When Danny Meyer announced his intention to eliminate tipping throughout the Union Square Hospitality Group, we invited readers to email their opinions and we shared some of the initial comments on our website. Several weeks hence, responses continue to come in. Opinions are as evenly divided between supporters and skeptics as the red and blue political caucus. (I first wrote political circus, then thought better of it.)
Circus, however, is what many of the tip-elimination naysayers predict will ensue in the front of the house if waitstaff no longer have the opportunity to collect monetary votes for jobs well done. The two biggest concerns: Service will falter if there is no incentive to excel; and the best servers will leave for those greener pastures that still allow tips—which could mean diners also migrate to competitors across the street that serve the better dining experience.
What has been most surprising, however, is how rarely people mention the back of the house. If you read the intent of Meyer’s proposal, the driving objective was to improve compensation for the kitchen staff, who typically put in the longest hours for the lowest wages.
Compensation and career potential for cooks and kitchen workers must be addressed. That said, robbing Peter to pay Paul has rarely proved effective, and in this case the math simply doesn’t add up: What diners would have spent in tips is now bundled into menu prices that have been increased to the tune of 20 or 30 percent. However, the increase theoretically will go predominantly to BOH staff. Waitstaff and bartenders might see a marginal increase, but is it realistic to believe that servers will be able to match what they could formerly earn in gratuities? Most think not.
Fundamentally, the question of tipping becomes a function of time and place. What works for Danny Meyer in Manhattan simply may not be feasible at restaurants with more modest check averages and in middle markets around the U.S. However, in fine-dining and upscale restaurants, elevated price points that support higher wages throughout the house and no-tipping policies are actually nothing new. During my college years (circa late 70s), I worked as a waitress at a resort club where gratuities were not allowed. Across town, several friends worked at a steakhouse where wages were lower and tips were plentiful. We often compared notes—and concluded the main difference was that my earnings were consistent on a daily basis and throughout the seasons; their earnings came in weekend windfalls and peak tourist times.
The tipping debate will continue, as will the dilemma over recruiting and retaining quality kitchen staff, but one opinion resounded with nearly unanimous consent: Danny Meyer deserves kudos for his gutsy move, and if such an economic shift is to occur across the industry, he is likely the best candidate to lead the evolution.