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Here's a Tip: Don't

p>If you're looking to generate a buzz and enliven a conversation, there is another option to politics. Toss in the topic of tipping. Who does and who doesn't? Is he a 10-percenter and she a 20-percenter? Do you tip the hotel maid? Do you stiff a server for bad service or just leave a buck to make a point?

Everyone has an opinion on tipping, but since the first McAlister's Deli opened in 1989 in Oxford, Miss., there's never been a discussion about it. We have a no-tipping policy and the idea has been comfortably embraced by employees and customers alike.

McAlister's is a quick-casual concept. Customers place their orders at a counter and servers deliver their food, provide drink refills, bus tables and offer any other assistance the customer might need. Signs posted in the dining room spell out our no-tip policy.

Tipping will always be a part of the full-service dining experience, but quick-casual concepts have a dynamic that's particularly well-suited to a no-tip environment. Because customers pay before receiving their food, there is almost an implied understanding that no gratuity is required.

"No Tipping" rules at McAlister's Deli. Maybe it's a good idea for your place, too.

By paying at the beginning of the meal instead of the end, the customer becomes part of the process, instead of being the focus of the server. The process helps define the quick-casual concept and eliminates the anxiety that sometimes is associated with tipping.

The subject of tipping induces angst for many people. One news report offered the opinion that the "subject of tipping is one which elicits a tinge of insecurity, if not a flood of sheer dread." It's not surprising that when the upscale Inn at Union Square in San Francisco eliminated tipping, feedback from guests was 98% positive. Staff salaries were raised to compensate for the loss of tips, but management found that the employees still went the extra distance to please guests. Anxiety was reduced on both sides of the table.

Similarly, McAlister's no-tipping policy is part of our fabric. We try to make our restaurants a place where hospitality is simply part of our concept. Our dining rooms are inviting and comfortable, and by delivering our customers' orders, we're offering more than people expect. It's a small difference for us, but a big difference for our customers.

We want to interact with our customers in the dining room, whether by taking their dessert orders or bringing them refills of our Famous Sweet Tea. We want to convey a sense of personal service. We call it the McAlister's Experience. By creating that interaction, it's natural for both employees and customers to understand that tipping is not part of the equation.

From its start, McAlister's found early success in college towns. Our employee retention has never suffered because of our outlook on tipping. We offer a casual working atmosphere. Servers roam the entire dining room, rather than being confined to specific stations, so it's a lessstressful environment. The lack of tipping hasn't hurt our ability to attract first-rate employees, nor has it been a reason for them to leave.

When customers leave tips, they're collected and donated to local charities. Any extra monies from our 126 locations are pooled at the corporate level and donated to national charities such as the Make-AWish Foundation.

Owners, managers, and employees in every foodservice concept are continually searching for new ways to make a difference with customers. A lot of us in the quick-casual segment are trying to understand what level of service is appropriate. Instead of trying to take away service to provide efficiency and lower costs, we should look to service levels as the point of differentiation from the competition.

In the end, customers notice good service, particularly if it means they don't have to dip into their wallets at the end of a meal.

Philip Friedman is president and c.e.o. of McAlister's Corp., a director of Eateries, Inc. and RomaCorp, Inc., and president of P. Friedman & Associates, strategic planning and management consultants. Previously, he was chairman of the board of Rosti Restaurants and president and director of Panda Management Co. Contact him at 888-855-3354.

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