“Oh my God! Here it is, this is IT!!” I blurted out after cracking open my fortune cookie.
“Whatcha get?” asked Jimmy, my baby-faced, former chef now front of house manager.
Anita, our perpetually disheveled powerhouse bar manager blurted out with her big hands outstretched toward mine.
“Yea, c’mon, C’MON… lemme see, lemme SEE!”
Jonathan, our young executive sous chef just gazed at me with a big Norman Rockwell expression of anticipation.
“Ok, ready?” I asked. Enthusiastic nods all around.
“Everyone seeks happiness, you create it.”
The table breathed long sigh. The answer we were looking for emerged from the womb of a fortune cookie. And that is how we addressed Tipflation long before it even had a name.
Tipflation is a hot topic. It is on the lips and screens of foodservice and retail operators, service workers, and of course, consumers. Major press outlets from the Times to Forbes have posted articles addressing the confusion, anger, hostility, and downright mess the rising tip percentage expectation has become. The “COVID guilt trip tip” has worn thin. Consumers are over it.
Consumers are beginning to become less tolerant of the pressure of leaving bigger tips for less than enthusiastic service. On the flipside tipped workers are showing more resentment as they struggle with a cost of living that is rising faster than their incomes. This is making life less comfortable for a professional server, barista, or clerk, and less fun for a traditionally happy-go-lucky group of customers. A truculent air is hovering over too many coffee counters or four tops.
Visit server and bartender social media groups and forums, and you will find that the overwhelming number of memes and posts are about mean “Karens”, bad tippers, and mocking customers who may not know what a natural Gaglioppo is. Maybe we are all a little less tolerant these days, but there is usually a reason why a customer may be cranky. On the opposite side of the coin, a perusal of any restaurant’s Yelp reviews makes it clear that some consumers are much more ready to attack than to understand a situation.
So what happened?
First, I believe overstaffing has happened. The evolution of staffing the front of house with fewer skilled servers and more food runners, greeters, and seaters has broken the long time bond between server, Maitre’d and customer. I have always believed that more servers with smaller sections and fewer support staffers always led to better service, and better service leads to better tips. Baby Boomers, who are the best tippers and Gen Xs, who are the second best tippers (according to Forbes and other media) were raised in an era when a generous tip was considered a reward, not an obligation. We tip above the norm for work well done, or at least for great effort. We also are extra generous when the experience is made better by the workers.
Here are some scenarios that I have experienced that directly illustrate how, even with a great server, too many workers can make a customer edgy, spoiling the experience and setting the wheels of conflict in motion.
You arrive at a nice restaurant for a celebration dinner and the “greeter” and “seater” are staring down at the Ipad, pondering the reservation app screen while your party stands in a cluster, uncomfortably waiting to be acknowledged for an eternal 20 seconds (go ahead, count it out, I’ll wait).
You place your order with a very amicable and helpful server, only to have your order delivered by a harried food runner who drops the food and bolts back to the kitchen, not noticing that your sister was served the wrong dish. You then have to flag your server who is busy taking another order. You wait another 45 seconds with Sis’s incorrect dish sitting on the table (c’mom, count it out again).
After your first course, a busser clears your appetizer plates and most of your silverware and doesn’t replace the forks. Shortly after, while your server is taking someone else’s order, the food runner drops your dinner and scurries away and now you have to crane your neck to find your server because three out of four at your table are missing vital tools. You have reached the “Where the hell is my server?” stage of the meal, and the experience is downhill from there.
Secondly, technology happened. The advent of restaurant POS systems, tablet and iPhone ordering, and online reservation systems have taken much of the humanity and personality out of the service experience. Is it the iPad’s fault? I know we can’t go backwards, but I believe it has led to experienced customers being less patient and less acquiescent.
Your partner suggests that you do take out tonight. Instead of calling in the order with a human, you order on the restaurant’s app and drive to pick up your dinner. You approach the counter, give your name and are handed a bag by a person who has never engaged with you. You pull out your card to pay the $95 bill and want to offer a little thank you tip, then the dreaded iPad screen is flipped your way, displaying tip options of 20%, 22%, 25%, 27% and 30%.
Your first thought is, “$20 for what?, for handing me a bag?”. Then the guilt creeps in. You are about to hit the 20% button but you see the worker checking you out from the corner of their eye. Your finger then hovers over 22% like being controlled by a Ouija board, and that glimpse from the worker returns, and this time you interpret it as a subtle glare. You oscillate for a brief second and then, intimidated, hit the 30% button. You sigh and look for the worker who is no longer there. For that brief second you dream of taking the tip back, but then she reappears and quickly flips the screen back. She sees the 30% and gives you a half smile. You thank her instead of her thanking you. You stew about it all the way home and every time your partner suggests ordering takeout for the rest of eternity you remember this and cringe.
Your three best friends are in town. You have tickets to a concert and you and your partner want to turn them on to your favorite place for dinner before the show, but it will have to be a little earlier than usual. You all decide that since the show is at 8:30 and close to your restaurant of choice, 6 PM would be a perfect dinner time. You grab your phone and go to the website that encourages you to reserve online. When you look at the grids, you see in dismay that the only open reservation times for a party of five are 5:00, 5:15 and 9:00 PM. You tell your friends that it s no-go, and you’ll have to settle for a lesser place for dinner.
Your friend suggests that you take a shot and call directly instead. You call the number and the manager answers. When you tell your situation and give your name, she remembers you. “Hey. Mr. Orlando, I can take care of you no problem.” She knew your name as you are a frequent guest there. She accommodates your 6PM reservation without a problem. When you explain how the reservation system wouldn’t allow you to reserve, she explains that the system is programmed for a designated dining room of 2 tops and 4 tops and doesn’t always understand 5 tops. Now you know to always call first. Crisis averted with human contact.
These examples of how food service has drifted from a convivial, social experience to an increasingly anonymous experience are the major factors that have led to this environment of guest frustration and worker annoyance.
So how did we fix it?
When I ran my two restaurants, we constantly received great reviews for our service and staffing. I still encounter former customers who reminisce about our staff and their great experiences. We even won two Santé Awards for Hospitality. Our tip average was consistently 2-5 % over the industry average. The inspiration for this service philosophy that served us so well was inspired by Alex Brennan of Brennan’s of Houston. At the Santé Symposium in the Equinox in Manchester, Vermont, I attended his talk entitled “The Simple Truth of your Business”. He explained succinctly that you since can’t control everything your workers do, you can instead give them a “Simple Truth” to hold on to that will motivate them to execute your philosophy through buying into your “truth”.
I excitedly returned from the symposium, ready to find our simple truth. I took my managers out to a Chinese lunch to get their feelings on what they thought our simple truth was. We discussed our philosophy of hospitality. It was about the customer, not us. Everyone has different needs and it was our task to identify them as best we could. I encouraged them to imagine dining out with their favorite aunt who only eats well done steak. You love her a lot and overlook her limited palate. Do you want a server looking down on one of your favorite people? Of course not. My management team got it. We chatted about how some of most annoying customers became our best customers and how what once seemed to be irksome evolved to become almost endearing.
Our Simple Truth was that we were an accommodating restaurant. Being in a tourist area, we got them all. Vegans, gluten-free, families with kids, foreigners, and we were able to offer something for them all. And then came the fortune cookie. The fortune read: Everyone Seeks Happiness, You Create it.
We make people happy. That is our Simple Truth.
Teach the meaning of empathy. Tap the compassion button of your servers. LISTEN to your customer. UNDERSTAND what their desires are. ACCOMMODATE their request. MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY and you in return will be happy and those customers that need a little extra love will return again and again. A returning customer is the best customer. And a happy customers are happy to tip.
Sure, for every 50 guests there may be one curmudgeon, but that is just the human condition and you can’t change that. I believe, from being a former server myself, that ”it all comes out in the wash.” That was my way of teaching my team to accept the good with the bad and at the end of the day if you offer genuine and sincere service, your tip average and hence your income will be above average and even excellent. Breathe, and remember, it all comes out in the wash.
The front page of our HR manual was the emblazoned in 24 point type–
“Everyone Seeks Happiness, We Create It”.
If you want to be happy, make people happy. Happy people are rarely mean.