The Tipping Point

Tips and gratuities are a hot conversation, both in the restaurant world and in catering, particularly large events and weddings.  Originally a reward for prompt and attentive service, the gratuity or tip has become an obligatory part of the restaurant server’s compensation.  In many states, servers are paid less than the minimum wage based on an assumption of a 20% tip and are taxed accordingly through their payroll.  Catering staff, on the other hand, are generally paid a higher hourly wage, and a gratuity is an expected acknowledgement of their service over a long and arduous event.  This is especially true with weddings.

The average wedding celebration is a lengthy affair.  Often work starts well before the scheduled afternoon ceremony, and does not end until late in the evening.  The caterer’s wait staff are expected to set up the dining area, set and decorate tables and possible even move chairs from the ceremony site to the dining area.  This is in addition to serving cocktails, appetizers, a multi-course dinner and, of course, the wedding cake or desserts.  Catering staff can also be in charge of all beverage service, both at the bar and at the table, not to mention the ongoing work bussing plates and glassware, pouring toasts, cleaning up any disposables or trash that accumulates during the eight-hour celebration, and rinsing or washing all the dishes, flatware and glassware before counting and boxing it up for the rental company to retrieve the next day.  An experienced catering server is expected to be gracious yet upbeat and always willing to assist both hosts and guests.  Some of the more unusual tasks that my team members have performed over the years included mending the bride’s dress, holding cigars for the groomsmen while they used the bathroom, locating or babysitting wayward children whose parents have enjoyed a few too many cocktails and even rescuing someone’s pet dog that tumbled down a small cliff to the beach below.  All of this with nary a complaint, always smiling, even though they may be working in the pouring rain.

It does not help that different catering companies have differing policies on tipping.  Some take the direct route, adding a 20% “Service Charge” to their invoice up front.  Other, like us, take a more traditional approach, allowing the client to choose how to reward the staff.  A recent trend that has taken a disturbing turn is the client that chooses not to tip at all, with no explanation as to why.  We have begun discussing recommended gratuity amounts with the clients when they receive their final invoice prior to the event.  We outline what is customary, and what is considered generous, all without directly asking for a tip.  On those rare occasions when something untoward happens, there is no expectation of a tip, which is, again, a reward for exceptional service.  Our team understands that, and, vowing to do better the next time, moves forward.  Yet when there is no gratuity and no explanation, every member of the team, from the owner to the dishwasher ruminates on what may have unknowingly gone wrong.  Silence from the client is overwhelming, or worse, hosts and guests rave about the food and service, which in the industry is called a “lip tip”, often in reverse proportion to the dollar value of the actual gratuity, if any.  As an owner, I speculate the largest cause of this occurrence is that the client has exceeded their budget for the event, and has no money to add a gratuity for the staff.  By the time the end of the event comes, other service providers have been paid and tipped, and as the last ones out the door, the catering staff are the ones left short.

We catered a recent wedding in a violent rainstorm.  It was the kind of day where most people would not leave their house.  Winds were in the 45-50 mph range, thunderstorms were on the radar, and it had been raining hard for several days.  We had long discussions with the tent and rental provider and the mother-of-the-bride about the implications of the weather on the event.  She had to double the size of the tent to accommodate all the activities originally scheduled for outside, so was “bleeding money” in her own words.  Our team showed up ready and willing to work, and by the end of a long and tedious evening, were soaked to the skin.  When I approached the designated coordinator, a friend of the mother-of-the-bride, she seemed surprised that I inquired about a gratuity for the staff.  Off she went to ostensibly discuss with the family, and after fifteen minutes she returned and said they were “through with us” and we could leave.  I asked if that mean no gratuity for the staff and she made a motion as if she were washing her hands and said no, we are done.  I thought about the two girls who had stood in the pouring rain for the past two hours washing dishes (the rental company did not put the sink inside the kitchen tent) and I bit my tongue.  I turned and walked away, amazed that their hard work would not be recognized, not even with a “thank you”.  I thought about my sous chef, who spent the entire night under a leaking kitchen tent roof, dodging a waterfall pouring through the canopy seam onto our prep tables, with the walls of the small tent buffeting in the wind gusts.  I thought about the fact we served our food hot, fresh and on time, even though they moved the dinner timing twice; first ahead by thirty minutes, then pushing it out again, not letting the team serve the salads while the bridal party chatted and toasted each other.  I thought about the bridesmaids that refused appetizers during the photos session, but demanded them served at their table while we were preparing to serve from the buffet.  We accommodated their request, with a platter of slider and mini tacos that went virtually uneaten, as they decided they wanted their dinner after all.  I also remembered feeling sorry for the mother-of-the-bride earlier in the week, and that we agreed to bring our indoor s’mores setup at no additional charge so that the marshmallows and crackers she bought for the fire pit did not go unused.  There was no harder moment than when I had to go back to the team in that soggy kitchen tent and tell them there was no tip.

So, where to go from here?  Some on our industry advocate for the elimination of tips and gratuities entirely, raising prices to make up for the difference and translating it to higher wages for the service staff.  Others are building the difference into line item service costs, others, as noted earlier, invoice a gratuity automatically.  If all of this is confusing to us, as service providers, it must be mind boggling to the clients who are trying to ascertain what they are planning to spend and what they get for their money.  The single truth is that the status quo must change.  In the old world, service was a valued commodity.  Choosing a career in service was respected and rewarded.  In today’s society, at least in America, servers do not earn the same respect.  That potent combination of can-do moxie and a gracious demeanor doesn’t guarantee a livable wage or the admiration of the clients.  We, as owners, do the best we can to compensate these essential team members, and to acknowledge their contribution to our success.  I literally could not do what I do without each and every member of the service team.

The next time you are at a wedding or party and see these tireless workers, smile.  Say “thank you”.  If you are the host, plan to leave a gratuity, even a small one to let these very important people know that you noticed their contribution to your celebration.  Next time you are your favorite restaurant, give a nod to all the people who work together like musicians in the orchestra to craft your experience.  From the host at the door to the line cooks and dish dogs in the back.  This well-oiled machine called the hospitality industry would grind to a halt without them.