Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why do we tip?

Some time ago I logged a comment on David Friedman's economics blog in response to a post entitled, "Why do we tip?" It was meant to be a quick reaction to what I thought was a curious trail of other comments, but I ended up writing much more than I'd intended.

Periodically since then--especially when I'm out at a restaurant and about to calculate the tip--I think about that thread, and it still disturbs me . . . primarily, I think, because of the apparent lack of thoughtfulness and the extreme self-righteousness that most people display when they discuss the issue of tipping. And, perhaps most disturbing of all, this entire discussion occured on an economics-focused blog, where you would expect the author and his regular readers to approach things in a rational, businesslike way and look at all of the incentives involved in the exchange.

And so I'm going to recycle a lot of my original argument here in an attempt to get to the bottom of this phenomenon once and for all. Why, ultimately, do we tip waiters in restaurants?

In almost every case people trying to answer this question look at the incentives from only a single angle: that of the restaurant patron. Why does the customer tip? What's in it for him or her? To insure prompt service, of course. This line of reasoning invariably leads to people puffing out their chests and huffing about the level of service they expect in a particular type of restaurant and how much it is worth for someone to bring them an iced tea as opposed to filling it themselves from an urn on the counter. And this gets annoying really fast, especially to anyone who realizes that the average diner has as little insight into all the other things going on in a waiter's or waitress's job than the average waiter has into what their customers have going on in their personal life outside the walls of the restaurant.

The incentive for a customer to tip is one factor, but it's not the really important one. In one sense, we still have the seemingly-archaic practice of tipping because it's good for the restaurant owner's bottom line. Why, after all, are grocery cashiers paid by the hour, teachers on a straight salary, lawyers on salary with huge bonuses, and salespeople on commission? Over time, these compensation schemes have proven to be the most effective way for a businessperson to get the desired behavior out of a particular type of employee. In the case of waiters, a tip-based compensation model helps insulate the owner from taking a bath on a slow night--if not enough customers come in the door, the wait staff takes home a smaller amount of money. Waiting tables is very much a customer-facing sales position, and any waiter who has figured out how to upsell tables with appetizers and drink specials understands that tipping is essentially a slightly-unstable commission system.

Tipping works out just fine for the restaurant owners. If it didn't, and moving from a tip-based scheme to a flat hourly or salaried package would actually ensure better performance from the staff and higher returns for the restaurant from all the pleased repeat customers, you can bet your sweet bippy you'd see more and more restaurants posting "Please, no tipping" signs and paying their waiters a regular wage (like most grocery stores now do for bagboys).

But, the real key lies in the incentives for waiters or waitresses to work for tips. The federal minimum wage laws provide for a "tip offset", which allows a restaurant to pay its employees a greatly-reduced minimum wage of $2.13 per hour, provided that when they add in tips a waiter or waitress's total hourly take exceeds the minimum wage. From a practical standpoint, since a waiter at even a mid-priced restaurant can take home 30 or 40 bucks for a 4-hour shift, this means that waiters are working primarily for the tips.

Ultimately, it's the waiter's total take-home--and the opportunity cost--that matters. If the total wages and tips combined did not exceed what that person could reasonably expect to make in another line of work, then that person would likely move on to other jobs. From the restaurant owner's point of view, if the diners all suddenly turned into my step-father-in-law and started tipping only 3% on their checks, then likely many of the restaurant's servers would quit, and the owner would have to raise the hourly pay to attract and keep enough workers to run the business, which means labor costs would go up, and in the end the owner would have to raise the food prices to compensate--which means the diners would wind up paying for the service in one way or another.

Essentially, the waiter labor market is at an equilibrium where, on average, the amount of money the restaurant patron is willing to pay (whether out of conformity or guilt or pride or sympathy or whatever) is sufficient to supplement the tiny hourly wage paid by restaurant owners and attract enough people to serve as waiters.

So why do we tip? A commenter named Justin from David Friedman's site noticed an interesting fact about the tip jar on the counter of the coffee shop where he worked: "people tip more when there is a good deal of money already in the jar, and they tend not to tip much when it's empty." And why is that? The tip jar is a signal of the proper social behavior: Am I supposed to tip these guys for bringing me coffee or not--oh, look, a bunch of other people have tipped them, so that must be the right thing to do. I feel the exact same way at Andolini's Pizza, which has an "Instant Karma" jar on the counter that always prompts me to leave a tip even though there's not really any waitress service, just because I'm worried the people who work there will think I'm a cheapskate if I don't.

We tip because everyone else does. Would it make a difference if we all decided overnight that it's a silly convention and we weren't going to follow it anymore? I've heard a lot of ludicrously convoluted rationalizations for how people arrive at a tip amount other than the standard 15% (like timing out how long it takes a bartender to fill and deliver a beer glass and backing into the tip from a reasonable hourly wage), but amid all the seemingly-relevant detail these explanations universally ignore the fact that the customer and the waiter aren't negotiating before the meal and agreeing on a mutually acceptable price. Chest-Swelling Consumer Boy may think all a waiter's effort in taking orders, delivering plates, and filling drinks is worth only 2 bucks per person per meal, but the waiter may have a different opinion, especially if he is going to serve only 20 customers in a four-hour shift.

The restaurant tipping system essentially runs like some of the quaint vegetable stands I've run across in New England, where the proprietor lays out the vegetables, puts an "honor system" jar on the counter, and leaves, allowing customers to deposit whatever amount they see fit. Whether one particular shopper puts in a nickel or a twenty-dollar bill for a pumpkin doesn't really matter; but, if in aggregrate all the vegetables disappear and there's practically no money left in the jar, you can bet the farmer isn't going to bother to keep the stand running for very long.

We tip because everyone else does, and because it works out okay for both the restaurant owner and the waiter. It's silly and nerve wracking and, when trying to calculate the tip on a dinner for six after one too many glasses of wine, prone to grievous errors. But it's not going anywhere any time soon.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What's an Organic Fish?

Are you better off buying organic salmon or regular salmon? And what is regular salmon anyway? An article in today's New York Times (registration required) highlights a lot of the murkiness that surrounds the "organic" label.

It makes you wish they could just label things "good fish" or "not so good (but cheap) fish."

Lowcountry Nibbles -- 29 November

  • Charleston's own Lee Brothers (Matt and Ted, that is) are getting tons of press these days, promoting their first cookbook. Here is a typical example. The Lees have established a successful writing career and, by all accounts, are pretty good cooks, too. But, their biggest talent seems to be clipping Yankees. Their "Lees Brothers Boiled Peanut Catalog" offers such bargains as two quart jars of Duke's Mayonnaise for $13.25, a box of 8 Moon Pies for $12.95, and a case of Royal Crown Cola for $22.95. Nice work, boys.

  • Michael Fechter's Orphan Productions is staging a "Charleston Chef's Auction" via eBay, where donors can bid (starting at $1,000) for a private dinner for 8 prepared by one of an array of leading Charleston chefs. Details at

Sunday, November 26, 2006

It's the First Quarter, and the Home Team is Trailing

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, 1205 Ashley River Road, (843) 343-2147,

Why is it much more frustrating when something is close to being really good but falls just short than it is when something just plain stinks?

That was the feeling I took away from my first experience with Fiery Ron's Hometeam BBQ, which just opened up in West Ashley. I've been watching for months (or was it years?) while the old 1940s-era filling station on Highway 61 was gutted and completely renovated. It was always a cool-looking building, and I hoped it was going to be transformed into something interesting and exciting and not just another law office. A few months ago a sign appeared announcing, "Coming Soon: Home Team BBQ", and my heart soared. A barbecue joint was the perfect thing for that old gas station, and Charleston is still two or three good barbecue restaurants light for a town of its size.

Home Team BBQ has all the right ingredients for becoming a classic Charleston dining spot. Mind you, I don't mean a classic South Carolina-style barbecue joint, for that it is clearly not. The traditional Midlands and Lowcountry BBQ restaurant has all the atmosphere of a church family night supper, down to the folding tables and chairs and white cinderblock walls. They serve pork from a big buffet along with hash and rice and banana pudding, and they are frequently open only Thursday through Sunday. And they would never ever even think about serving beer.

Home Team is nothing like this, but to my mind it doesn't need to be. If you need the true local flavor, there's the Bessinger family and Momma Brown's and J. B.'s Smokestack and Sweatman's up in Holly Hill. Home Team is much more of a BBQ joint in the Memphis or Texas mold. They serve smoked pork, chicken, ribs, and, oddly enough, tacos. There's no hash anywhere to be seen.

The building is stylishly reworked, with shiny metal walls and funky barstools and nice, solid tables and chairs. There's a full bar and TV screens--a good sign that this could be one of those places where you go with the boys to catch the big game and knock back a platter of ribs and a few cold ones. To top it off, they're open until 2:00 AM and have booked a series of live blues and roots music performers to play, so it could turn into a pretty good nightspot, too, conjuring up echoes of the old Beale Street and McLemore Avenue joints in Memphis in the 1920s and '30s, which were more beer halls than restaurants and served ribs and pork sandwiches to the late night revellers living the birth of the blues.

So it looked promising. I took the whole family for lunch, and we ordered BBQ Pork Sandwiches for the two adults (one with Brunswick stew on the side, the other with baked beans) and a barbecue chicken taco for The Six-Year-Old. The meat was quite good: smoky and tender with some nice little crispy bits. I really liked the sauce, too, which is a spicy red tomato & vinegar concoction after the Texas style.

But somehow the whole thing didn't quite come off. The ingredients were all there, but the execution was wrong.

For example, take the sandwiches. We ordered ours on Texas Toast, which seemed more in keeping with the restaurant's style than a regular hamburger bun. The sandwiches arrived and, lo and behold, the bread wasn't toasted--in fact, it wasn't even warm. "This is NOT Texas Toast," The Wife said (and she can get pretty crabby when it comes to matters gastronomical). "Texas means big, which means thick slices. And toast means toasted. Heated until crispy and golden brown. Preferably with lots of butter. This is just thick bread."

The menu promised pickles on the sandwich, but we got none. Pickles would have added some nice crunch. And, the sides left a lot to be desired. For one thing, they weren't included in the $5.95 price of the sandwich but had to be ordered a la carte at $1.95 a pop. The Brunswick stew was pretty good, the baked beans rather bland. The "Mac n' cheese" was actually some sort of penne pasta in a thin, creamy white sauce. Guys, this is a barbecue joint, not a bistro. Macaroni and cheese means macaroni, not "pasta", with thick gooey yellow cheese, baked in a pan till it sets up. The Six-Year-Old is a macaroni and cheese gourmand, a fan of everything from the blue box Krapft variety all the way to homemade fetuccini tossed with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, but he turned up his nose after one bite. And, for the record, if a side dish costs $1.95 (as all of the Home Team ones do), it really needs to come in larger portions than a half-filled 4-oz styrofoam cup.

On the other hand, The Six-Year-Old raved about the chicken taco, declaring it the best in town and declaring he wanted to come back again and again. So, there is hope for the Home Team. Any place where a dad can have a beer and eat some ribs and keep his kid happy at the same time has a bright future.

So, come on, team. I'm rooting for you. Bowl season is coming up. I want to knock back a sloppy red-sauce-soaked sandwich on grilled Texas Toast and wash it down with a couple of cold ones while watching the game. Toast the toast. Or, better yet, install a big griddle and toast the sandwiches with the meat and sauce already on them. And serve it up in wax-paper-lined basket with a big mound of the selected side item.

And don't forget the pickles. It's the little touches that count.

Thanks to The Wife for the title for this post. When it comes to snarky parting shots, she's the queen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ping Island Strike Blog

I just discovered that Sean Brock, the executive chef at McCrady's, has a blog call Ping Island Strike, where he posts lots of photos from the kitchen, including many of the tools and ingredients he uses for Ferran Adria-inspired experimental cooking. There's not much text on Brock's blog, but you can read more about the ideas behind his food in this guest post on Ideas in Food.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Regrettable Food Department

This may be the worst headline I've ever seen in a newspaper:

Jalapeno mayonaisse adds kick to Texas Tuna Burger

Is this from the food section or the crime report?

Lowcountry Nibbles

A new Indian restaurant, Chinar, has opened at 363 King St.

Robert Barber, having narrowly lost the Lt. Governor's race to Andre Bauer, has announced he will now focus his energies on rebuilding his Bowen's Island restaurant, which burned to the ground last month.

Fiery Ron's Hometeam BBQ at 1205 Ashley River Road (Highway 61) is slated to begin serving food on November 20th. Not sure what the barbecue will be like, but the bar is already open and is hosting blues and bluegrass shows. Co-owner Aaron Siegel used to be the executive chef at Blossom.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Squid Ceviche

The Mount Pleasant Seafood Company had some great looking whole squid on sale, so I bought six of them, which seemed like enough for doing something with, but I had no idea what. Fried calamari was my initial thought, but last night I just didn't feel up to the mess of trying to deep fry anything and fill my house with greasy smoke (thanks to the poor state of my kitchen's ventilation system). I wanted something lighter, and thought to myself, "How about squid ceviche?"
Although squid is a very common ingredient in ceviche, it's usually just an accompaniment to the more prominent fish. A quick search of the web turned up only a couple of recipes for ceviche with squid alone. I borrowed ideas from these and more traditional fish ceviche recipes and came up with the following:
Squid Ceviche
6 to 8 whole squid, cleaned and sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1/2 cup onion, minced
8-10 jalapeno slices
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
1 clove of garlic
salt & pepper
(Some red or bell peppers would probably be good in this, too, but I didn't have any handy.)
Squeeze the lime juice into a small bowl. Peel and cut the clove of garlic in half and soak it in the lime juice for 10-15 minutes, discarding the garlic when finished. While the garlic is soaking, bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the squid rings for 1 minute, then drain and chill in ice water till cold (about 10 minutes). Combine the squid, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and salt and pepper in a sealable plastic container, then pour over the lime juice and mix well. Put in the refrigerator and let chill/marinate for about an hour. Serve.
The effect of the lime juice on the squid is remarkable, transforming it into something chewy and delicious and just perfect. The recipe above makes about enough for an appetizer for four people. And best of all, the squid was cheap, cheap, cheap--about three bucks.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Most of the grocery stores in my area have the requisite stock of apples (the same 6 varieties), oranges, pears, and bananas. Maybe the occassional coconut or whole pineapple if you want to get crazy. But, the Publix (on Sam Rittenberg Drive) can always be counted on to have at least a dozen exotic fruits that I've never purchased before. The other day I stumbled across a bin of guava whose smell was so strong and sweet and tempting that I had to buy a few.

I sliced a few and ate them, but what better than a guava mojito? (It was really good, but since I had to peel, puree, and strain the fruit myself, I'll probably save the trouble in the future and just buy guava nectar.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lunch on Daniel Island

Daniel Island, South Carolina, has always struck me as a curious place. A planned-community built upon New Urbanism ideas, it's an unusual mix of traditional architecture, progressive planned-development ideas, and conspicuous consumption. I never know quite how I feel about the place. On the one hand, it's quite beautiful, from the natural landscape to the charming Charleston-style houses (see the Daniel Island real-estate web site for examples). On the other hand, the house prices are insane and make a mockery of the planners' stated goal of creating "a variety of housing options for people at various income levels." (Unless, of course, by "various" they really meant everything from "well-off" all the way to "fabulously rich".)

It's also built on an old swamp and is mosquito infested.

I lived on Daniel Island (in an apartment) when I first moved to Charleston. And, for the better part of the last five years, I've worked there. My overall conclusion is that, based upon this brave New Urban experiment, the planners and theorists need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how any place created with "humane urban design" could end up without any good places to eat lunch.

This doesn't mean there aren't any restaurants on Daniel Island. And it doesn't mean that there aren't any fancy places to buy lunch. There are, in my view, far too many of these. I would just prefer a little less "fancy" and a little more "good".

I won't name any names, because it's not the fault of any one particular restaurant. Maybe the rents are too high to support my type of lunch joint. Or maybe the Island's residents and employees are too classy to patronize such places. Rather than pick on one, let's roll them all together into one composite business--call it McSnoot's Cafe & Bistro--and address them as a genre.

When you enter McSnoot's, you notice it's a nice room. A good heavy door, lots of windows, tasteful art on the wall. There's no linoleum on the floor or vinyl-covered booths--all hardwoods and tile and solid wood furniture. And there's no long queue of patrons waiting to order at the counter. You pick your seat--whichever one you'd like, usually, since McSnoot's is rarely at full capacity, even during peak lunch hours.

The menu is nicely printed on thick, decorative paper, and has only a small number of options--soups and sandwiches mostly. But, don't worry. These aren't run-of-the-mill ham and turkey sandwiches. That wouldn't be "Island Living." You can expect your reuben to come on ciabatta instead of plain old rye, and with a blue-cheese coleslaw subsituted for the sauerkraut. And nothing dresses up a turkey sandwich like some alfalfa sprouts and brie cheese.

One note: please don't ask your waiter for a Coke. McSnoot's doesn't carry soft drinks, but they do have a fine selection of spiced teas and freshly-squeezed juices (for $2.25 a glass--quite reasonable for a lunch beverage.) Sip that spiced tea slowly, for you'll probably only see your waiter about once every fifteen minutes. There are six other tables in the cafe, after all. But, all in all, they'll get you in and out in no more than an hour-and-fifteen minutes--not bad for your typical lunch break. Lunch for two, with a tip for the rather bored waitperson, will run you
about 26 bucks. It's hard to beat island living.

This is the New Urbanism's version of downtown, but I'll take the old version. My happiest lunches were when I worked on Main Street in downtown Columbia. My wife worked downtown, too--about four blocks away--and we would walk from our offices and meet at one of the nearby restaurants and have a delightful lunch. And we had lots to choose from--hamburger joints, pizza spots, Japanese, Italian, fried chicken, you name it. Eddie's was the quentissential burger joint, and they hand battered their onion rings with a secret process that involved multiple dippings and soakings over 24 hours. Tony's, a tight little spot in the basement of an office building, served chicken lasagne in a creamy bechamel which would make your whole afternoon bright.

These lunch spots were dumpy, with old posters on the wall and lots of greasy smoke in the air. And they were crowded, too, turning as many patrons in 15 minutes as a Daniel Island eatery is likely to serve all day. And you'd be rubbing elbows and bumping knees with a wide range of people--bankers in suits, nurses in scrubs, utility workers in muddle coveralls, and batty old ladies out shopping for wigs. And we would walk away all told for about $10 bucks for the two of us. And, boy, was the food delicious.

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