It’s Time for the Tradition of Tipping at Restaurants to Die

The New York Times rekindled the ages-old argument over the custom of tipping at restaurants this week with a piece on Keoni by Keo’s, a Thai restaurant in Hawaii that instituted a policy of charging non-English speaking patrons – and only non-English speaking patrons – a 15% service fee. The policy, which was quickly reversed, was likely aimed at Asian tourists, who, according to local waiters, simply do not tip. I can see why they did it, but it was clearly the wrong approach. Rather than discriminating against foreign diners – or worse, trying to educate them on our arcane custom – it’s time to start including service in the cost of the meal for everyone.

It’s no surprise that restaurant owners want to keep their payroll as low as possible, and one way to do that is to essentially have customers pay the waitstaff’s salary through tips. The custom is so entrenched now that any restaurant that instituted a policy of including a service charge in every check, or simply increasing menu prices to reflect labor costs, wouldn’t be able to compete with those that don’t.

But just because it would be difficult to change the way restaurants do business doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Tipping adds a layer of stress to both sides of the dining experience. Waiters fear that diners will stiff them or undertip based on either ignorance or simple mean-spiritedness. Considerate diners like myself worry that if they don’t tip enough, they’ll get shoddy service in the future, or otherwise wind up getting mocked on Waiter Rant – even if the service legitimately sucked.

We Americans might never adopt the metric system, but it’s long past time to catch up to the rest of the world by charging restaurant patrons for the full cost of their meal, labor included. If the service is poor, customers should bring it to the attention of the waiter or a manager, or else take their future business elsewhere. And restaurant managers should definitely be able to gauge the quality of service by walking the floor, checking in on diners, and generally staying on top of things.

So, Keoni by Keo’s restaurant, you were wrong only insofar as your service charge applied exclusively to foreign guests. Just avoid the headache entirely by including the cost of service in every check. Try to convince your competitors to do likewise. Ultimately, the costs on both sides of the transaction will remain the same, but the bitching would subside and we could all eat our Pad Thai in peace.

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