Grandma and the business of automatic tipping

My grandmother Blanche was a waitress in the 1940s and 1950s, and in many ways, she was exactly what you would have expected given those basic facts.

She smoked all the time, took grief none of the time, dyed her hair red and spent the majority of her nonworking hours playing bingo.

I adored her, and I thought of her when my wife and I started getting bills at restaurants and bars during a recent trip to Miami Beach. In more cases than not, the totals included a 20 percent built-in gratuity.

The first time I saw it, I wrote it off as an oddity. By the fourth or fifth time, I realized it was standard practice.

Then I got back to Las Vegas and heard a neighbor say he and his wife had been charged an automatic gratuity recently at a Strip night spot.

Is this a trend? Tough telling, but I know one thing: Blanche would have despised it.

Her philosophy was that you got a tip for good service — a smile here, a sassy comment there, and a coffee refill before a customer had to ask. It would have infuriated her to get the same tip as someone who gave bad service, because she busted her tail for those extra few coins.

She also no sooner would have given up her smokes than patronize a restaurant that charged automatic gratuity. She tipped, but she doled out good ones only when someone went above and beyond. And she was a tough judge.

Blanche is gone, but I strongly sense that modern consumers feel largely the same way. A Google survey of 1,300 people showed 12.3 percent supported automatic tipping, 42 percent opposed it and 31.6 percent were OK with it for large groups. Another 14.1 percent said “it depends,” whatever that means.

I suppose I understand the benefit of built-in tips. In theory, such a system should result in higher, more consistent pay for wait staff, meaning restaurants could attract more highly qualified people. And consumers would benefit.

But couldn’t an automatic tip be license to do no more than the minimum, or not even that? And while customers certainly could tip more for stellar service, how many actually would?

Automatic tipping seems to be a risky proposition.

What happens in Miami often translates to Las Vegas, as evidenced by the fact that I stayed in a hotel between the SLS Miami and the Delano — sister properties to the soon-to-open SLS Las Vegas and the local Delano (formerly The Hotel).

So will automatic tipping trickle into Las Vegas? Maybe.

Will it take hold? Depends on how many Blanches there are out there.

Tags: The Sunday