Restaurant customers voice mixed feelings about tipping

They hate the concept but relish the practice because of the control it provides, according to a new report.
Illustration by Marty McCake and Nico Heins

Restaurants searching for an alternative to tipping are unlikely to get much direction in that quest from guests, according to a new snapshot of consumer attitudes.

A survey of 2,500 restaurant customers by the website builder BentoBox found the public to be schizophrenic about the practice. Nearly three-quarters (74%) indicated a preference for servers and bartenders being paid straight wages instead of being dependent on gratuities. Yet 76% said they relish tipping because of the leverage it affords to influence service quality.

“Diners report negative feelings on tipping as an idea, but they enjoy the control it gives them,” the report contended.

More than two-thirds of the respondents (69%) said the convention of tipping assures better service, while 56% asserted that an employee’s reliance on tips provides guests with a way to reprimand the worker for poor service.

Still, 62% of the participating consumers said they would not miss tipping if it disappeared.

“The bottom line? Tipping is all about putting diners in control,” concluded the report. “That’s what they prefer… even if they don’t admit it.”

Mixed feelings about service fees

Participants showed a similar ambivalence about service fees, the charges that more restaurants are automatically adding to bills to offset rising labor costs. Forty percent said they’d be likely to visit a place more often if it levied a service fee instead of expecting customers to tip, while 37% reported they’d visit such a place less often.

The research underscored how prevalent service fees have become; 72% of the respondents said they’ve encountered those automated charges.

The findings also underscored how prevalent tipping has become. Exactly 66% of the surveyed consumers said they feel too many places are asking that employees be tipped. Nearly half (48%) expressed a belief that fast-food restaurants should never ask for a gratuity.

The report comes as the viability of the tipping model is being increasingly questioned by labor advocates and restaurateurs. A number of operators, including New York City fine-dining standout Danny Meyer, have tried other means of compensating servers, bartenders and hosts.

They’re motivated in part by the widening income gap between tipped employees in the front-of-house and kitchen employees who work on straight wages.

In addition, unions have made a dissolution of the tip credit, a concession that allows employers to count tipped workers’ gratuities as part of the minimum wage they’re due, a prime objective. The credit is being phased out in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Ill.

Efforts to end the employer break are also underway in Michigan, Ohio and Arizona.

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