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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is Drew Brees a bad tipper? New Orleans service industry workers weigh in.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 9:13 AM

In case you missed it, Drew Brees found himself in the middle of a mini-controversy last night after the website The Dirty published a picture showing a receipt where the Saints' quarterback left a $3 tip on a $74 takeout order. Because, it seems, nobody had anything else to do, the story made the rounds, and Brees went to Twitter to defend himself (seen above). He noted that the receipt was for a takeout order (something The Dirty failed to report) and insisted he'd tip more than 20 percent if he had been served at a table.

This is, as the Los Angeles Times sports section pointed out, a completely ridiculous controversy, but thanks to the summer lull in the sporting calendar and the availability of the Internet, it's what passes as news right now. Brees has less to worry about than the waitress who allowed her receipt to be photographed and published online. It's been reported that the waitress still has her job — and she should consider herself lucky considering the restaurant she works at recently made a large contribution to the Brees Dream Foundation, an organization that funds, among other things, athletic programs in the 9th Ward and cancer treatment in the greater New Orleans area.

So yes, this is only a story because Brees is rich and famous and even his most mundane actions are held up to scrutiny. And yes, this story will probably die as soon as he throws his next pass in training camp. But the fact that Brees even took time to respond shows he's aware there are societal norms about tipping. Since Brees plays football in a city where 1 in 10 people works in food service, I wanted to know what some of them thought about the disputed tip amount.

Full disclosure: When not working as a writer or videographer, I work as a bartender at the American Sector. My wages do depend on tips, but despite the ups and downs that come with working in the service industry, I happen to enjoy my job. The clientele consists mostly of tourists visiting the National World War II Museum, where the restaurant is located, but there's also a large group of regulars from the neighborhood. Some are famous, but I would never broadcast a patron's dining habits.

That being said, working in the service industry gives me special insight into the practice of tipping and just how important it can be for workers who depend on tips to earn a living wage. Even before I became a bartender, I counted several service industry workers as my friends. After hearing about the Brees story, I reached out to everyone I know who works or has experience working in the service industry, asking how they would react if they were tipped the same amount as Brees did on a takeout order. Frankly, the answers were surprising.

(Note: This was a completely unscientific poll. I prefaced the question by saying all responses would be kept anonymous, I mentioned it was for a Gambit blog post but I didn't say it was about Drew Brees because I wanted to focus on the tip, not the tipper. Also, almost all the people I reached out to have served Brees, his teammates or other celebrities, and I didn't want those experiences clouding their judgement. My question was: "How would you feel if a customer left you a $3 tip on a $74 TAKEOUT order."

New Orleans is a city partly defined by its restaurant scene and the industry has been booming here while it has languished in some parts of the country. New Orleans is also one of the rare American cities where servers and batenders can earn more than just a livable wage (especially those who work in more expensive restaurants). If there's any place where a story about the hometown's starting NFL quarterback being exposed as a bad tipper would gain any traction, this would be it. And yet, the idea of a 6 percent tip (approximately what Brees left) on a takeout receipt didn't seem to ruffle many feathers.

Several people I reached out to said they don't usually expect a tip on a take-out order, with one, a front-of-house manager with a national restaurant group, saying "$3 would be a nice surprise." Several cooks, chefs and chef/owners replied they wouldn't think twice about little to no tips on takeout orders, though it should be noted that they don't depend on tips for their wage. However, a waitress who works at a small Uptown restaurant where the front-of-house staff pools tips, said the $3 would be "a polite gesture" considering how little work she puts into bagging takeout food. Another server who previously worked at the same Uptown location said simply, "Wouldn't sweat it. I didn't work for that money."

Of course, not everyone agreed. The bar manager at a prominent Warehouse District restaurant took the $3 on a $74 as an insult, saying someone who left such a small amount "put some thought and effort into deciding how much of a doucheknuckle [they] wanted to be that day." Another friend who works at a separate Warehouse District establishment was more succinct, saying, "That's messed up." Those who said they would be upset with the tip Brees left also said it was their belief that the floor for tips on takeout orders was 10 percent.

Despite the few detractors, however, the overall consensus was that Brees was not a bad tipper and that they aren't surprised when takeout customers leave less than 10 percent — or nothing at all.

This is not an insignificant issue, and it's not just an issue in New Orleans. The practice of tipping affects more than 13 million U.S. workers, or almost 10 percent of the national labor force. While many of those workers earn their living in fast food where wages are set, a significant portion make their living on tips. The increased number of food service workers has brought the issue of tipping to the attention of the mainstream media.

In March, the website ran an essay on all the ways restaurant workers are mistreated by their employers and their customers. In June, the prominent "Freakonomics" podcast discussed the argument to outlaw tips. The topic was also explored by NBC News when a high-end New York City sushi restaurant told customers the wait staff no longer would accept tips. In July, called tipping "an abomination" and highlighted all the reasons the practice is unfair.

Arguments against a society that allows tipping date back even further. The New York Times published an article which explored both sides of the tipping debate back in 2005, and the Slate piece referenced an early 20th-century essay that called tipping "Democracy's deadly foe." In pop culture, perhaps no one captured the absurdity of tipping better than Quentin Tarentino in this iconic scene from Reservoir Dogs (NSFW language). The only difference between reality and the views expressed by the character Mr. Pink is that, in 2013, many servers actually don't make minimum wage.

Coming back to Brees, some of the industry workers I talked to pointed out an aspect of tipping that few people discuss: the practice of employee tip outs. For those who haven't worked in the service industry or aren't otherwise privy to restaurant practices, servers often are required to give a percentage of what they earn to other restaurant staff. Depending on how big a restaurant is and how its management is structured, a server could be obliged to tip out the bartenders, hostesses, food runners, bussers and sometimes even dishwashers and expediters (the people who garnish finished plates and call them out for service). In many locations, whatever a server is required to pay as a tip out is usually a fixed percentage of their sales, regardless of what they earn in tips from customers.

A few people pointed out this practice when responding to my query. One, a waiter at a Warehouse District eatery, said to-go orders exist in a murky space. "We still pay tax and tips off it, but that's really something the restaurant should have to pay," the waiter said.

For variety, I reached out to a friend living in Chicago who has worked in the service industry there and in New Orleans. He said that, as a bartender, he doesn't mind to-go orders but as a server, "I would be pissed" because it usually means he'd be losing money.

The threat of losing money at any given moment is one everybody who is working for tips in the food service industry has had to deal with. Servers at large restaurants constantly jockey for the best shifts at the best tables in order to maximize their profit. In smaller locations where servers pool tips, some of the workers can get irritated if they perceive their co-workers aren't pulling their weight.

But in both scenarios, even when a restaurant is booked solid, servers' wages are dependent on the whims of their customers. They could get a Mr. Pink, who doesn't believe in tipping, or a Mr. Brees, who says he tips 20 percent or more when dining in a restaurant.

It seems more and more people are making the argument that tipping is, at the very least, is a flawed system. After all, the U.S. is one of the last countries in the developed world where tipping is the standard practice, and it seems like every disgruntled server's go-to argument is that, in Europe, waiters don't need tips because they're respected and paid a living wage.

Of course, even this argument is a double-edged sword. In past conversations with the people I reached out to about Brees' tip, I've brought up the topic of abolishing the practice. It's a divisive issue. On the one hand, most people I know wouldn't mind making more in their hourly wages so they could depend less on tips. On the other hand, I know several servers and bartenders who work in the French Quarter that wouldn't give up their tips without a fight. It's not surprising; a French Quarter bartender at a popular bar can earn close to six figures a year. A friend of mine who works at an upscale French Quarter establishment said he'd flatly refuse an hourly wage instead of the $400 to $1,000 he potentially can make every night, even during slow summer months.

In the end, many of the servers I spoke with, said it's not so much the practice of tipping that bothers them as when customers are ignorant about how a restaurant works. Most people are unaware that restaurants require servers to tip-out other employees or the end-of-night process where servers calculate how much they earn. And because tipping is voluntary, there is no consensus among diners about how much someone is supposed to leave and how different dining experiences (eating at a table vs. eating at the bar vs. ordering takeout) affects how much they should tip. It seems not even servers can agree on what they should earn.

One thing is clear: If you're rich and famous, you should consider paying cash at restaurants or having someone else use their credit card to pay for your bill — unless you want to have to explain yourself on twitter after some idiot posts a picture of your tip online under a ridiculous headline.

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