Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tipping For Counter Service

What do you think?

photograph picture of some blueberries from Rainbow Orchards at the Alemany farmers market in San Francisco

Yesterday I stopped for a quick lunch at a well known Italian cafe in San Francisco. This place is large, glossy and a copy of the original, famous branch, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin. We had to queue and order our meal, standing at a counter, whilst scanning the menu. Just before Fred paid, I noticed a sign which said that customers would be charged 12.5% for counter service. This made me erupt. "How can you charge us service for standing here and ordering our own food?" Of course, the staff were embarassed by the fact they were required to charge the service and handled the situation perfectly by removing the sign, not charging us the service, explaining it was not their decision and also pointing out that we will be served our food, but that people just weren't leaving any tips.

Fred and I automatically leave a minimum 20% tip just about everywhere we go (including for yesterday's meal). I had a problem with this issue for several reasons, but the more I think about it, the more complicated the solution seems to be. Had we not noticed the sign, Fred might have added 20% on top of the 12.5% which would have been unfair on us. By charging 12.5 % the staff are losing out on the possibility of getting larger tips. The food at this place isn't cheap, and when you pay for your food before you eat, you have no idea how you feel about it or the service. You have no recourse if something isn't to your liking, although I don't really believe in not tipping if something is wrong. As it happens, at this place, they bring you a basket of delicious hot, fresh bread with olive oil and the service is quite charming. They don't clear your plates when you have finished and you might have to go looking for your own salt, pepper or water.

But if the restaurant really wants to operate in this manner, why don't they just incorporate the counter service charge into the price and pay their staff more at times of the day when they wont be getting tips? Or even better still - why don't they just offer full service. The restaurant is fancy enough to make this seem like the natural thing to do. Any other ideas, anyone? I am sure there are some aspects of this problem I am missing.

Archive Alert! On this date in 2004 reporting on the Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas.

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Tipping For Counter Service


  • At 7/12/05 11:08, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yeah!Good point.That makes my husband mad too. Thank your mum for me for the compliment, she's nice.

  • At 7/12/05 12:34, Blogger Farmgirl Susan said…

    That seems pretty crazy to me, although I am definitely out of the dining loop. There must be a better solution, such as the ones you suggested. I especially liked that you brought up the point of not realizing about the charge and double tipping. That really isn't fair to the diner. The way this place is set up sounds a little odd in general, though, with high prices but not full service, etc. Again, though, not in the loop. It's a big deal around here when they "cook your food when you order it" since almost every place has a buffet for every meal of the day. (Oooh, catchy marketing slogan.) : )

  • At 7/12/05 13:00, Blogger Delphine said…

    I don't want to look patronizing...
    I like the French way. Service is included and you give a "pourboire" on top of it if you are happy of the service. I always do. But looks like less and less people find the service OK in France those day. It's a shame!

  • At 7/12/05 14:19, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The 12.5% service charge seems a little crazy to me for a self-service restaurant. Not familiar with that. Regarding your question of why they don't just change to full-service, the answer is they can't, or at least not easily. In SF, each restaurant location is zoned as either a self- or full-service restaurant. It takes up to a year of permits and other bureaucratic nonsense to attempt to rezone a particular address.

  • At 7/12/05 14:37, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    It's crappy, but I'd say the staff handled your incident very nicely.
    I'm like you: don't impose a pre-set tip on me, and you'll probably come away with something even better.
    Caveat emptor, eh?

  • At 7/12/05 15:23, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Only addressing one part of this. When a place, and let's assume a full service restaurant adds a service charge, typically for large parties, and typically 17-18%, why cookiecrumb, would you not leave an additional amount to get the tip to the amount you might normally leave?

    When we opened we did not put a service charge on large parties but after a year and a half of our waiters consistently getting stiffed and more than a few times not coming up with enough money to even cover the tag we did institute a service charge.

    From time to time someone makes a comment to the effect that they would have left 20% if there hadn't been a service charge. Why wouldn't they just leave the additional 3% if they normally tip 20%?

  • At 7/12/05 17:14, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    Oh, Haddock, I would leave a proper tip. I only meant they're cutting themselves off from potentially better tips from some customers by imposing an obligatory tip at a so-called fixed rate. But, so, yes, you've observed first-hand one of the consequences of imposing a service charge. No, a customer doesn't have to tip "low" just because it's the amount suggested.

  • At 7/12/05 21:33, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What I am finding hard to factor in is that this is for counter service. I mean, there's absolutely no question when one is seated and served, but this seems excessive in the extreme.

    Sitting here trying to puzzle out exactly which Marin connection this is. Do you dare mention its name? Your description of its size has me baffled.

  • At 8/12/05 04:44, Blogger Dennis Caswell said…

    I don't really want to get right into the whole automatic percentage tipping thing they have over in the States. It's quite annoying in many ways and I find myself quite irritated by it. Why should you have to tip more if the food cost more? Do the more expensive options weigh-down the plates more, making it more strenuous for the staff?...All I can say is, this place had better hope those Reservoir Dogs don't turn up. They don't like tipping at the best of times...if my memory serves me right.


  • At 8/12/05 06:28, Blogger Rachael Narins said…

    A place I frequent (urth cafe) has counter service (not my favorite method, esp. when the bill is typically $17 for lunch) and a dedicated staff of food runners. Trouble is, those guys have to split their tips from the jar on the counter with the people taking orders and making coffee, and the cooks and dishwashers, etc. The whole thing seems screwy to me. Why not just have waiters??? (Zoning seems like a way strange answer)

    On another note, I love that the change in your picture is international...LOL

  • At 8/12/05 11:54, Blogger Alice said…

    In Japan and in many Bay Area restaurants, tip is included in the price of each dish and waiter staff get paid from the owners. The owners decide whether the wait staff is doing a good job or not, so they are judged on consistent performance. This always made sense to me.

    I always leave a few dollars in the tip jar at the counter, which usually ends up being a whole lot more than 12.5% at counter prices. My philosophy is that if I have enough $ to eat out, I can spare a few dollars, unless the counter person is obviously rude.

  • At 8/12/05 12:07, Blogger Sam said…

    Cookie Crumb's Mom - I would like to add my own compliment to all the others, Your picture was amazing.

    Farmgirl - it does seem crazy on the surface but I think there is a lot more to is than one first thinks, as the following comments point out.

    Del - the french way is great - everyone knows where they stand.

    Brett - it is not totally self serve - just while you are ordering. I am not certain, i will have to check but I think this place offers service in the evenings so I don't believe they are doing this becasue they can't.

    CC- they did handle it beautifully and ended up with a tip in excess of 20%. But it is not perfect service. I fancied a hot drink after my meal but didnt becasue I didnt want to have to requeue.

    Haddock - maybe they dont leave the extra because they are discouraged to do so by the charge. WHy should it have to be so complicated for the consumer. Why not charge 20% for parties if that is what you believe your staff deserve?

    As CC points out - if you are with a group it is nigh on impossible to control other peoples' behaviour. People often find it is easier to do do the math of they dont have to add the tip. SOmetimes I add extra to the mix and then someone retrieves it for themself because they believe they had less than eveyone else and deserve extra change or something rediculous. But I will bear your points in mind next time I am group dining.

    Kudu - clue - they sell Italian pastries which are quite beloved, umm, maybe in the Larkspur area.

    Dennis - another good point, but usually as food is more expensive the level of wait service rises. I think it would be better for the job to paid a wage and for people to add whatever service they like on top of that but people shouldn't feel pressured.I would like to think of a tip as a reward for excellent service, not as a substitution for staff not being paid enough in the first place, esecially as they are taxed for tips they might not ever receive.

    Rachael - sonds like the same thing - I dont know why this place just doesnt have waiters.

    Jennifer - isnt it a bad system to pay staff an income that requires tips in order to reach the level of living wage?

  • At 8/12/05 13:05, Blogger Chef said…

    I just think this is a terrible way to run a business. It is confusing for the patrons and staff. I waited tables for 7 years and I can tell you that I would not be psyched about tipping for self service. I personally think that is BS. What is up with the hybrid they have going. Either be self service or full service. That's it. Period.

  • At 9/12/05 08:24, Blogger Sam said…

    chef - I agree - absolutely no one seems to know where they stand.

  • At 9/12/05 19:15, Blogger shuna fish lydon said…

    People who work counter jobs make minimum wage. This is and has always been a fact. It's not fair or reasonable since it can prove to be a demeaning job, but it is.

    I disagree with Alice that many Bay Area restaurants pay their waitstaff a salary. I know of three: The French Laundry, Chez Panisse and one I went to recently: Medicine. This is a very rare case because restaurants don't usually have that kind of "savings."

    It sounds to me as if the counter help complained to their management and a band-aid; not a very well thought out one, was implemented.

    Good for you for speaking up but it won't get far if you do not personally address/inquire with management.

  • At 4/6/07 10:32, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've been eating out every day for 30 years. My standard tip is 20% and I am polite and gracious to servers.

    There were no tip jars when I worked behind the counter and I dislike them.

    Tipping is for table service and self-serve customers shouldn't be pressured to tip.

    There are Far too many food places here in Portland with a gang of hippies behind the counter chatting it up, filthy tables and self-bussing of dishes. What the hell are we tipping for?

    The sense of entitlement is irritating.

    Remove all tip jars from counters.


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