Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Not Being Expected To Tip At A Restaurant: More Americans Need to Experience It

Panorama TerrasseOnwe


Split scene at Panorama Restaurant at the Fortress HohenSalzburg in Austria

One of the terrific aspects of travel in Germany and Austria was a firm 'Nein!' on any expectation of having to tip. Wherever we went, whether in Munich, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the Zugspitze, Innsbruck or the HohenSalzburg Panorama Restaurant in Salzburg - see image- there was zero expectation of customer gratuity.

Our last night with long time German friends Elli and Reinhart we spent at the  Bräustüberl  Restaurant (actually located in old Garmisch, ) I asked Reinhart the reasons for the absence of gratuities for servers in Germany. He laughed over a tall brew of Krönig Ludwig and replied: "It's because we believe in paying them real wages here that they can live off!"

He explained that the wage scales were such that health insurance was provided for as well as vacation time and pension benefits. There was simply no need to task a customer to come up with extra dough which, as he knew (from several visits to the States) was merely customer subsidy - letting the employer off the hook. He insisted: "If your restuarants in the States even raised their prices barely a dollar across the board they could afford to pay more decent wage instead of expecting the customer to do what the employer ought to."

He had a point. The system in the U.S. then is really a very poor one, where wait staff basically sign on as indentured servants whose miserly scale pay, at $2.13 /hr. is usually quickly snatched up by the employer to pay whatever "expenses" he can think of, with the employee then scrambling to make enough in tips to pay the rent, or just groceries.  Worse and worse, I wager none of the wait staff in the U.S. get anywhere near the two full weeks vacation that wait staff get in Germany, Austria. I told Reinhart that they were more or less stuck with the "Herman Cain" model of restaurant compensation, reflected in their experiencing triple the poverty rate  of the general U.S. workforce.

Fortunately, a new light seems to have emerged at the proverbial end of the U.S. Miserly Tunnel. Well, at least at one New York City venue: Sushi Yasuda, an upscale place in midtown Manhattan, has opted to provide its staff with a decent salary and benefits package that includes vacation days, sick leave and health insurance. Instead of a tip line, the restaurant notifies their patrons at the bottom of the check:

“Following the custom in Japan, Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salary. Therefore gratuities are not accepted.”
Hey! Sounds an awful lot like the custom in most of Germany and Austria!
Of course, inevitably, some customers will always be so conditioned that they give tips whatever the new policy. But at Sushi Yasuda,  any tips the staff does receive goes straight to the house, rather than staff. Meanwhile, food prices have been raised an extra 15 percent to compensate wages, but there’s been no apparent change in customer volume.
Sushi Yasuda’s Co-owner, Scott Rosenberg, told The Price Hike
“The risk is that your prices appear to be high on the menu. But if you have faith in what you’re serving, and how you’re serving it, you know that when your customers have a good meal and look at their final tally it’s going to be around the same.”
Hey, now there's a novel thought! Have faith in what you're serving, then set ther prices accordingly - to meet the goal of providing a living wage for your staff! If your grub is in any good, people will come! They sure do in Germany, and over there the prices are marked in euros with one euro equivalent to about $1.30 U.S.  The meal I had at  Bräustüberl  featured roast duck and potatoes, salad with a dark German beer and ditto for Janice. It came to some 54 euros (27 euro each) or $70.20 U.S. And worth every cent by the way. Besides the server so enjoyed our table we each received a free round of Schnapps.
I would wager a similar model could be employed here in the U.S. say at place like Applebees or Olive Garden and with lower prices relative to what we paid in Europe. For example, Olive Gardens in Denver currently have a special 3-course special Italian dinner for $12.95. I am willing to bet that this might be offered instead at $15.95 and customers will still come and buy it if it's that good. The extra money can then be used to pay real server wages.
Alas, this is perhaps more a pipe dream than realistic. The chains - chain restaurants are more likely committed to the 'Herman Cain' model of meager wage and scrambling for tips - especially if the competition doesn't change but sticks to low dinner costs. This means a large portion of the U.S. work force will never really be able to improve its lot and Americans - perpetually anticipating low food prices - will come to expect restaurants deliver them as is their wont.

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