Restaurant service linked to customer demographics, race, research finds

March 26, 2013, Wayne State University

Restaurant servers are more likely to give better service to patron types they believe are more inclined to tip well, a Wayne State University researcher has found, a principle that has significant consequences when African-Americans are at the table.

In an effort to determine whether servers based their service levels on perceived tipping differences across customer demographics, Zachary Brewster, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, analyzed data derived from a survey of 200 servers in 18 restaurants in a southeastern U.S. .

In "The Effects of Restaurant Servers' Perceptions of Customers' Tipping Behaviors on Service Discrimination," published recently in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, servers reported their perceptions of the tipping behaviors of 18 different table scenarios involving a number of including race, and age, with combinations featuring small and .

Brewster found that sensitivity to demographic differences predicted whether servers reported giving excellent service at the prospect of receiving excellent tips. While other research has shown race to be a factor in service levels, his study initially was not about in restaurant service.

Brewster was surprised, however, that a customer's race became such a salient variable 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.

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 propensities to differentially allocate excellent service.

Brewster said another factor that may exacerbate the problem of poor service to African-Americans, although not one addressed in the study, is an ongoing amount of racialized talk in the restaurant industry that functions to exaggerate 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.

"We're talking cents, not dollars, controlling for other factors," he said.

But despite the study's limitations, Brewster believes it opens possibilities for future research in other parts of the country, using larger, more ethnically diverse survey samples (61 percent of respondents were female and 86 percent were white). Future research also could target other customer attributes for their effects on servers' decisions to exceed formal service expectations, as well as additional service industries.

"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 level provided, irrespective of customer demographics."

Explore further: Study shows that, in restaurants, race matters

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2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2013
Restaurant servers are more likely to give better service to patron types they believe are more inclined to tip well, a Wayne State University researcher has found, a principle that has significant consequences when African-Americans are at the table.
I am shattered!!! Can this really be true today???

Aww.... what the heck. I wrote a long and well edited post here, but seeing as this is an American website, I realized it won't make any difference.

Let me just say, if a big family enters wearing Arab sheikh clothing and gold all over their fingers and necks, I bet they would get the best service of the entire month. Owner and all staff would hover around them, all evening, at the expense of the other customers.

Does this constitute racism? Should White Folk get offended? Should the place get nuked for being "Arab lovers"? Or should the Mossad kill them for being anti-Semitists?

5 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2013
Umm... No shit? As a server, I can tell you that you get very good at telling bad tippers and good tippers apart. The study author also notes that "controlling for other factors, blacks don't tip significantly less than whites". What factors are they controlling for? Income? Exposure to tipping norms? Because if you're trying to figure out whether a server is right in assuming they're likely not to be properly compensated for service provided when they see a table of black people in their section, you can't "control" for such factors. Indeed you shouldn't "control for" any factors. The idea that you can or should reflects the PC bias of the author.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 26, 2013
I worked in in some pretty diverse areas where we had servers and guests of all nationalities. Servers disciminated against their own races. It's based upon earning the best income that they could. Underlying race issues were not a factor. It was solely based upon how they could earn the most money for that shift. Well, for the most part, anyway.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 26, 2013
If your quality of service depends upon how much you are going to tip then the business owner is paying it's staff too little.

Quality of service isn't a matter of pride in one's work, self respect and respect for the patron then the worker should be replaced.

If an employer promotes such disrespectful behavior among his/her employees then they are undeserving of any business at all.


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