably anywhere that fashions itself a community meeting place.

Let's see, on just one random one hour reg shift last Saturday, I had to reach up and make one of the T-Shirts we carry more photographable so that a guy coul send a picture of it to his girl friend on his cell phone, try to track down a downtown address for some business a woman was trying to find, and be there for a guy who I only barely know who had just found out that his medical symptoms were probably not fatal after all. And those are just the interactions I remember.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whoa, I had never realized you and your colleagues were right up there with bartenders, barbers, taxi drivers and priests. Sounds like a reality show or at least a memoir in the making.

I'm glad your customer's symptoms were not fatal. I hope he bought some books to begin his new lease on life.

July 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How about a tip jar with a scowling face and the slogan "Pay up or shut up"?

July 13, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, that's why I think my pirate theme might be so appropriate.

That customer bought a newspaper, which of course might please you by default, but is not exactly raking in the dollars. The funny story about this customer is that I have actually known him since I was a freshman in college, although he wouldn't remember that. His girlfriend lived across the hall from me, and they were of course about 10,000 light years hipper than my roommate and I were. Late one night, after our usual gabfest, we were singing musicals, and got a not so polite knock on the door from him asking us to shut up. In retrospect, it's hilarious, as he and his brother have an international music band. He has never been anything but polite in my later dealings, and I'm sure has no memory of the incident and certainly not me as a participant. But oddly, my memory of this makes me feel in some small way as though I somehow have the upper hand. I suppose it's because I could spring it on him suddenly and make him feel like a jerk.

Don't worry--I won't.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"His girlfriend lived across the hall from me, and they were of course about 10,000 light years hipper than my roommate and I were."

I thought you were going to tell me they were so cool that they were having sex and doing drugs all the time. So I very much like that they told you to shut up.

I don't think he'd feel like a jerk if you reminded him of the incident. At most a sheepish grin and a good-natured shrug of the shoulders -- unless he really is a jerk.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

No, I don't think he'd mind at all. It's funny, but they were definitely of a type back then that thought they were something just a cut above, but I don't think we ever quite grasped the allure. Probably too busy doing one more chorus of Oklahoma or something.

My poor roommate had the misfortune of rooming across from a 'real' jerk after I moved downtown. She had the excruciating experience of having him do his breakup schtick with some hapless girl, which was all too routine, while leaning against my friend's door. What a cad to do that in the hallway. His group fashioned themselves the "Cowell Mafia". They were unpleasant people then and I am absolutely sure they have remained so. That is not the kind of coldness you grow out of.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"What a cad to do that in the hallway."

Say that to yourself a few times, and I defy you not to start singing in a marchlike rhythm. It's a line from a musical about college life, I tell you.

I'm a bit crestfallen at news of the "Cowell Mafia." The name Cowell had heretofore held only pleasant associations for me, thanks to my visit to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Speaking of "Oklahoma," did I ever tell you about the time my tour guide in Tunisia started singing a song from "Oklahoma" to illustrate a point about ancient settlement patterns?

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Uh, no. Which song was it?

To be frank, I don't know that it was Oklahoma. It might have been anything, although I doubt it was anything in vogue. However my grade school friends and I were quite smitten with Oklahoma due to one of them having seen it, so I am sure I would know any song that Tunesian tour guide cared to belt out.

I wouldn't let the Cowell Mafia get you down. They besmirched everything they touched, and no one really admired them. They should have been in some really piggish fraternity house, but Santa Cruz didn't have any--at least not back then. There is such a thing as picking a role to play that goes totally against the mood of the time, and these guys unfailingly found it.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If I recall the details right, the guide sought to explain the conflict between the aboriginal peoples of Tunisia, who were farmers in the high(er) lands, and the Phonecian newcomers, who raised livestock in lowlands. We were sitting in front of our hotel in Hammamet when she burst into "The Farmer and the Cowboy Can Be Friends."

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Very apt. Except--could they?

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think they could about as well as the farmer and the cowboy in "Oklahoma." I had not heard the song before, but I seem to recall that the barbed verses amusingly undercut the optimistic refrain.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

As I think about it, I think you're right. And here are the lyrics to prove it:

The Farmer and the Cowman

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Imagine that as sung by a jovial retired archaeologist from Nottingham University, and you'll have captured a bit of my North African experience.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Sounds like a very charming trip.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was. I took a few good pictures there, too.

Among other things, it was a novel experience to explore Carthage's Tophet, graveyard of child sacrificial victims, today in the midst of a sedate residential suburb of Tunis.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

That is not quite like our hotel in Edinburgh. They ran up and down stairs all day long to provide us with extra nescafé, milk and towels.

Word verification = mantr (someone could not be bothered to provide me with the last letter) ;)

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mantr -- verification word for a lazy Hinsu meditator.

At least tipping is traditional hotels. I have ambivalent feelings about this new tradition of tipping at cafes that have no table service.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Tunesia looks like quite an interesting place, Peter. Child sacrifice, though. I'm glad they got over that.


My v word is pingle--which is a fun one, no matter what it means.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, child sacrifice is not the rage it once was. The worst thing that happened to me in Tunis is that I was accosted by a persistent vendor of fragrances and bath oils of all kinds. I made him tear his hair out because I bought nothing no matter how much he lowered the price. I think he was down to about one-tenth his original asking price by the time we both gave up.

I share your delight with the effervescent v-word. Mine is songstu, which sounds like something relatively cheerful from German mythology.

July 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, that mention of stairs and hotels reminds of the quick-witted hotelkeeper in Bath who, as I scurried down the stairs at 9:45 a.m., barely in time for breakfast, greeted me with a hearty "GOod afternoon!"

July 14, 2009  
Blogger PKL said...

Hi, folks:

The fact is that food-service workers generally get paid merde.

The B&N cafe people made about half what the "literary" staff got paid.

The great labor inequity I've recently observed is that the Starbuck's staff at my local unit get tips, while the Starbucks at the Safeway bans tipjars.

July 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose from that standpoint, tip jars on the counter are a bid for equality. Still, I'm not much of a fan.

I looked up U.S. labor law regarding minimum wage and tips. I wonder where cafe workers of the type I have in mind fit in. I wonder if cafe owners suddenly got the bright idea to get away with paying workers below minimum wage, and make up the difference with tips.

July 15, 2009  

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