Gratuity Included

“Praise be to *insert your favorite deity here* for low and behold the Linkery is closing!”
– Howeler G., Yelper

“NOT a fan of the Linkery.”
– Geno P.

“Yay! They are closing! Yay!”
– Brian S.

The Linkery closed earlier this year after eight years of serving the hip San Diego neighborhood of North Park. While the Linkery’s menu focused on farm-to-table dining, stuffing sausages in-house, and craft beer, the restaurant gains much of its notoriety from its tipping policy: absolutely no tipping allowed. In place of tipping, a mandatory 18% service charge is applied to each and every bill.

Before you condemn this unconventional business practice, hear me out. More importantly, hear Jay Porter out.

Porter, the Linkery’s owner, passionately defended this tipping policy in the face of wide criticism. He points out that tipping well does not necessarily affect better service, nor does good service automatically lead to higher tips. Cornell professor and tipping scholar Michael Lynn found that quality of service is only weakly related to tip percentages. Tipping also encourages servers to profile their guests along racial, ethnic, or cultural lines. If the server perceives a guest as someone who is likely to be a very poor tipper, they’re not likely to deliver very good service. Furthermore, tipping may lead to discrimination against the server. Lynn has also conducted studies that show whites earn higher tips than blacks, slender women earn high tips than heavier women, etc.

I’ve worked in the industry off and on for about ten years now, since I was a teenager. Having bussed, hosted, served, and managed, I see these theories put to practice every day and they’re true; the practice of tipping often leads to some kind of discrimination.

Porter is right to desire for his restaurant a compensation system that protects both servers and guests from unfair treatment. Shortly after the restaurant closed this past summer, Porter published an essay in the online magazine Slate defending his service charge. Just a few weeks later, a former Linkery employee published a scathing response in the San Diego Reader.

“Let’s set the record straight. The Linkery had poor service, whether in spite or because of its tipping policy.”
– Ian Pike

Looking for validation of Pike’s comments, I scanned the Linkery’s Yelp page for some additional opinions.

“automatic 18% gratuity for two people – you have to be kidding me.”
– Texas A.

“The Ugly: 18% gratuity is forced onto every bill. And you can’t change it, for better or worse! You have no options!”
– Brian E.

“Service was obscenely slow…not that it matters to the wait staff, because THEY INCLUDE THE GRATUITY IN THE CHECK”
– John W.

This collection of harsh comments seems pretty normal to me. Even the highest-rated restaurants on Yelp have a critic or two, and those who decry restaurants online are often outnumbered by the silent majority that keep their pleasant experiences to themselves (note that in the Linkery’s case, many other reviews told of positive experiences and great service). Negative Yelp reviews don’t scare me. What scares me are the customers who take their grievances to the internet before complaining the people with the power to actually improve their experience.

A few months before the Linkery closed, the San Diego Eater interviewed manager Odette Cressler. Asked specifically to explain the 18% service charge, Cressler insists that “[i]f the guest didn’t like the food or isn’t happy with the service, we will remove the charge. What’s important for us is good communication with the guest.” She explains the philosophy behind the service charge: that “every team member is concerned about every guest.” And it’s important to hire people who agree with that approach, because “we’re not for everyone and not everyone is for us, as in every restaurant.”

I never ate at the Linkery. I can’t attest to the quality of the service or the dedication of the management. However, given Ms. Cressler’s testimony and Mr. Porter’s defense of his practice, I believe that the Linkery wanted to give good service. I don’t believe they wanted to cheat their guests or cut corners. There has been a misunderstanding. To find the root of this problem, think about how you would address poor customer service in any other industry.

If you received poor service in a grocery store, in an electronics store, or over the phone with your bank’s customer service department, you wouldn’t ask that the individual’s pay be docked. You might complain to their manager and ask for a discount, or you might simply choose not to return to the establishment. If you were given a discount, a gift certificate, or a simply apology for your negative experience it’s because the establishment is accepting responsibility for their employee’s actions. They recognize that this person was acting on behalf of the organization that employs them; if the employee failed to provide a satisfactory experience, the employer must take responsibility for that. The employer might solve the problem by improving employee training, taking disciplinary action against the employee, or terminating that person’s employment. But it is never in the hands of the customer to enact any sort of discipline.

America isn’t used to this practice in the restaurant setting. We like that we can have an opinion without dealing with the confrontation of voicing it. We’re comfortable accepting that an individual gave us poor service and we lower or forego the tip when we see fit. At the end of the meal, both the server and customer are left in the same boat: feeling shortchanged and cheated, but without any constructive solutions to solving the problem. That’s why I always thank the customers who bring their complaints to my attention. It gives our team something to work on, some specific feedback instead of the simple knowledge that they left feeling dissatisfied. We’re happy to discount their check or buy them dessert to thank them for speaking up, and truth be told they usually end up tipping pretty well. Sometimes people just want to be heard.

Let your servers hear you. When you feel like you’ve paid for something you shouldn’t have, speak up. Jay Porter wanted to give you an experience worthy of that service charge. If you didn’t receive that 18% kind of service, you should have said something.

My Ode to You.

I’ve met many characters in my 23 years.

I’ve learned the trials of deception— friends who turn a blind eye when my battles grow uphill. I suffer moments of clarity in my murkiest states when I must abandon a friendship, for it wasn’t one to begin with.

But you?

You’ve always been by my side. My parents relish the story about the first time we met. They told me how nervous they were as they choreographed the walk to your place—speaking in shrill tones about a new friend I would meet all by myself. You were alabaster and impressible; I was two and a half. We meshed immediately, and I knew then that you and I would be BFFs.

I’ve sauntered into your room an average of 57,500 times since that fateful day, and you still look just the same. You’re plump but not in excess. You’re softhearted, but firm when I need it. You’re a constant in my life, and for that I thank you.

Nowadays, I can still hurry home and know you’ll be waiting to unwind with me. Every morning, you’re waiting for me to plop down and face the day.

Coffee really brings us together. I can always find you at my favorite coffee shop. After sipping my daily dose of saccharine-saturated caffeine, we get to start our morning together. It’s a tranquil part of my day, before the manic haze of meetings, events, and to-do items.

There are times when the stress is too much for me to handle. It’ll be Saturday night; I’m drinking draft beer with potential frenemies. I’m persuaded to “get on their level” but I don’t consider the consequences of my actions. Soon, I start to feel the pressure growing inside. I start to squirm and my body overrides my mind. I race, dodge, shove past strangers to find you. Sometimes I have to wait—you’re a popular one—but the waiting only makes it more worth tracking you down as you coddle me, reminding me I made it through the night without a breakdown.

Now I must confess, that you aren’t always there for me. Sometimes the moment will hit me outside. I’ll be in a dark forest, away from view. I search for you, but you’re nowhere to be found. I wouldn’t dare call out for you—you’re not one for attention—but in those moments, I kind of wish you were a better friend.

I guess I can overlook it, considering you’ve seen a whole other side of me. You’ve seen me at my worst, like that time I got food poisoning or ate too much cheese.  It’s hard for friendships to come back from such unpleasant moments, but you’re so flexible and comfortable with everything I dump on you.

You, Charmin Ultra Soft, are my softest rock.

Finding Optimism In The Washington Blue Line Station

People like to talk about “the little things” that make life better. There are droves of personal blogs dedicated to the idea that we all need to take some time and smell those roses before the winters of our lives freeze our joy receptors.

Enthusiasts of “the little things” almost always work nine-to-five jobs. These are the people who send excited emails about the organic tomatoes they bought at the Farmers Market and post pictures of their artful lattes on Facebook. They are truly inspired by taking a walk on a nice day, or new shampoo, or a smile from a stranger. These are people who face tolerable monotony on a regular basis. Their lives have periods of excitement; never too much that they’re overwhelmed, and never too little that they’re depressingly bored. These people are most of us, and they—we—are absolutely charmed by the little things.

I am a cynical person. The other day, my best friend tactfully described me as a “realist,” but sometimes I can really be a jaded bitch. I am cynical even about my own cynicism—I think often about how passé it is to be so stupidly world-weary at my age. It’s not as though I’m unable to connect with appreciating “the little things,” but I do internally roll my eyes entirely too deeply when people get excited about hearing Christmas music in November.

I recently started my first job. I work 8 to 5 for a construction journal in downtown Chicago. My coworkers are nice and the job has interesting moments. It also pays, which is not a “little thing,” but a very, very big thing that will help me be able to finance creative ventures that I’m passionate about.

Still, I have entered the humdrum. The commute is a jangly, mind-numbing people zoo. Coming from a collegiate schedule, the hours seem overly long and concentrated. When 2PM rolls around, I feel unreasonably tired and despondent. When 5PM walks in, I’m out the door and thinking about laying on my bed and checking Tumblr.

It was maybe my second or third day that I discovered my little thing. I commute on the Blue Line, and my office is next to the Washington Blue Line stop. The station is similar to most underground stops—poorly lit, with a faint smell of urine. During rush hour, seemingly mild-mannered business-people become foul-mouthed, evil-eyed monsters and pile all at once onto already crowded cars, forgetting that we live in a civilization that relies on patience and order. It’s not a vacation destination.

What makes the station different from others on the blue line is that it’s one of four official busking stations in Chicago. As a result, there is a different busker performing next to the tracks almost every day. One week it’s a woman playing an acoustic guitar and a fiddle simultaneously while tap dancing. Another week it’s a pair of guys who look like they missed the Mumford and Sons audition but are convinced that if they scratch against their homemade güiro heartily enough, they too can make it. A small, elderly woman playing a strange, long necked instrument with a bow along to a recording of a tango song. A man singing Spanish love songs with a nice mix of ebullience and wistfulness.

It’s a center of true talent. Last week, a woman told me that the man singing that particular evening was actually part of a larger band, and that they had put out a record not too long ago. I watched him. He was an older man, hair graying, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans and he paused the song to thank people (in tune) who dropped dollars and change into a bucket in front of him.

I stood and listened as he started with Stand By Me, warming to his scratchy, sweet rendition. Then he began Moon River, and I surprised the shit out of myself by getting rather emotional. The song sounded simultaneously sad and exultant and you know, maybe work sucks, but this guy and his warmblanketlullabybearhug version of this song could make it all worth it and that—that—is when I realized that I had been sucked into the goddamned little things in life.

I don’t mind. If I am to have a little thing, I want it to be observing people doing what they’re good at. What they love. It’s inspiring to see, a bright spot between the drilling tedium of the workday and the prison-complex that is the evening rush hour commute.

So, thank you, buskers of Chicago. While I’m slightly miffed that my acrimonious edge has been sanded down a bit, perhaps I do need a “little thing.” I’m glad it could be you.