DeVos: Not a city in China

Jon DeVos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Vail, Colo., is named after Charles Vail who designed the highway that runs through the town. I tried, but failed to find a connection to the 16th century French word “vail” which first described the custom of tipping.

Since the Holiday Inn Express and its ubiquitous waffle-maker were was still centuries in the future, early European royalty traveled from castle to castle like today’s B & B’s. Guests left small gratuities for capable and compliant house servants. This payment came to be called a vail, coming from the same root as our word “value” today. The custom caught on in London coffeehouses and restaurants. Tipping morphed out of an aristocratic amusement of sprinkling pocket change on social inferiors.

After the Civil War, European travel became fashionable for wealthy Americans. Back home they continued tipping as a validation of their sophisticated Continental snobbery. Tipping was unknown and its introduction left young America much in the same quandary we face today. Ben Franklin said, “To overtip is to appear an ass: To undertip is to appear an even greater ass.”

At first, the practice of tipping met fierce opposition. In 1897, the New York Times compared its spread to that of “evil insects and weeds.” Tipping and its air of nobility defied American ideals of democracy. It created a labor class that relied on “fawning for favors.” In 1904, 100,000 members joined the Anti-Tipping Society of America, pledging not to tip anyone for a year. Starting in 1909, six states passed anti-tipping laws.

But the practice of tipping would not go away and laws against it were ignored until 1926 saw the repeal of America’s last anti-tipping law. Tipping was supported by owners of service businesses. Now workers could be compensated through tips only, eliminating that pesky overhead of people.

Curiously enough, at this same time, Europe was going the other direction. England enacted the 1943 Catering Wages Act, establishing the first minimum wage for service workers. In 1955, France officially abandoned tipping by adding a service charge to the bill. Today the only ones tipping in Europe are American tourists.

Today in Colorado, with a minimum tipped wage of $5.21 per hour, a restaurant worker working six, six-hour shifts a week makes $9,750 a year in wages. That’s more than $2,000 below Colorado’s poverty threshold for an individual. This gap, between myth and reality, is filled theoretically by tips. This puts the service worker at an obvious and automatic disadvantage to the customer and the employer, forcing service workers to “fawn for favors.” They must learn how to upsell and coax customers to higher bills. They learn techniques to increase gratuities: introducing themselves forces customers to see them as people; squatting by the table to establish a personal intimacy; patting a customer’s shoulder; a cozy tableside manner, all learned techniques.

It’s a rare restaurant that runs smoothly under this setup. Tips are seldom shared with the cooks and back-of-the-house staff. The struggle for prime shifts and sections can become contentious. As sure as Americans dropped $4.1 billion in tips last year, there were two waiters who argued whose it was.

Some upscale metropolitan restaurants are fighting this trend with the novel idea of including all the labor costs when pricing their menus. They asked themselves questions like: What other business pays sub-minimum wage to its prime representatives? What other business model depends upon voluntary donations from its customers? Why should owners hesitate to pay a living wage to the very folks who can make or break their business?

Eliminating tipping and raising menu prices to accommodate the wages of a professional wait staff would make for a more open transaction, lessening the imbalances between owner, server and patron.

Remember wondering whether that Paris waiter actually sneered at you despite an enormous tip? He did.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.