She looked mortified.
The waitress had been remarkably helpful, efficiently guiding us through our meal. She was hard-working, too, the only server in the small café. When she was not waiting on tables or or tending the bar, she was sweeping the floor. And though she did not do the cooking herself, the food she brought us was sublime.
I left a tip of 20 percent, or maybe a little more.
She looked mortified.
It was my first meal in Paris, or rather, my first meal in more than a year. I had forgotten: In France, you tip just a few coins, usually rounding up to the nearest euro. Perhaps you add another euro if the service, as it was in this case, was exemplary. But no more than that.
No wonder she was so shocked, so upset. Maybe even a little offended. Leaving her far too much money was an insult, a way (to her eyes) of my trying to establish some sort of superiority over her. No doubt she saw me as a gauche, uncouth American looking down on the French by showering them with money. Because I did not realize my mistake until later, I could not even grant her the mitigating satisfaction of seeing my horrified look when I recognized the error.
This memory — never far from my subconscious — has come to mind again because of a recent national discussion, at least in some circles, about ending tipping in the United States. The topic came up earlier this summer when a notable Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, Sushi Yasuda, ended its practice of accepting tips.
Sushi Yasuda is apparently a special place, universally earning rave reviews. The chef’s tasting menu can run up to $200 apiece, and a story in the New York Times mentioned a lunch — yes, a lunch — for three people that cost $270, and the price was not unusual.
The restaurant’s owner wanted to recreate the experience of eating in Japan, where servers are paid decent wages and tipping is unknown. The restaurant simply raised its prices 15 percent. A small handful of other, even fancier restaurants (The French Laundry and Per Se, both owned by Thomas Keller) automatically add a 20 percent service charge to all bills.
But for the rest of the country, tipping is the norm. And some people resent it. They dislike being hit up for additional money by people who are gainfully employed.
What they fail to understand, perhaps, is that although waiters and waitresses are employed, they are only marginally paid. In Ohio, servers at small restaurants can be paid as little as $3.63 per hour, or $3.93 at larger establishments (in Michigan, the rate is $2.65 per hour). The rest of their earnings comes from tips, though if they earn less than the national minimum wage (or a little more at larger places) the restaurant is obligated to make up the difference.
The system works for restaurateurs such as Dustin Hostetler, co-owner of Grumpy’s. If tipping were eliminated, he said, he would have to raise his prices to be able to pay the servers for their work. And if all restaurants increased their prices, many patrons would eat at home, he said.
Tipping also allows the patrons to give a kind of feedback about the service. If they were happy, they tip more (also, studies have shown, if the servers are attractive women or draw smiley faces on the bill). If they were unhappy, they tip less — though other studies have also shown that customers generally tip about the same amount wherever they go, irrespective of the service.
Still, the thought of being paid for the quality of service can serve as a motivation for waiters. At Grumpy’s, for instance, the wait staff shares all of their tips equally.
“When our servers work as a team, they end up looking out for each other. When one is having a bad day, the others step in and help make sure the group’s tips aren’t affected,” Mr. Hostetler said.
Even so, the servers are not compensated as well as you might think. One recent busy Friday at Grumpy’s was typical. Though the servers were working hard, people who paid by credit card only left an average of 10 percent in tips.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.