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Wednesday, March 3 Front Page >> Random Rants >> More on Auto Gratuities

Feb 16, 2010, 6:45pm

I heard from Rick Green today that Neil Wyles, the industry leader, great guy, wry sense of humour, solid citizen (I'm serious) is very upset with me today. He's emailed me, and I haven't gotten the emails (yet) from him, but Rick forwarded what Neil had to say.

Neil's the owner of Hamilton Street Grill, one of the better steak shops in Vancouver.

Neil is upset because I've listed him as a #2010profiteers (or 2010profiteer) for the 18% auto gratuity included on all bills at HSG during the Olympics. (The list of both profiteers and niceprices places  is here and is updated daily.)

The arguments presented are ones that I've been hearing for several days, and to be fair, from a restaurateur / owner standpoint, they are quite valid.

The problem is, I'm not viewing them from a restaurateur viewpoint. I'm especially not viewing them from a server standpoint. I'm viewing them from a consumer standpoint - as are the 27 people who voted in a (very unscientific) Twitter Poll I had yesterday - they, along with me, find auto gratuities are terrible policy and one that does qualify a business as a Vancouver Olympics profiteer business. By comparison, only 6 people said auto gratuities does not elevate (lower?) a business to that standard.

Here's the thing. In my nearly 20 years in Vancouver, I've noticed a steady climb in what servers expect as a tip - in the 1990s, 10% was considered by many as a baseline, and 15% if you were happy with the service. Since then, the baseline seems to have climbed to 15% regardless, and 20% for good service, with some folks boasting 25% for exceptional service.

It'd be one thing if that was only consumers doing the decisions. But I know a lot of food service folks, and I can tell you that more often than not, 20% is now expected by some, especially at finer-dining places. I have one very vivid memory about this - about eight months ago when I left 15% at one of my favourite haunts, the next time I saw the server who took care of us that night, she made a point of asking me if the last service was okay, and what could she do to make it better - it was quite clear in that isolated incident that my 15% sent a message of "not satisfied".

Gratuities and tips somehow have shifted from optional to completely compulsory - no matter the level of service.

And this mentality has created a shift in establishments in many ways, many ways consumers aren't aware of. For instance, many independent shops expect servers to tip back to the house a percentage of their sales, for redistribution to other staff. Percentage of tips would be better, but harder to track, hence sales. And of course, most servers are paid bare minimum wage, (which incidentally is the lowest in Canada!), and expected to live off their tips; not their paycheck.

This shift in going from optional / 100% up to the customer to expected and expected minimums has also lead to the expectations of tips no matter who your customer is. With the Olympics here, Vancouver has had more international guests in our city than any other time going back to Expo 86, and probably beyond. Servers expect their 15-20%; the House expects their 2,3, 5% or more in sales back from servers to cover tipping out other staff who are otherwise underpaid (because tips make up their salary, and that is planned). So when a restaurant goes from $200 per seat up to $500 or $600 a night (as an example), but tips per seat don't climb at the same rate because many international visitors don't support the concept of tipping, what do some restaurants do? To keep everything happy within the restaurant, the concept of auto gratuities comes in.

I get it. I think most consumers, when finding out the behind the scenes stories, get it too. The problem is, getting it and supporting it are two different things.

When we tell not only International visitors but locals (and Americans) how much you should tip regardless of service, and enforce that tip with it pre-added to the bill, you take away a consumer's right to "reward" service as they choose, which is what tipping was all about in the first place. Tipping is not compulsory and never should be. If I have a terrible meal and mediocre service at a restaurant, I have no qualms about leaving no tip and writing on the bill / cc receipt exactly the reasons why I didn't tip.

Vancouver's also already an expensive city. Yaletown, downtown, Gastown restaurants jacking up prices and adding 18-20% auto gratuities doesn't help anyone in this city save for that solitary time at that specific restaurant for that specific server and staff on duty. It sends a bad message. Its two weeks. Why more restaurants didn't go the way of amending their staff policies for the two weeks (ie, lower payout, restaurateurs at sold out places raising staff pay for the two weeks) is, well, a case of economics and cost and ability to afford, etc etc. but I still think if a restaurant is seeing a 50, 75, 100% increase in avg. take per seat for the two Olympic weeks, they can afford to cover at least SOME lost per-revenue dollar tipping income that service staff might lose out on because of different sensibilities in tipping from our International guests.

One of my favourite restaurateurs in town is quite upset with me. But what I'll say to him and everyone else who thinks auto gratuities are necessary - your local, long term customers are saying no to that. Hopefully the policy will be re-examined, and good changes and positive things will come out of it.

4 comments | reply

Previous Ten Daily Rants
Title Date  Comments 
The continued fallout on auto gratuities  5:35pm, 08/09  3
Final thougths on price gouging, auto gratuities coming soon  12:50am, 03/04  1
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Vancouver Olympics - Nice Prices, Profiteer (gouger) Restaurant Listings  12:15am, 02/18  9
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Price Gouging in Vancouver During Olympics (and Price Heroes!)  12:20am, 02/16  25
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