One less sir

Sir Greek Restaurant

The Danforth’s first couple of cuisine, Sir Greek & Sir Sub, separated a couple of weeks ago. The pre-nup stipulated that Sir Greek would keep the restaurant and patio and he wasted no time in dropping Sir Sub’s name from his documents. We’ll miss you, Sir Sub, but the odds weren’t in your favour: half of all cross-concept restaurants end in divorce. Here’s another picture of the happy (at the time) couple in April 2009, when they were renovating their new abode before moving in:

Sir Greek and Sir Sub

Ah, memories.

Tip creep

It’s still early days but I’m going to go ahead and award restaurateur Tom Earl, co-owner of a restaurant that I will never patronize, the prize for boneheaded quote of the year for 2012. He was quoted in yesterday’s Star defending his restaurant’s standard tip rate of 20%, up from the usual 15%:

“We feel we are providing great service. Waiters don’t get paid too much.”

So Earl, owner of a business, feels that his underpaid employees deserve a raise. Good for him. Oh, wait, he expects me to pay them? What’s wrong with that picture? Shouldn’t the business owner be the one rewarding his valued employees?

I’ve been questioning the whole tipping convention over the last several years, especially as it grows outward to new businesses and services. I consider myself a pretty good tipper at sit-down restaurants. But tip jars have become ubiquitous on quick-service food counters, in doughnut shops, and at take-out windows. I always tip the pizza delivery guy, but why am I being prompted for a tip when picking up a slice to go? Should I be reading something into the fact that my change from a ten was two toonies and a loonie instead of a five? Am I really supposed to flip a little something to the guy at the coffee shop for handing me an empty cup that I have to fill myself? I get more service (and exact change) from that vending machine that slides a cold bottle of Coke down the chute and into my waiting hands. Why do I have to look at the stupid sign on the counter at the local gelato place informing me that “Tipping is sexy”? That may work on horny and naive teenaged boys, but I’m 42, jaded, and really don’t care what you think is sexy. What I do think whenever I see that sign is that you’re in the wrong business if you believe that my giving you money is sexy.

I tip my haircutter, even though she owns the business and is free to set a higher price if she feels she isn’t making a living wage. In fact, I think her price is way too low, so I top her up by almost 50%. But really, who am I to make that decision for her? Movers and taxi drivers, okay; but is that courier at my door rubbing his thumb and index finger together because he’s cold? Then get moving back to your truck!

The thing I dislike about tipping is that in the quarter of a century that I’ve been giving tips out of my own pocket, the very act of tipping has changed: where it used to be a reward, it’s now an expectation. It’s not a bonus, it’s part of an employee’s wages. It used to be that I thought I was rewarding someone for attention to service when I gave him or her a good tip. Now, I feel that I’m rewarding restaurant owners for failing to pay employees a living wage.

So if, as restaurateurs like Earl and countless workers contend, tips are an essential component of employees’ wages, why don’t we abandon the concept of the suggested/mandatory gratuity, get rid of the minimum wage exception for food service workers, and incorporate their higher wages into the base cost of a meal? Earl obviously knows how much his employees rely on tips and is even telling me how much he thinks I should top up their wages. So why doesn’t he just do it for me?  I see two objections to getting rid of tips in favour of better base wages:

  1. Tipping encourages better service. I call bullshit. I may have been swayed by this argument when tipping was a reward, but in an era when tips are little more than semi-organized extortion, it no longer holds true. Besides, it’s not up to me to police your employees’ performance. As a good businessperson, you should be doing that yourself and rewarding them accordingly. In virtually no other business are employees’ wages and performance evaluations left to the whims of customers. In fact, in most other businesses, accepting money on the side from customers would range from unethical to illegal. What’s so special about restaurants that normal rules of business don’t apply?
  2. Restaurants can’t afford to pay higher wages. Again, I call bullshit. Restaurants choose not to include the full cost of employees’ wages in the advertised product cost, instead encouraging/forcing customers to make up the difference. But the cost to me is the same: at the end of the day, a $50 meal and $10 tip is indistiguishable from a $60 meal and no tip.

What’s needed here isn’t yet another bump in the “standard tip rate,” but a common-sense look at the outdated custom itself. In the meantime, I’ll continue tipping where it’s warranted and ignoring the proliferation of tip jars and “Tip Y/N?” prompts on debit terminals.

More from Loblaws

Shortly after posting Tuesday’s mini-rant about Loblaws PC Organics yogourt, I received a second reply from Loblaws customer service:

Dear Mr. Dodge,

Thank you for taking the time to pass on your comments regarding our PC Organics Strawberry Fruit Bottom Yogurt.  We apologize for the delay in our response as we’re experiencing higher than normal volume of emails.

I was disappointed to hear that this product did not meet your expectations. Our product development team re-evaluates products on an ongoing basis and customer feedback such as yours is very valuable to them during that process. Accordingly, I have communicated your comments to them for consideration during their next review of this product.

Mr. Dodge, we appreciate hearing from you.  Please continue to let us know how we’re doing, as your feedback is one of the best ways for us to improve.

There’s still not much to go on here, but at least now I know that my complaint didn’t fall into a generic “website feedback” black hole never to be seen again. I know I left my complaint during the holidays, but two weeks for a response is pretty sad. It’s the Internet equivalent of keeping me on hold for two hours while telling me over and over again how important my call is.

I’m also struck by the timing of the reply: after waiting for two weeks for a proper acknowledgement of my feedback, this more appropriate response arrived barely two hours after I posted yesterday’s article. While that could be coincidence, it seems just a touch too convenient.

More fake milk and bad customer service

Milk ingredients invade my favourite yogourt

Just before Christmas and not even a week after writing about fake milk products, I bought a tub of my regular yogourt, President’s Choice Organic strawberry fruit-bottom yogourt, to be met with a nasty surprise when I opened it up at home a few days later: a new recipe and a substantial downgrade in quality. The taste and texture were all wrong and it left a chemical aftertaste that lingered until I brushed my teeth to get rid of it. I didn’t have to look far to see the culprit: “organic milk ingredients” at the top of the new ingredient list versus the “ultrafiltered partly skimmed organic milk” that headed up the old formula. Foiled again!

Thoroughly disgusted with both the new product and the fact that I hadn’t thought to verify the ingredients on the new container before I bought it, I submitted this feedback on the President’s Choice website on December 28:

I’ve been enjoying PC Organics Strawberry Fruit Bottom Yogourt for a number of years but have been disappointed with the new formulation that has recently replaced the older flavour. To be charitable, it tastes awful. It also leaves an equally unpleasant aftertaste, has a lumpy texture reminiscent of cottage cheese, and features a fruit bottom that neither looks nor tastes real. In short, it’s a considerable step down from the PC Organics yogourt that I was buying just three months ago.

I was not surprised when I checked the ingredient list on the new tub and saw that the first ingredient is now “organic milk ingredients” rather than the “ultrafiltered partly skimmed organic milk” that headed up the much better previous version of this product. If you think that consumers don’t notice the difference, you’re sadly mistaken. You are also sadly mistaken if you believe that the change in serving size will mask the increase in carbs and decrease in fibre in the new formula.

I’m disappointed that President’s Choice is sourcing cheaper ingredients and not directly informing consumers that the formula has changed in this way. I will not be buying PC yogourt again, and will be examining more closely the labels of any other PC products that I buy in the future.

I checked the “response required” box and sent it off. I got this response early in the new year, posted in its entirety (minus the French translation):

Thank you for visiting our website.

Our Customer Service hours are Monday to Friday 8:30 am to 5:30pm EST.

Please note that Customer Service will be closed on Monday December 26th.

This email message is confidential, may be legally privileged and is intended for the exclusive use of the addressee. If you received this message in error or are not the intended recipient, you should destroy the email message and any attachments or copies, and you are prohibited from retaining, distributing, disclosing or using any information contained. Please inform us of the delivery error by return email. Thank you for your cooperation.

So a customer who spent more than half of his total food expenses in 2011 at Loblaws expresses his dissatisfaction and all he gets in return is “thank you for visiting our website” and “we will be closed for one day, a week and a half ago”? Well, I still have another tub of this crap sitting in the fridge; maybe I’ll return it to the store this week.  I’m certainly not going to eat it.

[January 11 update: I got a second response from Loblaws shortly after posting this article.]

Why Loblaws is losing money


— The acting store manager in the Loblaws at Broadview and Danforth on Sunday, when I asked if he could do anything about the lineup that snaked from the one open non-express checkout all the way across the front of the store and up the dairy aisle.

“I keep forgetting not to come here anymore.”

— A frustrated woman making her way to the end of the line.

You and me both, sister. The newly-renovated Sobeys up the street beckons.