A New York restaurant has banned tipping. Instead, it’ll raise prices and the cash will go to the staff. So what do Irish eateries make of it all? And do we even have a tipping culture here? Joe McNamee settles the bill.
There is a breed of young Irish restaurateur, formerly Celtic Tiger cubs, for whom legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer can do no wrong and if Meyer even scratches his arse, they’ll put rump steak on their menus.
However, it will be interesting to see if they will ape his recent move to scrap tipping and service charges and raise prices across the board in his many restaurants, ensuring the raise goes entirely to staff, stating: “It’s troubled me for 21 years that the tipping system is antithetical to creating a real profession for people who takes their jobs seriously.
"You don’t tip your doctor if they do a good job. You don’t tip the airline pilot if the plane lands. It’s actually a demeaning practice.”
According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, the custom arose in 17th century England where overnight guests in stately homes took to leaving ‘vails’, a token sum for the servants.
This practice soon spread to coffee houses, with Samuel Johnson recalling the words, ‘To Insure Promptitude’, inscribed on what may well have been the world’s first tip jar and some believe the acronym (TIP) is the origin of the word.
It soon became aristocratic practice to dispense largesse to social inferiors and the aspirational lower orders soon followed suit, not least, wealthy arriviste Americans travelling to Europe after the American Civil War, who returned home with the habit.
Ireland, on the other hand, does not have a tipping culture or, if it does, the rules are obscure and to be willfully ignored at the drop of a hat.
My wife, who once spent a summer as a chambermaid will always leave behind a tip in a hotel room for housekeeping and every Christmas we continue as our parents did and give a card with a tenner to our postman.
We no longer tip the binmen since the service was privatised.
The Irish tip barbers, hairdressers, and taxi drivers. Or they don’t — again, there are no binding rules.
One custom that may be uniquely Irish is ‘luck money’, where the seller in a cash transaction will return to the buyer a small bill from the overall price ‘for luck’.
Like fellow Gaels, my attitude to tipping in hospitality establishments has been loosely assembled in an ad hoc fashion at roughly the same pace as the evolution of a modern Irish restaurant culture.
This is despite having over a decade of experience working in various jobs in the hospitality industry and, these days, turning a buck writing about the comings and goings of same.
In the US, it is a cultural given that you tip the barman at every round, even if it is just a dollar.
While we are very keen on round systems in Irish pubs and the clamour to stand a new arrival that first drink can at times nearly descend into fisticuffs, our legendary generosity with the drink rarely travels to the other side of the bar; as it stands, we already pay enough or too much for drinks without treating the barman as well.
But what’s it like for those on the other side of the fence?
Siobhán O’Callaghan is the chef/proprietor of the award-winning Kalbo’s, in Skibbereen, recently named best Café in Cork, in the 2016 Restaurant Association of Ireland awards: “As the owner of two small café/ restaurants, you have to do a bit of everything, waiting tables, cleaning toilets.
"Tips are divided amongst everyone and gathered up over time so it becomes something substantial.
"Sometimes they throw me a few bob because I am always on the floor but I always leave them sort it, because it could get messy, somebody saying, ‘I did so many shifts and so on.’
"When the waitresses take it all, I think it’s unfair, as everyone working in the restaurant contributes to the whole experience.”
John Healy, of TV3’s The Restaurant, is probably Ireland’s best known Maitre D’ and restaurant manager, these days fronting Dublin’s Suesy Street Restaurant & Wine Bar.
“No matter where I’ve worked in London,” says John, “tips and service charges have always been divided between front-of-house staff and kitchen, by rank, depending on the importance of their role.
"For example, the maître d’ would have a superior knowledge of the food and wine and a special relationship with the customers that was essential to the credibility of the restaurant.
"I very firmly believe in tipping. If people walk into an establishement of quality and expect to be ‘known’ and get the service — you may be trying to impress a client who is going to make you a lot of money — that’s the level where it is ALL about the service, where the maître d’ or waiter emphasises the personal connection.
"I can’t refuse that spending power, it’s the money the restaurant makes when they are in there.”
In 1955, a French law decreed that a ‘servis compris’ or service charge be added to each bill to ensure some sort of fair remuneration for the waiter and it is now pretty standard across Europe.
Nonetheless, I often tip on top of a service charge, especially when I suspect it might not be going to the staff and, if my nose twitches in a certain direction, I’ll ask a manager or proprietor in comfortable and obvious earshot of a waiter, exactly how the service charge is divvied up, keeping a close eye on the waiter’s face for their reaction.
“In a lot of places in Ireland,” says John Healy, “the service charge is taken by the house for other stuff rather than the staff, which I think is disgraceful.
"Service is an art form and a career. Most have to be paid minimum wage and I think service charge or tips encourage the staff to interact more with the customers.
"It fosters the social element and it really encourages them to increase their knowledge of what they are doing.
"When you go to the US, the knowledge the staff have of the menu and winelist is absolutely astounding and it’s all part of their game plan.
"Here in Ireland, you can go to restaurants and waiters mightn’t even know if a dish is on the menu.
"For me, knowledge is power and power makes money and a lot of Irish staff need to up their game.
“As a restaurateur and manager, I train people to make money, I train them how to look after customers, how to take care of them in order to make a couple of extra quid, in order for the customer to be happy to pay the service charge.
"From the customer’s point of view, one should reward if one gets good service or if regulars take care of staff, staff will take care of them. You cross my palm and I’ll cross yours, that’s the way the whole thing works.”
So, what’s the ideal tip?
A New York cop once offered to split the potential winnings on a $1 lottery ticket with his waitress in lieu of a tip.
The next day that ‘tip’ was worth $6m and their story became a film, It Could Happen to You, starring Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda.
Recalls Siobhán: “We once had an American customer who kept saying to the waitress throughout the meal, ‘you surely know who I am?’ She was 18, 19, he was in his 50s at the very least and she hadn’t a clue.
"At the end of a meal, instead of a tip, he left a note saying he was the drummer with a famous heavy metal band from the 70s.”
John Healy’s best tip was £8,000 from the Arab owner of a London hotel where he worked: “We had been going for three days non-stop at a function we did before Ascot, it was a hard slog but we were looked after well.
"It went to a team, ten of us, but I remember looking at it wondering what the fuck I was going to do with it.
"Somebody left ten pence on the table in a five-star establishment. There was a time when I would have run after them and said, sorry, sir, you left your change behind you.”
When tipping began in the US, many felt it was a complete contradiction of the young nation’s democratic ideals and aspirations.
An anti-tipping society, numbering 100,000 members sprang up in Georgia, in 1904, and William Rufus Scott wrote in his 1916 book, The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America, that ‘Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape.”
Down through the years, several states even enacted anti-tipping laws but all were ultimately appealed.
California and several other states prohibit the redirection of tips to those who don’t usually receive them (managers, kitchen staff, owners) and, in 2008, a Californian judge ordered Starbucks to repay more than $100m in tips to their baristas that had originally been diverted to their supervisors.
Whether Meyer’s initiative proves a gamechanger is yet to be seen but for the moment we shall no doubt continue to parse the bill, analyse the service, and struggle once more to arrive at the precise gratuity that not only adequately rewards those who have served us but also marks us out as exceptionally wonderful and generous human beings, to be remembered long after we have departed.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved