In my sophomore year of high school I had a somewhat quirky English teacher named Mr. Henderson. For some reason I can’t recall anything we studied in his class, but I do remember two things Mr. Henderson said. One is that he never watched the weather; he knew it was going to rain when the birds stopped chirping. The second was his belief in tipping before a meal.
As I recalled it, the principle was that the money should be given to the waiter before eating so that he or she does not have to wonder if a tip will be forthcoming and will then provide good service. The tip amount is calculated on a rough estimate of the cost of the meal. The idea made sense to me. I eat out about once a week and almost never get bad service, but I decided to try it just the same and see if I could get outstanding service.
My first experiment restaurant was a breakfast place called Eggbert’s. Our waitress, Hannah, came over and my wife and I ordered two vegetarian’s delight omelettes (one with turkey). Then I informed Hannah I was going to be tipping before the meal and handed her $5.
The service was good: Hannah brought the food out quickly, came back to check on us, then came back again to refill our waters. When she brought the bill I asked her what she thought of pre-tipping. She liked it but had never had it happen to her before, and she even mentioned it to another waitress, who was also “down.”
Then she told us a story from her sister who used to wait on a guy who would set his tip on the table at the start of the meal and add or subtract to/from the amount depending on the quality of service as he saw it. “He was being obnoxious but in a funny way,” Hannah said.
Interesting. There was a way (albeit an “obnoxious” one) to retain some control over your tip and influence the service in real-time. I knew I had to try that.
For Round 2 it was off to Vietnam Restaurant. Our waitress: another Hannah. I placed five $1 bills on the table and told her that was her tip, but it could go up or down depending on any mistakes or particularly excellent treatment. She laughed nervously and said, “We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I don’t mess up.”
A different waiter brought the food out but Hannah came by to warn me about the heat of my hot pot and to ask if I wanted another bowl. Someone else filled up the waters. We never needed anything and Hannah brought the check quickly. Nothing outstanding happened but there was also nothing for which I could dock her money. Like Hannah I, she also liked the idea of pre-tipping. She said she was looking at the bills during the meal to see how she was doing and even said she thinks she’ll try it herself when she goes out.
So thus far I’d had two instances of service that were pretty much indistinguishable from the service I usually get. All I had were multiple waitresses’ assurances that they liked the idea of pre-tipping, and even then they might have just been saying that. I needed somewhere with terrible service where I could use my powers to wrangle good waiting out of a bad waiter.
For Round 3 we landed at a Mexican spot called Escalante’s. This time there were five of us: me, my wife, our friends Mik and Erin, and their two-month old baby. We fit right in as there were a number of families with small children. On this busy Saturday night, conditions were perfect for abysmal service.
It took us 20 minutes to get a table. Finally our waiter, a young man named Eric, presented himself. We ordered, and I gave my spiel about the five bills on the table. He smiled politely but did not look amused. This was more like it.
Once he brought the food, Erin sent hers back twice to get it with no dairy. He did this promptly, but as I wasn’t paying for Erin’s meal, Eric got no tip bump from me. Then it happened: we asked for more tortillas. He returned with water, no tortillas. Time ticked by. The side of the tortilla station was literally inches from my head, yet still no sign of Eric. Can’t eat fajitas without tortillas, Eric. Finally he arrived with piping hot tortillas, but he was a moment too late: I had plucked a dollar from the pile!
At the end of the night, I had to tell Eric I’d taken a dollar off his tip because of the tortilla delay (which was probably the kitchen’s fault anyway). He nodded knowingly and surprisingly still told me he liked the idea of pre-tipping; he thought it was “smart.” And like the Hannahs, he’d never seen it before.
So, after giving it three chances, I’d reached my conclusion: there’s a good reason no one pre-tips.
Handing the waiter money before the meal just doesn’t guarantee a service upgrade. There are simply too many variables at play: the waiter’s natural disposition, the quality of the restaurant, the attitude of the customer, and on and on. It’s impossible to say with certainty that pre-tipping would work every time. It seems far more likely that good waiters are good waiters no matter the tip, and bad waiters are bad no matter the tip.
And unless you just love confrontation, the “money pile” technique is not fun. You’re not there to be a pop review for some college student waiter, you’re there to enjoy an evening with friends or family. Plus, if everybody at dinner decides to do the “money pile,” you’ve got piles of dirty bills all over your table like some strip club stage. Just leave your tip at the end of the meal and go home; odds are the waiter will know why his tip was low without you telling him.
I’d closed the book on the idea when I had a thought: why not get my inspiration to weigh in on this? Through the magic of the Internet and a yearbook from 2001, I managed to track down Mr. Floyd Henderson, formerly of Klein High School in Spring, Texas. From his car he enlightened me on the illustrious history of tipping.
A tip, he said, was an acronym for “to insure promptness.” The act of tipping came out of a time when executions were conducted by beheading or burning at the stake. When a person was to be beheaded, friends or family would approach the executioner and pay him a small sum to insure he would sharpen his ax, thus guaranteeing a quick death. For burning, a tip paid for a small bag of gunpowder to be tied around the neck so that it rested near the criminal’s heart and exploded once flames reached it, speeding the death.
Hmm. I certainly hadn’t remembered any of that from English class, and I was fairly sure the acronym thing was not right. It sounded like one of those false etymologies like golf (“Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden”) or the F-word (“Fornication Under Consent of King”). So I checked Snopes and, sure enough, it’s no-go on “to insure promptness.” It says the first use of the word as a verb goes back to petty criminals of the early 1600s with the sense of sharing a secret. One hundred years later in a play is the first appearance of “tip” as giving money. There’s nothing about beheadings.
OK, so it’s an apocryphal tale. But that doesn’t mean the idea has no merit. If you regularly find yourself on the receiving end of poor service, pre-tipping might be advisable for you. In fact, I think everyone should try pre-tipping at least once, just to see things from a different perspective. As Mr. Henderson told me, “Most people have been conditioned from a young age to think a certain way, and true wisdom is always 180 degrees opposite of conventional wisdom. Consider taking the opposite opinion from the way most people think.”
Now there’s a tip for you.