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Is tipping the dishwasher the secret to a memorable meal?

dishwasher

Damon Howard washes dishes at the Barony Tavern Monday, November 23, 2015. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 

With more than 80 percent of American diners now paying their tabs with credit cards, cash is becoming an increasingly uncommon sight in upscale restaurant dining rooms. Beyond the occasional bill dropped into a coat check attendant’s snifter, or the balled-up singles pressed into a valet’s palm, there’s no real call for greenback dollars when contemplating grouper crudo or roasted beet salad.

Yet I recently went out of my way (by which I mean, to an ATM) to secure a twenty-dollar bill before showing up for dinner at a Hilton Head steakhouse. I intended to try out a service hack that a longtime fine-dining worker had shared with me: The secret to a memorable meal, he confided, is paying off the dishwasher.

According to my anonymous informant, the tactic works for two reasons. One, adulation for whoever’s minding the Hobart is a very insider-y sentiment: It takes a degree of familiarity with commercial kitchens to fully appreciate a dishwasher’s contributions. Celebrity chefs, particularly those eager to establish that they don’t spend all of their time preparing clam dip on camera, are always keen to credit their lowest-paid staffers with keeping their restaurants running.

“These are the people who wear garbage bags on their feet because they are in contact with so much water,” former Hearth wine director Matthew Stinton was quoted as saying in a CNN story titled “Every restaurant’s unsung hero.” “They clear half-eaten food off of plates, and when a toilet clogs up … they are the people asked to unclog it. No guest, in my opinion, will ever know the importance of this person.”

Or as my service guru put it, acknowledging the dishwasher is a way of demonstrating you’re a savvy and caring customer, which is the kind of customer that most professional servers like best.

Two, throwing around money at the beginning of the evening is a pretty good method for stifling any worries about your willingness to tip. While customers who send twenties to the dish room run the risk of swelling servers’ gratuity expectations, that scenario is arguably better than being pegged as a potential cheapskate – especially if you’re hoping for refilled water glasses and a petit four with your check.

Pool rules

Still, what I liked best about the scheme was its bold inversion of tradition. Diners tend to think they can buy a better experience by slipping money to the maitre d’. The notion that power might reside on the opposite end of the dining room hierarchy is what got me to ask my server at Frankie Bones Restaurant & Lounge if she wouldn’t mind delivering my $20 bill to the dishwasher.

Even if the gambit failed, I figured the dishwasher could use the money. There are more than half a million dishwashers in the U.S., and the ones working in restaurants earn the least. The Bureau of Labor Statistics last year reported that the average annual wage for a restaurant dishwasher is $20,740. And on top of that, because many dishwashers belong to vulnerable populations, they’re highly susceptible to wage theft by their employers.

Restaurateurs are acutely aware of the pay discrepancy between the front and back of the house, which is part of the impetus for the movement to abolish tipping: Fast and French last week became the first restaurant in Charleston to weave service fees into its menu prices and institute hourly wages for all of its staffers. But two years after New York City’s Danny Meyer appeared to nudge the industry in that direction by doing away with tips at his restaurants, tipping remains the nationwide norm.

Under federal law, servers can’t pool tips with cooks and dishwashers. That’s why restaurants such as Edmund’s Oast urge customers to buy a six-pack for the kitchen in recognition of its crew’s efforts, despite growing concerns about the consequences of substance abuse in the food-and-beverage field. But customers who’d rather not mess with beer are legally allowed to express their gratitude in cash.

“There’s no law that says ‘you can’t give money to somebody,’” says South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association vice president Douglas O’Flaherty. If a dishwasher collects so many gifts that she crosses the reporting threshold set by the Internal Revenue Service, he adds, there’s a slight chance of “putting the dishwasher in harm’s way.” But if the practice catches on in a meaningful way, O’Flaherty says the only people likely to resent it are restaurant patrons.

All in the timing

“I daresay it’s not a tip: It’s a bribe,” O’Flaherty says. “I think from a consumer standpoint, people would say, ‘Now you expect me to send another $20 back to the dishwasher? Who else do I have to pay? I’m tipping the hostess; I’m tipping the server.’”

Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene more than 30 years ago proposed tipping dishwashers in a profile of a California publicist who launched the Brotherhood for the Respect, Elevation and Advancement of Dishwashers: Back then, $5 was considered a generous dishwasher tip (and “bread” was considered an unironic synonym for money.)

But in a 2012 essay which may have launched the current rumor about what awaits those who do right by dishwashers, Anthony Bourdain suggested diners respond to the ravages of Superstorm Sandy by “maybe send(ing) $20 back to the dishwasher. That’s not charity. It’s just neighborly.”

After a natural disaster, everyone’s in a neighborly mood. When the weather’s fine, though, diners are more likely to wonder what they’ll get out of sending $20 to someone they’ll never see. That curiosity is especially understandable in light of multiple studies showing the relationship between tipping and service is tenuous at best.

Cornell University’s Michael Lynn, the nation’s top tipping scholar, has discovered that tip percentages rise when a piece of candy is delivered with the bill, and when servers scrawl “thank you” on the tab. But when in 2001 he reviewed existing literature on the topic, he found service ratings explained less than 2 percent of the variance in gratuities.

Yet there is some scientific evidence that when customers lay down their tips at the beginning of a meal, their servers try harder. “When customers pay tips at the initiation of service, the signal is that the customers' expectation of better service is strong,” An-Tien Hsieh and Der-Huang Wu wrote in a 2007 paper about tip timing and server effort.

Hsieh and Wu based their conclusions on 236 interactions. For budgetary reasons, I tried sending money to the dishwasher just three times.

Trying the twenty

My confidant had told me that when his friend tried the dishwasher-tipping trick at Rue de Jean, the dishwasher “chased him down the street to thank him.” Fortunately, that never happened to me: Handing over unexpected money is awkward enough on its own, which may be a point in the ritual’s favor. If restaurateurs plan to uphold tipping until the general public sides with a fairer compensation system, it’s probably a good idea for diners to confront the inherent weirdness of doling out arbitrary sums.

The exchange certainly seemed odd to my server at a French-style bistro outside Detroit; he flinched when I presented the $20 bill after ordering a drink. “Would you give this to the dishwasher?” I asked. For a moment, he appeared to think I was repaying a debt to a cousin. Then he realized the money was meant as a tip, and his demeanor changed dramatically.

But it wasn’t in the way I expected. Perhaps he’s a longtime rival of the dishwasher, but the server went from warm and jokey to aloof and efficient. (The only consistent result of my experimental trials was lightning-fast salad delivery. “That was 20 seconds from the time I ordered it,” one of my companions said when his Caesar arrived.) Apparently I’d made the mistake of focusing on the transactional nature of dining, instead of asking which wine went best with the ratatouille.

At a steakhouse across town, my request had exactly the opposite effect. We were seated late in the evening, and our server sounded tired when he asked if we wanted an appetizer. Then I handed over a twenty, and he snapped into full formal mode. “What may I bring for the lady?” he asked when he returned for our entrée order, head bowed.

He’d already shared news of the tip with the general manager, who looked up from a conversation with the University of Michigan basketball coach to flash us a thumbs-up. Later, the manager visited our table, saying “Thank you. He got it. Thank you.” In a restaurant with 200 seats, located more than 800 miles from home, I felt like I’d instantly achieved a regular big spender’s status.

Her name is Magdalena

And then there was Frankie Bones in Hilton Head, where tipping the dishwasher didn’t do anything more than shorten the wait time for a wedge salad. “Raul is the dishwasher,” my server said when I came up with the money. Later, she returned with an update: “She said thank you, and that her name is Magdalena.”

The server was obviously worried that the money that went to Magdalena might count against her tip. When she dropped the check, she’d written “thank you” on it, just as researchers would advise.

For diners, though, there is still no proven way to pry better service out of the people assigned to take care of them. Nor is it even always clear what constitutes good service: My tablemates were split over whether a busser’s frequent visits to our table at the Michigan bistro were supposed to hurry us along, or if the dishwasher was anxious to do the work he was being tipped for.

Until the behavioral psychologists figure it out, designating money for the dishwasher probably isn’t the worst strategy. Enjoy your salads.

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Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.