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The Tipping Backlash Goes Big

Jonathan Winters is hoping for 20 percent.

Jonathan Winters is hoping for 20 percent.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

For a few months now, people in the food industry have talked about the idea of eliminating the practice of tipping, spurred on by Sushi Yasuda's move earlier this summer to ditch tipping completely in favor of raising prices a bit and paying employees a higher salary. Today, Times critic Pete Wells gives the idea some major play in an A1 story that argues — in no uncertain terms — that the custom of tipping after a meal "is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory."

Among Wells's reasons:

1. Tipping comes at the wrong time of the meal, so servers don't know if a table will be generous or stingy with its tips.

2. Tipping's former selling point for servers — that it was done primarily with cash so it could go unreported on tax forms — has been more or less killed off by credit-card receipts and increased oversight.

3. Tip violations are responsible for all sorts of lawsuits, like the types spearheaded by Maimon Kirschenbaum, so restaurateurs are eager to move to a system that eliminates this issue.

4. Kitchen staff is just as important as front-of-the-house staff, yet they never see any benefits from tipping, creating a huge income gap between employees at the same restaurant.

5. For customers, there's no guarantee the tips will go to the intended employees — since tips are often pooled, leaving 10 percent for a subpar server really means you're stiffing other staff members, too.

So, as noted before on Grub, some restaurants — especially at the highest end — are ditching tips in favor of adding service fees, or simply increasing prices and making staff members salaried employees. Some chefs and restaurateurs who have gone this route sing its praises to Wells: San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson says, "A service charge and a salary brings the profession back into the bright sun of the professional mainstream." Alinea owner Nick Kokonas agrees. He tells Wells, "“It’s worth it, because as soon as you grow to a certain size these days, and you’re high profile, everyone starts examining what you do."

Wells ends the story by concluding, "Tipping doesn’t work, and it doesn’t feel very good anymore, either."

There are some hurdles that have so far prevented the practice from gaining more widespread acceptance: Restaurants that opt to go the service-included route lose a payroll-tax credit on tipped income; diners can't be counted on not to leave tips, negating the no-lawsuit benefit; customers have rejected service-included pricing at lower-priced restaurants; and it's illegal in New York to call something a "service charge" if it also goes to anyone who doesn't serve. But the story is still generating plenty of comments that agree with Wells's sentiment:

Is a front-page story in one of the country's most widely read newspapers going to be enough to convince people to rethink one of America's most commonly practiced dining customs? On its own, of course not. But the story and the follow-up support certainly make it easier to imagine a world where restaurants simply charge what they need to in order to pay their workers a livable wage, instead of counting on (unreliable) customers to supplement employees' regular pay.

Leaving a Tip: A Custom in Need of Changing? [NYT]
Earlier: Service Included: 11 Restaurants Where Tipping Isn’t Customary
Related: Why Are New York’s Chefs Afraid of This Man?

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