Times and tickets are a-changin’. Restaurants across the country are re-evaluating traditional tips, implementing inclusive service fees or, more controversially, raising prices to provide better employee wages. If successful, the latter would transform tipping culture entirely.
Naturally, no sea change can occur without making a few waves. Last fall, The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote a column titled “Leaving a tip: A custom in need of changing?” Wells’ post called tipping “irrational, outdated, ineffective, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.” Soon afterward, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer and David Chang took their thoughts to Twitter. All expressed interest in eradicating tipping in their restaurants, but ultimately figured their staff and diners preferred to maintain the status quo.
Meanwhile, upper-echelon establishments like Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in New York, Alinea in Chicago and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse have all successfully implemented inclusive service fees. Chef’s Table and Alinea add a 20% surcharge to diners’ bills; Chez Panisse opts for a breezy, Bay Area-style 17%. Thomas Keller’s bi-coastal restaurants Per Se and The French Laundry fold the cost of service into set menu prices.
These tipping points overlook the larger issue, says Sara Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit workers’ advocacy organization dedicated to the restaurant industry. She proposes a higher base wage for both tipped and nontipped restaurant workers, saying, “Tips fluctuate from shift to shift, but rent and bills are constant.”
Increasingly, restaurateurs are inclined to agree. Gabriel Frem’s newly opened Brand 158 in Glendale, CA has a no-tipping policy in order to create a less competitive workplace for servers, and, as such, a better experience for diners. “If people came to work and didn’t know what they were going to make for the week, that tension would eventually translate to the customer,” he says.
In the past year, two Manhattan restaurants, Sushi Yasada and izakaya-style Restaurant Riki, eliminated tipping to better reflect Japanese custom. “Usually, we don’t take tips in Japan,” explains Restaurant Riki owner Riki Hashizume. “It just seems like a more transparent way to operate a restaurant,” adds Sushi Yasuda’s Scott Rosenberg.
Other restaurants eliminating tips include Black Star Co-op in Austin, TX and a new, meatball-centric spot in Newport, KY. This fall, no-tipping restaurants will open in Philadelphia, PA and Washington, DC. Both will provide base wages above the national minimum, as well as healthcare and profit-sharing options.
Our neighbors to the north are also getting in on the action: Canada’s first tip-free establishment debuted last month. Its workers receive salaries double the industry standard and medical benefits. But a tip-free revolution is far from complete. Many diners don’t understand the economics of tip-based industries. Some servers oppose an elevated wage without tips, fearing their income will decrease. Detractors argue no-tipping policies will raise restaurant prices and destroy diners’ rights to a merit-based service economy. (Though a Cornell Hotel School professor crunched the numbers, and his tips don’t lie: less than two percent of how diners calculate gratuity is based on perceived service quality. Turns out making physical contact, drawing smiley faces on diners’ checks and being blond are more lucrative tactics in a server’s arsenal.)
Will American restaurants and diners embrace tip-free service? Can widespread reform occur in an industry where tradition prevails, from Frenchified terms like mise en place to comically gendered job titles like hostess and busboy?
Time will tell. Change is hard; but so is making it.