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No-Tipping Restaurants: Can It Work? The Good, the Bad, and the Reality Of "No-Tipping" Policies

by Nina Starner on Oct 23, 2015 in Culture

Last week, Manhattan restaurant magnate Danny Meyer announced that his restaurants, including The Modern at MOMA and Gramercy Tavern, will start phasing out tips in favor of a more equal system. The U.S. is one of the only countries that forces tipped workers to actually depend on their tip money as their primary source of income, and only a handful of states require business to pay workers full minimum wage before tips, according to the U.S. Department of Labor -- but despite the service industry’s frustration with the system, it has remained firmly in place.

This kind of story surfaces every few years -- a restaurateur decides that tipping is unjust for any number of reasons and does away with it one way or the other, but there’s been no widespread success yet. Some of the examples are at best confusing and at worst, laughable. On a local level, Philadelphia restaurants have tried to implement the policy and have made small adjustments to the system rather than getting rid of it entirely: Girard in Fishtown opened in 2014 with an apparently bold “no-tipping” policy, but they’ve since added an optional tip line to their checks; and Williams Street Common, brought to West Philly by the Morgan’s Pier crew, purports to be mostly self-service but has included a tip line on their checks since opening.

Other cities have found success on a small scale -- Pittsburgh’s Bar Marco has reportedly enjoyed a successful six months since it abolished tipping and has pleased both servers and customers, but no other restaurants in the Steel City have followed along; The Public Option in D.C. opened with a no-tip policy and donates all attempted tips to charity; and Packhouse in Kentucky pays $10 an hour but encourages their servers to hit certain sales targets to earn a higher hourly rate. That being said, other restaurants have introduced no-tip policies and then change back. Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, which both got rid of tipping in early 2015, brought it back recently because they were having trouble holding onto servers.

There’s certainly plenty of arguments both for, and against, the entire policy of tipping. Forcing employees to depend on the crazy whims of a customer is often incredibly frustrating, and I say this as a former server myself. Tipping leaves the door open for either the best or the worst case scenario: you could walk away with an Instagram-worthy tip line if the head honcho of a large reservation is feeling incredibly generous, or you can spend a 6-hour lunch with only one table in sight and only make $10 that day. (Both of these have happened to me.) Little things like a rainy day or a concert a few blocks away can either adversely or positively affect a server’s paycheck, and while that can be great, the great times don’t necessarily outweigh the terrible. Plus, credit card tips are a huge money suck for servers -- tips come from a time where people slipped cash under the table, but those days are long gone, and American Express and Visa fees now lay claim to a pretty substantial amount that affects how much the server actually sees from that generous tip.

The other issue, which Meyer cites as his primary reason for getting rid of tipping in favor of a service fee on the check that will raise prices slightly, is that the huge pay disparity between the “front of the house” (servers, bartenders) and the “back of the house” (chefs) is getting out of control. Chefs make significantly less money than servers, and as this trend continues, it’ll certainly be harder to hire chefs than servers. Meyer argues that by evening out pay for everybody in his restaurants, he’ll end up with more employee longevity than a restaurant with standard tipping, and the employees he keeps will be happier and work harder knowing that their wage will be standardized.

It’s hard to say whether or not this will work, as frankly, it hasn’t yet on any large scale at any restaurant in the U.S. European countries encourage tipping as an extra bonus for employees who already make good wages, but the U.S. has stubbornly stuck to the tipping system for so long that it seems impossible to overthrow it at this point. Every time the concept of a reward-based paycheck for restaurant workers is threatened, people immediately bristle (Richard Cohen penned a pro-tip argument this week for the Washington Post), and for those of us who believe, myself included, that a no-tipping system could ultimately benefit the entire restaurant industry if instituted correctly, it seems puzzling as to why this thought is met with such hostility. Do people really believe that chefs should toil in the kitchen day and night for less pay, or that a cranky table should dictate whether or not a server can pay their electric bill that month? Yes, change is hard, but that doesn’t mean it should go unattempted. And for those of you anxious about the uptick in prices, if you were already tipping a decent amount of money, you will be paying exactly the same thing, but without the headache of calculating 20%.

Tipping may well go the way of the dinner jacket and aspic, but it’s going to take a long time, and we, as a country, will likely revert back to the comfort of a system we understand rather than one we don’t a few times before that happens. This writer believes that Meyer’s first steps are admirable and well-intentioned. Whether or not he succeeds or ends up adding that tip line back onto his checks, he’s still making a point about a change we should see through, and ultimately, the hope is that others might follow his lead.
 
Photo via Flickr user shawnzrossi

Tags: Dinner, Education
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