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by Jennifer Telfeyan

Perhaps more often than we would prefer, we live in a world of shoulds. Most of us probably have a mental list quietly yet incessantly humming in our heads of personal practices we would like to alter, but, alas, we humans are proven creatures of habit and tend to view change as, quite simply, agony. And so we choose cohabitation with that constant buzzing, until perhaps the discomfort, or injustice, or whatever shouts loudly enough and we do what we’ve really known all along we needed to do. In the last year, some big names in the US restaurant industry have decided it’s time to face one of their big shoulds and have adopted no-tipping policies. 

 Research indicates that tipping is an inequitable system that contributes to discrimination, harassment, and inequality in pay between restaurants’ front of house and back of house teams. So last October when Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, announced that he would do away with tipping in all of his New York City restaurants, much of the industry applauded his commitment to the effort. During that same week across the nation,  Thad Vogler  of San Francisco’s Bar Agricole and Trou Normand announced that he had decided to revoke a no-tipping policy in his restaurants ten months after its adoption, which begs the question, what does it take to turn a “we should” successfully into a “we did”? 

 The most easily quantifiable and seemingly most critical factor involved is, of course, the money itself. Servers, like most of us, cannot afford a cut in their wages, so when a restaurant decides to adopt the tip-less model, a strong compensation plan needs to be in place to ensure that employees receive at least what they were taking home under the old model.  Vogler makes the point that restaurants should not assume their team will accept a cut in pay strictly for the sake of ideology, and in order to guarantee his servers were making the same under the new model, while covering back of house raises as well, Vogler estimates that he would have needed to increase menu prices by approximately 40%.  During the ten months that Vogler’s restaurants were tip-free, he found that while new talent was initially on board with the system, after investing months of intensive training most of the servers would leave for restaurants where they could earn more under the tip system. And even though Vogler’s compensation plan afforded employees the opportunity to earn higher wages thanks to a biweekly incentive payout, he found this to be a marginal motivator. At the end of the day, servers were more comfortable with the familiar, regardless of how much opportunity there was in the new system.

 This point brings us to another piece of the equation that is infinitely more abstract and nuanced, and thus less considered, which is the question of the cultural shift that accompanies the tip-less model. Studies show that psychological factors like feeling appreciated and security often rate ahead of monetary compensation in determining employees’ job satisfaction. While servers’ day-to-day duties remain unchanged under the new model, the relationships at the foundation of their work are significantly altered, and with that, their server identity. Under the tipping system, the server’s role is that of liaison between the restaurant and the guest, advocating on behalf of both parties. When tipping is no longer in the picture, servers are stripped of their autonomy, and the role that they are comfortable with and that US culture has asked them to play for almost 150 years. Vogler observed this in his restaurants and finds that the topic is often mistakenly lost in the no-tipping discussion.

After ten months of watching his loyal managers and team struggle to keep staff excited amidst increasingly waning enthusiasm, Vogler came to the conclusion that, “Restaurants are not political institutions,” and though he remains committed in his own belief, listened to the needs of his staff and returned to the old model. While decisions like Meyer’s are a step in the necessary direction, at the end of the day, for this should to become a done deal, it will take a community of restaurateurs to step up and join forces to shift the paradigm and create a new financial landscape and culture.

This important structural change to dining out triggers experimentation and important discussion.  Two great articles for further reading are: 

Goodbye Tipping, Hello Living Wage

Eliminating the Tipped Minimum Wage

What do you think? How has your experience been as a restaurant worker, owner, diner?