Get Rid of Tipping? Those with food allergies will suffer

When restaurant waitstaff answer my myriad questions and do everything in their power to ensure my food is allergy free and gluten safe, I always reward them with a handsome tip. The better the service, the higher the gratuity. So this morning’s Today Show’s discussion about whether restaurants should start paying waiters a living wage and stop the practice of tipping alarms me. Evidently, some high-end restaurants are already including service fees in menu prices and paying their staff higher wages.

gratuity

My concern is this: Will waitstaff provide quality service to an allergic foodie like me if they aren’t relying on tips?

Based on my experience of dining in gratuity-free Italy, I don’t think they will. While I certainly had some superb meals in Italy and met some gregarious waiters, the service wasn’t all that great. In fact, more often than not, the service was bad.

Take my dinner in a small hotel in beautiful Positano for example.

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Sitting down at the bistro table, I handed over my laminated translation card with highlighted food allergies (dairy, gluten, soy, corn, asparagus, capers, etc.). The gray-haired waiter with a pleasant smile barely glanced at it–yet he insisted he understood my special needs. Concerned, my husband reiterated my litany of allergies and went over every ingredient in the dish I ordered—a simple plate of vegetables and a plain piece of meat (at least that’s what I thought I was ordering).

Halfway through the meal, while the waiter filled our wine glasses, I gushed over the delicious food.

“It’s the cream that makes–” Stopping midsentence, the waiter turned as red as the tomato on my fork. He obviously knew cream was dairy and I couldn’t eat dairy–yet he served it to me!

This pretty dish made me sick!

This pretty dish made me sick!

We spent the next day walking up and down the steep cobblestone streets looking for the Italian version of Imodium. (By the way, anti-diarrhea medicine isn’t sold over-the-counter in Italy. You have to ask the pharmacist for it. How embarrassing.)

Of course, the system of tipping in America does not guarantee good service. We’ve all experienced difficult waitstaff. Still, I can’t help but think if I generously tip a waiter who took my allergies seriously, he or she will give me–and the next allergic foodie after me–good service again. Tipping is a reward system. Without a reward, there is little incentive for waitstaff to make sure my food won’t make me sick tomorrow.

A side note: My husband and I couldn’t get used to not tipping in Italy and we often added an extra 20 percent. We suspect that’s why waitstaff kept refilling our after-dinner Lemoncellos!

Aside

Preparing for Italy

Spaghetti all' arrabbiata

Image via Wikipedia

Wondering how I would communicate my food allergies to servers in Italy, I did what all Americans do in a quandary: I turned to google.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a long list of websites offering translation cards in many languages and at low-cost.  The one I chose was actually free at Allergy Free Passport.

Within seconds I had a pocket-sized dining card listing the most common allergies in both English and Italian.  Now some other websites offer customized cards, but for my purposes the top allergies were sufficient.  I simply drew a line through the allergies that didn’t apply to me. Then I took one of the cards to the office supply store and had it laminated for about a dollar.  How easy was that!

The other cool thing I found at Allergy Free Passport was an e-book, Allergen Free Dining In Italian Restaurants, which I quickly bought and downloaded on my iPad to take with me.

Now I feel prepared to eat out in Italy!  Do any of you have a suggestion for traveling with celiac and allergies?