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Is Tipping Wait-Staff Over?


Tipping for restaurant service in the United States has been debated for the last few years, and there are interesting arguments from both sides. Thomas Keller began his famous no-tipping practice in 2004 at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, as well as his Per Se in Manhattan. Both restaurants exclusively offered a set price tasting menu, and underneath the price of those luxurious nine courses, a simple note read, “Service Included.” At Per Se, Chef Keller’s motivation was simple: he had opened a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and his poorly paid but highly educated and trained kitchen staff couldn’t afford to live close to that restaurant. Including the tip meant higher incomes for all staff.

Phoebe Damrosch’s book “Service Included” is an interesting account of what happened. I worked at Per Se from 2006 through 2007, and the hourly pay structure was based on position and experience, and it was a more-than-fair wage that supported living in New York (albeit Brooklyn).

The greatest thing about this was that, although we asked people not to tip, many still did. They completely understood that it was not expected and that we were all paid. Nevertheless, guests would leave extra money if they felt the staff had really gone above and beyond their duties to make the meal special. These tips would be “pooled” or split among the entire staff, amounts for each person determined once again on their position and seniority.

No Tipping Makes Everything Better

I loved this system. Consistency in pay makes life a lot easier when you are single and living in a big city. In those weeks where we got a little extra from some overly generous diners, we also had some spending money. There was still plenty of incentive to be better, work harder, learn more, and add to the team. There were lots of opportunities for promotion, which would mean more pay.

We all respected each other, and there was no awkwardness about the servers making more than everyone.

The divide between the “front of house” and “back of house” was, unlike most restaurants, non-existent. We all respected each other, and there was no awkwardness about the servers making more than everyone. We all received full benefits, overtime pay, and four paid weeks off per year. No restaurant I have worked in before or after has been able to come close to these perks. Since leaving this job, I have often wondered if it would one day be the “norm,” if perhaps all restaurants could see the benefits of this model.

When the recession hit in 2007, the idea of raising the prices of food and beverage to eliminate tipping became not worth thinking about. Faced with having to cut expenses, people cut fine dining first, bringing many high-end restaurants to their end.

Surviving restaurants lured diners by cutting menu prices and offering less expensive, more “casual” alternatives, accepting any revenue they could receive. Cooks came to accept that they would make close to minimum wage, and servers would be at the mercy of the standard two-something dollars an hour plus whatever gratuity people would leave. The conversation about a non-tipped future all but ceased, until recently.

Reviving the Tipping Conversation

A few restaurants have brought the topic back to light, including a small restaurant in Pittsburgh, Bar Marco, which eliminated tipping this spring. They offer their employees a base salary and bonuses based on profit.

This is a huge announcement for the future of tipping in the United States.

Hospitality trendsetter and innovator Danny Meyer, who has the restaurant world by the ear, announced Wednesday that he will eliminate tipping at all of his 13 full-service restaurants. This is a huge announcement for the future of tipping in the United States. Meyer’s restaurant group, Union Square Hospitality, will make this change beginning in November by increasing the price of all menu items.

This changes everything, and I believe for the better. There is an inherent awkwardness associated with tipping—“How much should I leave?” “What is customary for this?” “Who should I ask?” We’ve all been in this situation, clumsily attempting to do math at the end of a two-hour wine-and-dine experience, often making mistakes or taking the wrong receipt with us in our pocket, only to discover it again weeks later.

The expected gratuity for restaurant service in this country is 20 percent. There isn’t really a lot of argument here—it is the standard and has been for more than 20 years. This means servers can expect to make a certain amount each night, and tip their support staff out fairly.

End the Confusion

Unfortunately, not everyone tips that much. Many people flat-out refuse to tip more than 10 percent based on habit, and many people who visit from other countries, where large tips are uncommon, simply do not know that this is the standard. Many people do not believe you should have to tip on the full price of high-dollar wine, or in some cases, do not believe that the cost of alcohol should be tipped on at all. While these instances are not the standard, they are very common, and if a server experiences all this in one night, it is not only disappointing financially, it is a big ego-buster. Eliminating tipping erases all of this stress.

If a server experiences all this in one night, it is not only disappointing financially, it is a big ego-buster. Eliminating tipping erases all of this stress.

The new no-tip model will be incredibly smooth. Yes, you will see higher prices on the menu, but there is no more complicated math when you get the check, no more worrying about whether you’d left enough or too much. Your server will be free to take care of you without the baggage of just having received a bad tip from one of his or her most promising tables. You can go out and order just an appetizer and a beer, and not feel bad about not spending enough.

Everyone wins here. The kitchen is staffed with employees who are being paid fairly, and the idea of “teamwork” is finally applicable to the entire restaurant.

Some disagree with this trend. People who have worked as “career servers” are not excited at such a fundamental change to their income structure. They have worked for years believing they deserve more money because they have to interact with the clientele and that takes more talent than the work that is done in the kitchen. They think this because, after decades of front-of-house employees far out-earning the back-of-house employees, there had to be some sort of explanation.

The hashtag involved in Meyer’s announcement is #HospitalityIncluded, which is the main motivation in this needed change. Hospitality is the value that drives us to do what we do in this industry, and that includes everyone involved, not just the servers.