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Eating out, value and tipping in a post-lockdown world

Eating out, value and tipping in a post-lockdown world

In the early pandemic restaurants pivoted to curbside take-out and delivery and at least here, they also had the option to sell alcohol which was a first for this province. In appreciation for the risk and to support local businesses people became more patient and tipped as they would have had they eaten-in. When restaurants re-opened they came out in droves, happy to get back to some semblance of a normal life. Patios everywhere were packed.

But all wasn’t well. Customers seemed to demand more from overworked staff who were working harder and longer due to staffing shortages while being burdened with ever-changing pandemic rules. So while the mentality was “back to normal” the reality was anything but. Then on top of this, the war in Ukraine started, inflation exploded as supply chains were strained & central banks responded by raising interest rates and suddenly everything got more expensive. Many restaurants plan to raise their prices by 10% to 15% this year.

We weren’t really comfortable eating out except for a handful of times but for Mr. Tucker’s birthday this year we wanted to try for a nice dinner with my stepson and his girlfriend. So we chose a high-end dining “steak and seafood” restaurant in The Market that had good reviews. Now, I spent 10 years working in restaurants, my stepson is a chef and his girlfriend is a server. Knowing the state of the restaurant business in 2022 we brought with us an incredible amount of patience. Still, we were only one of two tables the server had that evening and “disinterested” is the nicest way I could describe her. She took ½ hour to take our drink order, forgot a bunch of things we ordered, only took half of our dessert orders before walking away and came to our table so seldomly that we had to flag down other servers. The food itself was ok but the tasting menu was incredibly lazy: just smaller portions of things that were on the main menu. All the other staff were lovely, which is why I tipped well knowing that they were getting a cut. Still, I regret not tipping less because the service was so abysmal and I shouldn’t have sent the message that that was an ok way to treat customers. On top of this, the entire restaurant was infested with flies. Not just one or two buzzing around – which is expected for the summer – but throngs of them. It was impossible to keep them off your food.

In the end, the meal for 4 people was almost as much as my monthly grocery bill. Now, we love a good meal and I absolutely don’t mind paying for a fine dining experience. We won’t spend money on fast food but we will absolutely pay hundreds of dollars for an excellent meal with the service to match. As is usual for people who have worked in restaurants, we always overtip as well. But we were all just appalled at how absolutely lazy the entire experience was. Clearly, we will never go back there.

After that experience Mr. Tucker and I sat down and discussed how disappointed we were with the meal. We had eaten out at a few other places this year as well and while they were ok experiences we both agreed that they weren’t really worth the money we spent on them. I absolutely feel for businesses that are struggling with soaring costs and post-pandemic staff shortages but this was just such a terrible night out that we made the decision to stop eating out completely. We just don’t want to spend money to have a mediocre time, let alone a terrible time.

Then, the other evening, friends came over to hang out and catch up. We bought a family Shawarma platter for dinner from our amazing local Shawarma shop and it was $50 for enough to feed 6+ people (fatoush salad, potatoes, rice, hummus, toum/garlic sauce, pickled veg, pitas and you can do chicken, beef or a mixture of both – what a deal!). Of course, being a small local business we always tip around 40% because we feel their food is ridiculously underpriced and the service is always fantastic! Sure, tipping isn’t expected here as it’s a take-out counter, but they are so fantastically kind and the food is all made in-house so we like to show our appreciation.

Across the country, the tipping culture debate is heating up, resulting in articles about tip-flation. During the pandemic people were happy to pay a little extra for people who continued to work and serve people under dangerous conditions but now many people feel stuck like they should continue to overtip even though we are assured everything is “back to normal,” now. Combined with the higher costs of eating out, many people are feeling the sticker shock of post-pandemic dining when the basic tipping options on POS terminals are 15% to 30%. On top of that, provinces like Ontario are ending the disparity between the minimum wages of servers/bartenders and other workers leaving some people to eliminate tipping service staff altogether.

The friends who were over for dinner the other night mentioned that when buying dessert they weren’t even given the option to NOT add a tip to their bill at the bakery. The lowest option was 10% and they were made to feel guilty for asking to have an option to pay without a tip. It begs the question: we all agree that servers should get tipped but outside of that, the rules get murky: should we tip someone 20% for opening a beer and passing us a glass when we have to go get it at the bar? For someone who disinterestedly passes us an already boxed-up cake?

This debate didn’t start with the pandemic and it will rage on for a long time, I think. Some people feel that tipping is a requirement in many cases and some people feel that it’s gotten out of control. Why do we tip hairdressers and not housecleaners? Baristas but not the people who bag our groceries? Others argue that a living wage would solve all of the problems but I’m not so sure. I can see why Europeans are rightly confused when they come here: there aren’t even rules to tipping culture! Of course historically when people complained about tipping the usual answer was to say, “well just don’t eat out then.” But unfortunately, the expectations for tipping have seeped through every industry it seems. In my case at the restaurant, I just couldn’t tip less than 20% because I felt badly for all of the staff who were doing a good job and were getting tipped out from our server. It wasn’t even tied to her horrible service, it was the guilt I felt for an overburdened and struggling industry.

In our post-lockdown world we are all grappling with questions about how things used to be, what things should change and how they should change. It will probably be awhile before we get things sorted. I was saying to Mr. Tucker that our entire trip to Toronto in the spring with friends cost less than the meal we had on his birthday. So, for us choosing not to eat out means we can redirect the money we typically allocate instead to small weekend trips over the next year. Trips we will make as a family and get real value out of. When you put it into that perspective, it only makes sense to treat the entire family to a couple of days away rather than blow it all on one meal (we typically get a hotel room with a kitchenette which makes feeding ourselves more cost effective). I do see a future in which we do eat out again – probably around the same time that we do more distance travel – but for now, we’ll stay out of the restaurants and pay down our mortgage instead.