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Tipping Points: Study Says Restaurant Service Linked To Race

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DETROIT (WWJ) - A Wayne State University study suggests that restaurant service is linked to a customer’s race.

Researchers say tipping motivates servers to offer excellent service, but more so for those who are perceived to be good tippers.

Zachary Brewster, assistant professor of sociology at WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, analyzed data derived from a survey of 200 servers in 18 restaurants in a southeastern U.S. metropolitan area. The servers were asked to report their perceptions of the tipping behaviors of 18 different table scenarios involving a number of demographic characteristics including race, sexual orientation and age, with combinations featuring small and adult children.

Brewster found that the demographic differences among the customers predicted whether servers reported giving excellent service at the prospect of receiving excellent tips. Brewster said he was surprised that a customer’s race became such a factor in the study.

“Though not the focus of this study, race became a salient issue, in that the findings suggest that African-Americans, in particular, may be at risk for not only having excellent service withheld from them, but for receiving poor service in some cases,” Brewster said in a statement.

Researchers also found that servers who had performed other restaurant duties, such as hosting or bartending, tended to be more sensitive to demographic differences, which predicted their tendency provide excellent service.

Brewster said another factor that may exacerbate the problem of poor service to African-Americans, is an ongoing amount of racialized talk in the restaurant industry that exaggerates servers’ perceptions of African-Americans’ tipping behaviors.

He pointed out that while the tipping difference between white and black customers has been shown to be significant enough to raise some important issues, the actual amounts are not intrinsically remarkable.

“What we learned is that tipping motivates servers to provide excellent service, but more so for people perceived to be good tippers,” Brewster said. “The latent consequence of that, however, is discrimination against some customers.”

He believes that armed with that knowledge, restaurant operators can address the situation.

“If restaurants promoted tipping norms for specific levels of service quality for their own establishment, over time people would learn those norms and become familiar with different conceptions of service quality across restaurants,” Brewster said. “Servers could come to expect to be rewarded for the service level provided, irrespective of customer demographics.”

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