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A Modest Response to A Modest Proposal to Stop Tipping Bartenders

Bartending is, by far, the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. Think about it: get paid to discuss music, talk to interesting people, casually watch guests having a great time, and have a dialogue about current events. Notice I have not even mentioned making cocktails yet.

I am a bartender. Just to get it out of the way, : yes,  I graduated from college, and earned a BFA and graduated magna cum laude with honors. I mention this solely to make the point that bartending is not just a job I turned to as a “fallback” or last resort. It is my career, a career I have chosen; not a lifestyle, or something I do on the side to supplement my income. It is what I love and I count myself lucky to be doing what I love every single day.

It makes sense that when I saw “A Modest Proposal to Stop Tipping Bartenders” by Stephen Robert Morse, I was intrigued. Excited even! Was this a Swiftian “Modest Proposal” type satire? Perhaps a treatise on the differences between American tipping society and a European non-tipping system? Either one would have brought a smile to my face and I would have loved to read them.

As I began to read my smile faltered; I felt cheated. What I thought was going to be a thought provoking article turned out to be a litany of vague (and sometimes outright) insults to the profession that I am (thankfully) a part of. Misconceptions abounded and I felt the need to address Morse’s strangely vicious article.

The most obvious glaring oversight is comparing an American-based bar system with the European one. The difference is obvious and centers around hourly wages. Yes, you are not expected to tip a bartender in England. That is because they are paid at least minimum wage, and do not require gratuity. . In the U.S., the custom of the tip goes back as far as the 1700s. Originally it is said that TIP stood for “To Insure Promptitude,” and said tip was placed on the table before a meal. It was only later that it became practice to tip after the meal.

Once tipping began, many restaurant owners were able to make a case to pay employees less hourly since they were being compensated in tips. It caught on and VOILA! A tipping society emerges. No matter how you feel about the practice, it became nationally accepted and it has remained that way. I wonder if Morse understands the implications of trying to move toward a non-tipping society.

I hope you enjoy paying $30 for a hamburger at your favorite restaurant. To place a blanket pay increase just to minimum wage for all tipped employees in the U.S. would either crash the service industry, or force prices on even a simple mom and pop restaurant or local bar to skyrocket.

Let’s not forget tipping is not required. A true hospitality professional is less focused on a big payoff than ensuring that a guest has a top notch experience. Yes, there are certainly those sad bartenders/servers who see a smaller than average tip and gripe about how unfair it is. Workers who are so wrapped up in tip percentages that they forget that we are here for the guest’s needs, not the other way around.  I agree, Morse, this is wrong. Service is service and should not depend on the size of the guest’s wallet. In fact, I much prefer to use the term gratuity because it more clearly defines the bartender/guest interplay.

I am sad that you believe that bartenders are tipped simply for “delicately removing the top off of a glass bottle or pulling a pint.” I, and many in the industry, believe that the actual making of the drink is the least of what we do. Being able to make a beautiful Pisco Sour or preparing just the drink a guest was looking for is a wonderful talent and one that must be constantly expanded upon. But to quote Gary Regan, “The bartender must have as many faces as a time square clock.”

Even as far back as pre-prohibition, bartendershave always had a wonderful place in our culture. Bartenders are an ear to bend, a shoulder to cry on, a pal for you to bounce ideas off of. They may be your best friend or your nagging conscience. They may even be just a person to place a drink in front of you and leave you the hell alone if that is what you are looking for. A good bartender can read a guest and know how best to serve them.

Morse must remember that bartenders are often a part of people’s lives at their highest and lowest points. Many people visit a bar to toast a marriage, to grieve after a funeral, to celebrate a birth or graduation, to say goodbye. They come to us, Morse. I, for one, am honored to be a part of it. I don’t see a guest sit at my bar and wonder what they are going to tip. I wonder how I can make their day even just a little better,  and often times we do. No tip is as rewarding as a guest coming in frowning then leaving an hour later with even a slightly lighter heart and a smile on their face. Does this often lead to a 15 to20% tip? Sure! Sometimes even more, but I refuse to feel guilty about it. Again, it is a showing of gratitude to a worker who took the time to truly treat you as an individual, and not just a means to an end.

Do all bartenders feel this way? Sadly, no. I apologize if you have had such awful experiences at absolutely every bar you have ever patronized to feel so vicious. I feel sorry for you, Mr. Morse, never once…in your entire life...to have had a bartender who treated you as a human and not an ATM. I’m so sorry that never… even… once a bartender  has done anything to deserve a small gratuity from you. Maybe you just pick the wrong bars.

I do hope that someday you will forgive us charlatans trying to work you for your life savings and someday will be able to enjoy that ice cold beer without any feelings of malice. I would certainly love to have you at my bar anytime if you are in Kansas City. I mean it.,you don’t even have to tip; I don’t mind.

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