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Is It Time To Educate Customers About Tips?

Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research recently presented a report that suggests black customers do not tip as well as white customers. This is a contentious issue that has been quietly accepted as fact for years within the industry. Cornell's report backs up the belief.

The report's author says it was not his purpose to throw gasoline on a potentially volatile issue. The point, says Michael Lynn, Ph.D., is to correct a problem that affects both customers and restaurant personnel.

"Now is the time for the industry to step up and address a serious problem," says Lynn. "I'm concerned that blacks are not receiving the service they deserve in restaurants."

According to the report, many black patrons ( regardless of socioeconomic status) aren't aware that a customary tip for good service in restaurants is 15-20 percent. As a result, waiters often resist serving black patrons and, when they do, may deliver inferior service in anticipation of a poor tip. And black customers believe they are getting poor service because of their race. It's something of a Catch-22.

Education is the key, says Lynn. It's a matter of educating the public about tipping norms. He suggests putting tipping guidelines on table tents or menus.

Gerald Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice Hospitality Alliance, applauds the report, saying it tackles a legitimate issue.

"Nobody likes to acknowledge that our industry has a history of poor race-based service," he says. "But most servers today don't care about the color of customers, they care about the color of money. It's an economic issue and it's time for solutions."

The economics are not merely about tips, says Fernandez. Many big chain restaurants are leery of entering minority neighborhoods because of huge turnover rates. Front-of-the-house turnover is a problem because servers leave when they are not adequately tipped. As a result, overall service suffers. Ultimately, these chain units underperform and close, hurting the community.

Fernandez agrees that education is key. "It's important to have an industry awareness campaign that discusses tipping and how the industry is reaching out to people of color," he says. "People aren't stupid. Once they know what the deal is, they'll respond accordingly."

But how do you do that? Are table tents and menu notations the answer? How many customers do you risk insulting with that tactic? And then there are the people who know all about customary tipping levels, but resent the idea that they have to pay your employees because they believe you don't properly compensate them.

I'd love to hear from you. First, do you have problems with black customers not tipping well? And how about the elderly, foreigners and women, all of whom have been criticized as bad tippers?

More importantly, what are you doing to rectify the situation? Do you educate your customers? How? And, if not, what other means do you employ to get around this tipping issue? Email me [email protected]

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