Toriano Porter

After Kansas Buffalo Wild Wings sued for discrimination, a lesson on tipping while black

A former employee of a Buffalo Wild Wings in Overland Park has alleged that management allowed staff to deny service to African Americans because they were viewed as bad tippers.

The racial stereotype is offensive, of course. But I wondered: Is there any evidence to support that claim? And when African Americans don’t tip well, are they responding to lousy service, creating a vicious cycle of more lousy service and more paltry tips?

Gary Lovelace, who worked as a Buffalo Wild Wings cook, contends in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas that he was retaliated against and fired for reporting numerous instances of discrimination by fellow employees and managers.

Lovelace, a 55-year-old black man, accuses the company of fostering a “racially hostile work environment.”

Gerald Gray, an attorney for Lovelace, said white employees refused to serve black customers because, in their words, “blacks don’t give good tips.”

The company declined to comment on the litigation but is conducting an internal investigation into the allegations.

“Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment, and we have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind,” a Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson told The Star in a statement.

Studies have shown that on average, African Americans and other people of color tend to tip less than white customers. Economic and educational inequality, institutionalized racism in the restaurant industry and plain old discrimination are among the many reasons black people tip a little less than whites on average.

Many in the hospitality industry have long believed that African Americans don’t tip as generously. Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said, “these perceptions are grounded in reality.”

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A 2015 study by Lynn and Zachary W. Brewster found that, on average, white restaurant-goers tip about 17% of the bill, while black people tip at about 14%. The study indicates that black customers tip less because they believe servers expect lower tips, and they often underestimate the tip amounts that others leave.

Minorities simply have different cultural norms than whites, the study found. Many people of color don’t know the customary 15% to 20% guideline for gratuities.

Roughly 70% of whites hit that mark, while only about 35% of blacks do.

The differences in tipping practices create numerous problems, Lynn said. Issues range from discriminatory service to companies shying away from opening restaurants in minority communities.

It turns out that what I thought was a self-fulfilling prophecy for servers is actually grounded in facts.

But as a black man, my question is: Do servers expect a meager tip from me at the outset? Or is lackluster service a response to poor treatment from customers?

“Maybe on rare occurrences, but no, bad service has nothing to do with race,” Lynn said. “Not to say that it doesn’t happen, but it is not a dominant occurrence. If you are getting bad service, that means you are probably going to places where there is bad service.”

Saru Jayaraman, a labor activist, co-founder and president of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said that while the tradition of tipping has roots in our country’s history of slavery, the modern-day practice transcends race.

Research and experience suggest that tips are correlated with the server’s race, gender and willingness to tolerate sexual harassment more than with the customer’s race or gender.

“White male servers get tipped much higher than women and people of color, regardless of the quality of service and regardless of the race of the consumer,” Jayaramen said.

Unfortunately, tipping while black is a thing. Growing up, I was never really taught the proper etiquette for tipping. But that has little bearing on why I might hesitate to add a standard gratuity onto a restaurant bill.

To me, service is intentional. Good or bad. So why would a server expect me or any other person of color to tip well for a subpar dining experience?

Black folks have to constantly prove that we are worthy of quality service. As a black man, dining out is somewhat burdensome. Battling the preconceived notion that blacks don’t tip well as soon as I walk in the door is tiresome.

Why should I, or any other person of color, have to fight against the stereotype? Is it my duty to try to change the perception of an entire race as bad tippers?

No. For me, it’s quite simple: Do your job, and I will tip. Don’t and I won’t.