photo by Caitlin Abrams
In the past year, some in the restaurant industry decided it was time for a revolution. This shake-up wasn’t the result of a new piece of legislation, nor was it because activists were protesting unethical practices. Still, some in the industry decided it was time to abolish the long-standing practice of accepting tips as the foundation of wages for certain employees, mainly for servers and bartenders.
New York restaurateur and iconic hospitalitarian Danny Meyer led the charge when he announced that by the end of 2016, all of his establishments would have a “no tipping” policy. While many were shocked and questioned his ability to shift an ingrained cultural norm, there were plenty of splashy sound bites from others who chimed in with support, including some big chains, like Joe’s Crab Shack, which implemented the policy across all of its restaurants.
Locally, we felt the wave when new restaurants like Upton 43, Domo Gastro, Heirloom Kitchen, and Co-op Creamery opened with “no tipping” policies. Though these eateries structured the new wages in various ways, the main idea was to raise menu prices and abolish the tip line so that the bill would roughly be the same as if you had tipped. This allows the restaurant to control where the money goes—in most cases, resulting in a higher hourly wage for all employees.
The impetus is largely due to the wage inequities that tipping creates in the hospitality industry. Tipped employees (servers and bartenders) stand to make huge amounts of money, while non-tipped employees (kitchen staff) are paid a modest hourly wage set by employers and the marketplace. For a real life example, my daughter, a server, can take home $300 at the end of her six-hour shift on a Friday night, while the cook who sweats it out during that same shift might only make $66, and that’s including a $2-per-hour bump above minimum wage. It’s been this way for a long time, and no one really bats an eye. But now that the labor pool for kitchen employees is shrinking, there is a rally call to level the playing field so that the industry can attract more workers to those positions. If you think this isn’t a big deal, keep in mind that about one in 10 working Americans (roughly 14.4 million) are employed by the restaurant industry. This type of sea change has the potential to change many things about our culture.
While Danny Meyer and his brethren want to shift our thinking about service toward a more European model (and legitimize restaurant work as something more important than a side job or a part-time gig), it’s going to take some time. Currently, American diners are having a hard time grasping it. In this country, restaurant-goers are so used to tipping, that even though many say they support higher prices to make up for the lack of a tip, they can’t seem to stomach the fact that it might mean a bowl of soup costs $14 when you factor in the quality of ingredients and appreciate the refined techniques it takes to prepare that dish.
That’s what Erick Harcey, owner/chef of Upton 43 discovered. After a few months of trying it out, he abandoned the no-tipping policy, saying it was difficult to make the economics work when so few restaurants locally operate without tipping, and his employees could stand to make more money elsewhere.
Another roadblock is the awkwardness that can arise when the bill comes, which seems particularly Minnesotan. Restaurants have said that when they don’t have a tipping line on the bill, people get confused and feel bad if they want to add a tip but can’t (no one carries cash anymore). This becomes a strained discussion with the server at the end of the meal. I recently overheard just such an exchange between a server and a patron, who became angry with the server, saying, “Well, I guess you just don’t want any extra money!” But here’s the rub, if a restaurant includes a tip line on the bill (aimed at people who want to tip above 20 percent), a whole other set of diners thinks the restaurant is trying to bilk them.
On another occasion, I was sitting at a bar, and the patron seated next to me said, “So they jack the prices up and say ‘no tipping,’ but then add this line, which clearly allows tipping? And I’m a jerk if I don’t leave more, right?” Awkwardness and stress all around. Domo Gastro’s owner, Joe Radaich, says he reinstituted tipping at his employees’ request for just that reason—they were tired of the stress and time it took to explain and deal with the policy. And, the restaurant has a collaborative structure where employees work both kitchen and service positions, so the wage differences largely even out.
As for the other two local restaurants that instituted no tipping, the jury’s still out. Co-op Creamery is holding strong to its policy, but the restaurant no longer serves dinner, it lost its big-name chef, Lucas Almendinger, and it offers only counter service at breakfast and lunch. Heirloom Kitchen was reviewing its policy as we went to press. The question I have for these pioneers is: How much time are you willing to commit to change an entire country’s cultural norm? In my mind, this was never something that would neatly wrap up in a few months. It’s going to take years, and that’s a time frame that’s nearly impossible for small restaurants to struggle through and survive. Even some of the big guns have thrown in the towel, like Joe’s Crab Shack who has abandoned its policy at most of its locations. As a local chef once told me, this policy may only work if all of the restaurants are on board, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. At the same time, I don’t believe this is the end of the experiment or that it isn’t a worthy discussion.
I’m very proud to be associated with an industry that asks the big questions and makes a move for change, even if it means going back to the kitchen and figuring out a new recipe.