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Local restaurant owner speaks out on service, tipping, and server wages

Recently, I sat down with Mark Taylor, owner of Siena at 12th and Granville. Taylor is an experienced restaurateur, with over 20 years in the Vancouver restaurant industry. Before Siena, he owned the now-defunct Crew. We talked about service and tipping, or not tipping, in the city.

Says Taylor, “I think it’s misunderstood. I hear so many things online. People say ‘Oh, if it’s bad or if the service is bad, then I just don’t tip.’ I’ve never understood that statement. If the service is bad, you need to talk to somebody. Maybe don’t tip, but you need to do more than not tip.”

Part of Taylor’s point is that simply declining to tip does not send a clear message. This is true. There are any number of reasons why customers refuse to tip.

Maybe they're averse to tipping.

Maybe they're not culturally accustomed to tipping.

Some servers have told me that they cringe when they hear a customer with an accent, not because the server is racist, but because they know that certain nationalities and cultures are notorious for their tipping habits. A classic example is the Australian accent.

Serve me up some justice

British Columbia’s minimum wage is a contentious issue. The provincial government, with an election imminent, recently raised it to $10.25 per hour, as of May 1st, 2012.

Unless you have a job serving liquor. In that case, minimum wage is $9.00 per hour. That's because you're expected to make enough in tips to offset the $1.25 difference. 

But what purpose does the tip actually serve?

By setting a lower minimum wage for liquor servers, has the government essentially created a system where the customer subsidizes the server’s pay?

Is it fair to ask servers to give up 12% of their hourly wage in exchange for gratuities?

Servers depend on tips

In larger restaurants, there might be no other way for management to learn of a server’s mistakes.  

“If someone leaves without tipping, there could be a huge screw up and nobody knows about it," Taylor says.

Ultimately, the question returns to the server’s wage.

Tipping is an important issue because servers are paid very little per hour.

Unless servers' salaries increase, they'll continue to depend heavily on tips. If I wasn't  expected to tip, I might be more likely to seek out other ways to voice my displeasure at terrible service.

Why not just pay servers more?

Taylor informs me that he has actually done the math. Suppose that he wanted to pay his servers at a similar level to what they are making now, replacing their tips with an hourly wage. In order to replace about $100 per night in gratuities, Taylor calculates that he would need roughly a 40% price increase. If the average bill was $50, he would need to make it $70.

In the American restaurant industry, servers can make as little as $2.13 per hour, expected to make the rest up in tips.

Compare that to a general minimum wage of $7.25, which will increase to $9.00 later this year, and the $1.25 per hour difference we have in B.C. looks pretty minimal.

The $2.13 wage is the same as it was in 1991, when Herman Cain, then President of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA), lobbied for it.

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