A family is eating dinner together at a restaurant with full mouths and plates while a server asks if they would like the check.
Design by Arunika Shee.

I spent the first five years of my life in Damascus, Syria. I can still remember the late nights in restaurants, which often held a game room for children and hookahs for anyone who was interested. If you are going to go out to eat in Syria, expect to stay out for at least four to five hours. You are going to get appetizers, fun drinks like a good mint lemonade, dessert, fruit between courses and end the night with multiple cups of tea and coffee. Often, my cousins (or anyone who was around my age in the room) and I would ask the waiters for a deck of cards, or we would bring our own — we’d make our side of the table an ultimate card tournament. 

Even though my family moved to the United States when I was young, I still remember those nights and felt the ultimate culture shock when we would go to restaurants here. Everything felt rushed, and it was as if everyone was expected to get up and leave as soon as their food was done. The “Are you ready for the bill?” and “Is there anything else I can get you” all felt passive aggressive and like a signal for us to leave. It’s something I got used to, but whenever my family traveled outside of the United States to Europe or back to the Middle East, I found that initial comfort in restaurants again. 

It’s no secret that servers in the food industry are largely underpaid in the United States. In Michigan, the tipped minimum wage is $3.85. In comparison, the minimum hourly wage in Michigan is $10.10. As a result, servers heavily depend on tips in lieu of the hourly wage they are given by their employers. More customers mean more opportunities for tips, and thus these restaurants are more inclined to seat as many people as possible. I fully understand the rush, as these workers are fighting to earn a livable wage. But, there is something inherently wrong in the method in which restaurant workers are forced to fight for their living. 

A server in the United States makes an average of $100 in tips everyday; however, the amount each server makes is heavily reliant on the location of the restaurant, its tip distribution system and the generosity of its customers each day. For nearly someone’s entire wage to rely on how nice or “fair” people are is frightening and flawed. Maybe I’m a bit of a cynical person who tends to fear the worst of people, but I’ve seen enough horror stories where servers are tipped cents and way less than 10% to fully believe that customers are a reliable source of income. I also don’t enjoy choking over the first few bites of my food to assure my server, “Yes the food is good, and no I don’t need anything else right now.” 

Some of the most effective ways for servers to make higher tips is proven to be through flirting with customers. Fliptable suggests servers to “smile more,” “wear something in your hair,” “go the extra mile” and “compliment your customers” as proven ways to get more money. Servers are more inclined to appeal to customers personally so that they empathize with the server and want to give them more money. You’re getting played every time you go out to eat because it is within their job description and is necessary for them to make a living.  

The United States is relatively unique with its tip expectations, as many countries in the world do not expect customers to tip. Countries like Australia, Belgium and Denmark have a service charge embedded within the price of the restaurant that will be a certain percentage of your bill. If this service charge was embedded in the United States restaurant industries, it would ensure equity among servers and place less pressure on them to go to extreme lengths to get a good tip.

Of course, the U.S. has its superior food-related qualities. If there is one thing that makes me bleed red, white and blue, it’s the taste of a greasy American burger from a fast food restaurant that reeks of fryers going. The United States is the origin of fast food chains, where McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and KFC started their journey. Drive-thrus were invented here. Fast food was created as a concept to serve more customers more frequently, with a standardized menu and assembly lines to streamline the process. Eating fast seems to be the American way, and I can’t complain at all when a good burger is the solution to all my problems on any given day.   

Fast food culture is essential to the American identity, and I agree that not all food should be expected to be some sit down affair. Fast food workers are not considered tipped workers, though they are entitled to receive tips. They must receive at least the standard minimum wage, and tips are not allowed to be counted as part of that wage. These places are designed for the rush and constant stream of customers, while in comparison, restaurants create an illusion of leisure and environment for customers to indulge in. However, when these customers are expected to leave within 10 minutes of finishing their food, the rush is a social norm imposed on them.

All food service in the U.S. is inherently fast food; however, countries across the globe are displaying the flaws in this speedy service when they treat their staff better and provide them with a living wage. These standards, in comparison to the uniquely American way, create stability among servers and allow customers to spend more time in restaurants, prolonging the enjoyable experience of dining out. 

I grew up in suburban Michigan, where stores and restaurants close at 10 p.m., and any nightlife only existed at bars, clubs and late-night sports games. I loved when we would travel back to the Middle East and the day wouldn’t begin until late afternoon, and we would stay out until 1 or 2 a.m. with our whole family. Restaurants were where we met up with others and enjoyed hours together. Sometimes, my cousins and I would leave the restaurant to walk around for a while before returning for the next course, a normal act in our dining culture. I’m nostalgic for those nights, and I will never feel the same joy in restaurants here that I do overseas.

Slowing down dining may not completely change American culture, but it could lessen the pressure on servers and provide families with an opportunity to elongate a night out together. Servers deserve a guaranteed living wage, and children should get the opportunity to experience the thrill of a card game tournament in a restaurant. By standardizing service charges in bills and opening restaurants for longer, servers can make more money with less stress, and families can have places to go together past 8 p.m. There’s no need to rush. 

Lara Tinawi is an Opinion Columnist writing about campus culture and her everyday musings. She can be reached at ltinawi@umich.edu.