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Tiptoeing Through the Gratuities Minefield

There were, in Rockingham in the 1960s and ’70s, three kinds of families – those that shopped at the Winn Dixie, those that shopped at the A&P and those that shopped at the Piggly Wiggly.

Our family was mainly Team A&P. The Saturday afternoon ritual went like this: my aunt would start getting ready to go grocery shopping, I’d beg to go with her and she’d finally relent, but not before warning “Don’t you ask me to buy one thing that’s not on this list.”

Of course, she’d end up buying anything I asked for – which was usually whichever cereal had the best prize inside the box or a giant box of Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries. (See, I was a health food junkie even way back then.)

The main thing I remember about the now-shuttered A&P is that on the door was a sign that read No Tipping Please.

Being unworldly and 8, I had no idea what that meant. But being a contrarian – some people use another word - I would, upon exiting, glance furtively around, make sure no one was watching – and then tiptoe out of the store.

Amazingly, no one ever grabbed me.

I now know what tipping means, but some restaurants around the country are tainting its meaning.

In Durham, my favorite pizza joint, Pizzeria Toro, is adding an automatic 20 percent gratuity to all sit-down meals as part of what it calls on receipts a “fair wage service fee.”

T’ain’t fair to me.

Gray Brooks, chef and a co-owner of the downtown pizzeria, obviously cares for his employees and said in interviews the move was made to ensure that employees in the back of the house - the ones you don't see, but without whom no eatery could function - are taken care of.

Now, only a miserly misanthropic mofo would oppose Brooks's efforts to close the gap between employees who receive tips and those who don’t, but forcing customers to pay a 20 percent tip seems borderline extortionary.

Say, homes: Why not just raise the prices on your pizzas and pay the workers a decent wage?

Gordon Miller, a friend, mortgage company owner and former restaurateur, asked the same thing. Miller, former owner of Tarantini Italian Restaurant in Chapel Hill, said he’d fear “unintended consequences” from “forcing” tips out of customers.

“The problem with adding in a mandatory tip,” he said, “is that it rewards bad service and may make the evening too expensive. You don’t want to have the appearance of the highest priced steak due to a tip, but what if you charged that same price and didn’t allow tipping?”

“This,” Miller said, “makes the customer feel like the owner is taking care of both his clientele and employees, while at the same time being innovative.

“If I learned anything from offering no-closing-cost mortgages when I wasn’t playing restaurant owner, it’s that consumers hate surprises,” he said. “Just tell me the price of your pizza and have a ‘no-tip’ policy. I won’t feel bad about having tipped a bad employee, getting a surprise when I see my check or having to be a math major to figure out the tip.”

Mamma mia, that’s a spicy meatball. And a terrific idea.

How strongly do I feel about employees being adequately compensated?

So strongly that I have not eaten at a particular national pizza franchise in years, not since its then-chairman vociferously opposed providing health care to his employees because – he protested – that would add 17 cents to the price of each pizza!

Who wouldn’t, I wrote at the time, gladly pay 17 cents more for a pie to ensure that the person who fixed it had health care and didn’t have to come in to work sick?

(Lawyers for said pizza chain responded by telling me, in essence, to “keep our client’s name out yo’ mouf.”)

I have kept his name out of my mouf – and his pizza, too. I have also not mentioned that this former chairman, at the time he was begrudging his employees health care, lived in a 40,000- square foot, $11 million crib. Where he lives is inconsequential, and if he lived in an 80,000 square foot house that would be his prerogative. But shouldn't he want to sprinkle some of that garlic sauce on the people who helped him buy it?

No, he should be required to.

Having worked at restaurants as a suds buster and a banquet waiter – two positions that seldom receive tips, unless you include that uneaten Reuben sandwich some customer sent back - I sympathize with my over-worked, underpaid brethren and sisteren. I also want them compensated fairly.

When it comes to mandating tips, though, I’m guessing a lot of prospective customers are going to do like eight-year-old me - turn around and tip out.





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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