The long-standing tradition of tipping at U.S. restaurants may be coming to a slow end. As many food service professionals and customers alike begin to hear their voices heard, more owners are considering doing away with the practice. While these restaurants are currently in the vast minority, they could become the example for abolishing tipping if the plan works for all involved. Not surprisingly, there has been some pushback from customers and employees alike.
In a time when 75% of Americans admit to tipping less than the customary 15-20% for good service, it could be time to provide further insurance to the hard working food service professionals that mostly make $2.13 per hour, regardless of business. Furthermore, 46% of Americans admit to tipping less than they once had five years before. As inflation impacts everyone’s way of life, is it fair for a server to face the brunt of it on their bank accounts? Should they have to try and turn more tables each night, potentially harming a diner’s experience, so they can try to earn a living wage? Some restaurants are saying no.
Doing Away With The Practice
Midtown Manhattan’s Sushi Yasuda has been one of the most prominent restaurants to do away with tipping in their establishment. When owner Scott Rosenberg introduced the idea he had in mind the customer experience. He believed that diners tired of the two-fold end to every dining experience: grading your server and determining how much to leave them. Rosenberg went on to say, “The meal should be there for you to enjoy without doing this calculus.” Since the policy began the restaurant has done away with the tip line on receipts, replacing it with an explanation relating to traditional Japanese restaurant customs. This tradition has long since been carried in other parts of the world, especially in European nations.
While this is an admirable thought, the reasoning goes much deeper. Restaurants and food service chains like Starbucks have come under fire in lawsuits for mishandling pooled tips. While the Starbucks case is still in the courts, it could be a significant factor in shaping the course of thinking for other establishments. Another reason is the livelihoods of the employees. Staff salaries don’t change if business is slow.
Those who have worked as servers have likely lost count of the days (holidays especially) where they and their coworkers languished in empty dining rooms and uneventful kitchens waiting to be “cut” from a five to ten hour shift where they each served a handful of tables all night, at most. At the end of the night the servers would take their meager earnings and then give percentages to bartenders (whether they made drinks or not) and back of the restaurant staff like food porters and runners, both of which make even less for their hard work.
At the end of a slow shift, servers can go home with less than $20 to their name. This is a notorious practice within the large chain restaurants that frequently treat their staff as cogs much more than people. World famous chef Tom Colicchio is considering a practice at his New York establishment that would pay servers close to what they average now. Colicchio explains, “I think it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure my staff is going to think it makes perfect sense.”
Those In Favor Of The Status Quo
Many servers and guests alike are in favor of the system in place. In states such as California, servers make the state minimum wage of $8 an hour or more. These servers are right in wanting to see the system stay in place so that they can make more than the flat-wage system. However, in suburban and rural areas of the country, the current model does not work. Taking a look at the current hourly salaries of each state’s server shows the disparity currently taking place.
On the guest aspect of the issue, one hospitality attorney in New York, Carolyn Richmond, said doing away with tipping could be much harder because of the guest’s mentality. “Even if you changed the server’s mentality toward how they are compensated, it is almost impossible to rewire the American customer who thinks they have to leave ‘something’ at the end of the meal.” This is true in Sushi Yasuda’s case, as servers have had to find those departing guests who still feel the custom of leaving a tip. Yet, many see these reasons for staying the course to weigh much less than the reasons for change.
See Some Change, Not Your Change
The main reason for change is simple: equality. However, this is not just for wage equality and quality of life. Within the restaurant industry lies a vast array of racism attached to tipping, from servers and guests alike. Slate author Brian Palmer explains: “Tipping is a repugnant custom. It’s bad for consumers and terrible for workers. It perpetuates racism.” Palmer further clarified that while there is some truth to the numbers in comparing the tipping tendencies of Caucasian, Hispanic and African-Americans, it is inexcusable regardless, which is correct. Beyond the deplorable perpetuation of racism involved, Palmer explained how quality of service is heavily subjective and rarely as impactful as one would think:
“Tipping does not incentivize hard work. The factors that correlate most strongly to tip size have virtually nothing to do with the quality of service. Credit card tips are larger than cash tips. Large parties with sizable bills leave disproportionately small tips. We tip servers more if they tell us their names, touch us on the arm, or draw smiley faces on our checks. Quality of service has a laughably small impact on tip size. According to a 2000 study, a customer’s assessment of the server’s work only accounts for between 1 and 5 percent of the variation in tips at a restaurant.”
As more Americans are shifting towards lesser tips and flat tipping rates, the time to make the change seems better than ever. If tipping is done away with, guests will most likely see an increase of around 15% to their dining bill to make up for the staff salaries. This may make some worry that quality of service will go down, but this may also be a positive, as servers will not be rushing guests out to gain one more table during the short window dinner rushes. More likely than not, guests also will not be seeing desserts and drinks heavily pushed to them in a blatant attempt at inflating their bill.
From a sociological perspective this would, in hope, reduce racism towards staff and guests as well. In short, the proponents for this change believe quality of life will increase for their hardworking staff, while the guest experience can become more enjoyable, providing a double positive for the industry. In the end, the deciding factor for many owners will be if they see a positive change in their bottom line. With a twofold reasoning to back up the proposal, they might give it a shot.
It remains to be seen if this trend will gain steam in the U.S., but it will be interesting to see how the industry adapts or stays the course. Pardon this former server’s terminology for a moment, but if you asked if it’s time the industry “86’ed” tipping for a flat wage the answer is clear: Without a doubt.