Thursday, December 2, 2010

MIAMI BEACH: No tipping necessary (it's included!)

Most of the bars and restaurants in Miami Beach add an automatic gratuity (tip) to their checks. Even though I have been in the service industry, I'm not sure I think such a practice would be a good idea elsewhere.

An automatic gratuity makes some sense here in Miami. The area hosts a relatively large number of European tourists and in Europe, service staff receive a substantially higher base wage than their counterparts receive here, so tipping is far less a part of the culture than in the U.S. Many of those European tourists failed to inform themselves about the local culture (which is always a good idea when traveling to another country) while others simply refused to do here what they don't do at home. As a result, food service workers were bearing the combined brunt of low base wages AND low tips. In self-defense some years ago, food and beverage establishments started adding an automatic gratuity of between 15 - 18%.

It may surprise you to learn that, as someone who has been on the receiving end of gratuities, I'm not sure I support instituting this practice elsewhere.

Over the last couple of days, I've patronized more than a half-dozen establishments and all but two added an automatic gratuity.

While management will remove the automatic gratuity if requested, service would have to be truly abysmal for me to make such a request. But the counterpoint is also true: service would have to be absolutely stellar for me to add much of an additional tip.

I believe this practice leads to mediocre service, which is what I experienced in all cases except one. In that singular instance, my waitress had recently moved to Miami from the Midwest and was no doubt displaying the Midwest values she'd brought with her, and which hadn't yet been eroded by her environment.

The reason to expect mediocrity is simple, really: if your waitperson is virtually guaranteed 15 - 18%, what's their incentive to go above and beyond the call of duty? And if you, the customer, are automatically assessed a 15 - 18% service charge, what's your incentive to leave anything in excess of that?

True, an automatic service charge would prevent instances like the time I poured $75 worth of drinks for two couples who then left me a $2 tip. But it might also preclude other, more positive instances, including the fellow who felt I'd taken particularly good care of him and left a $20 tip with his $26 check.

Maybe I'd have made a bit more money if a gratuity was automatic, or perhaps I wouldn't. And while I might be spared the irritation that goes along with being undertipped, I might also be deprived of the satisfaction and validation (shown through a generous gratuity) that I truly had taken excellent care of my guests.

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