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The best tip on tipping

Restaurant owner David Jones works his trade in Parksville, on Vancouver Island, a long car drive from anywhere else. But the “anywhere else” around this town is ocean-front temperate rainforest paradise.

So his Smoke ‘N Water restaurant can do decent business, but I expect keeping good staff might be a problem.

His solution? Pay servers up to $24 and hour, cooks up to $18 an hour, plus medical and dental coverage — with no tipping allowed. If someone leaves a tip, it will be given back. If it can’t be given back, the tip will be given to charity.

Doing that required an 18 per cent hike in the menu price, but Jones believes his patrons will appreciate the change.

Paying food service staff low wages (in some cases even below minimum wage), on the premise that tips from patrons will make up the difference toward a living income, is a “broken business model,” says Jones.

The no-tip plan, which is common throughout Europe and Australia, and gaining traction in the U.S., is not going to change the industry in Canada overnight. It might not even be the best business model in some markets.

But as a restaurant patron, and the parent of university students who worked their way through school partly in the food trade, I like the change.

One of my kids worked a summer at a local restaurant. She never knew what her labour over a shift would bring her, but it was one of two or three jobs she worked through the summer months while in university.

One evening, in walked Ron MacLean with a group of friends. MacLean is well known for his generosity in tipping, and that night’s table raised her hourly income considerably.

Another daughter once served a large group at a restaurant in Regina — and was tipped with a Bible. She had to pay a percentage of her total food tab to the bartender and cook staff, so she essentially worked for no pay at all that day.

I leave it to the Christian residents in Regina to determine which chain restaurant ended up with a Bible in its trash bin that night.

Working for tips might be a good supplement to a student loan (especially if you don’t report the income) but it’s a hard career choice. I wonder if we’d need fewer temporary foreign workers in the food service industry if more restaurant owners had the vision of a David Jones.

Ian Tostenson, head of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Association applauds Jones’s foresight. He says people should be tipping 15 to 20 per cent of their bills, but that standard isn’t being met, not by a long shot.

People argue that tipping is supposed to be an incentive for good service but the figures show that’s largely a myth. Bottom line: people tip whatever the service, which is generally good.

Problems with service are sometimes not the server’s fault. And if service was indeed sub-par, the manager should be told personally.

Whatever the protestations of people who prefer the current system, the practice of making people work for tips isn’t so much about incentives. That idea begins with an assumption that staff who serve others are out to screw you over, unless you withhold some kind of reward.

Tipping is more about an expression of power over someone who serves you. Come hither, pretend you really like me.

Where service is not great, people don’t return, and that’s an incentive that works on management, not on staff.

A company called Square issues software that works on the credit card readers at restaurants and any other place where tipping is part of the paying culture. You’ve seen it when the card reader asks you if you want to add a tip, either as a percentage of the bill, or as a flat amount.

Guess what? Your tipping habits are being tracked.

Albertans — wealthy oil barons that we all are — are Canada’s worst tippers (Bible donations excluded). Vancouverites are next. Ottawa patrons are Canada’s best, according to the stats released by a Square survey of its data.

Where the check was done in Calgary, less than 60 per cent of meal payments contained a tip. The average tip was 13.3 per cent.

I have no reason to believe Calgary is an isolated island of Alberta’s cheapskates, so let’s just let the survey stand as representative.

In a whole lot of establishments, working for tips isn’t working. Not as a long-term job choice. Maybe that’s why restaurant owners need so many labour Market Opinions to get those poor foreigners on staff.

A tip: restaurant managers who require experienced staff long-term might take a serious look at the business model at Smoke ‘N Water out in Parksville, B.C.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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