Tipping Won’t Change Until America Does

The reports of the death of tipping in America have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, one of the most visible advocates of eliminating tipping, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, unexpectedly revealed that he was abandoning his “hospitality included” model across all of his company’s full-service restaurants.

When he announced the initiative in 2015, Meyer was championed for having the courage to repair the broken economics of restaurant labor. As it turns out, eradicating tipping isn’t as simple as flipping a switch in the payroll fuse box. Try to imagine what would happen in your office if management announced one morning that everyone’s salary was being recalculated without any change in aggregate pay. Everyone would revolt, except the ones getting raises. That’s more or less what happened at USHG.

In arguing for change, Meyer and others have cited the racist history of tipping in America. When slavery was abolished, the tipping system became a backhanded way for white business owners to avoid paying fair wages to recently freed slaves, if they even paid them at all.

As America continues its long overdue reckoning with racial divisions through the Black Lives Matter movement, more evidence mounts that tipped minimum wages reinforce the income disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. A recent report by One Fair Wage, an organization dedicated to ending sub-minimum hourly wages for tipped workers, explicitly details how women and communities of color have been systematically shortchanged when tips are the primary source of their income.

What often isn’t acknowledged in the controversy is how tipping is promulgated by free-market capitalism and sustained by conservative fiscal ideology. Over time, tipping has evolved into a renewable cycle of gladhanding that exists mainly to benefit white people. For too long, the hospitality industry has levered its own survival to the wealth of its patrons. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, prices at high-end restaurants had reached astronomical levels, and yet there was no shortage of buyers. The restaurant industry has always been the perfect dance partner for privilege.


As with other capitalist endeavors, the rules of engagement in restaurants are shaped by money. Upscale restaurants have become meritocracies. Order an expensive bottle of wine and your meal won’t be rushed; have an appetizer as your entree and your check will arrive before you ask for it.

Affluent guests learn quickly how having money can curry favor—fast tracking reservations, ensuring preferred seating arrangements and facilitating complimentary items. Tipping has become a natural extension of that moneyed dynamic. The promise of a gracious tip keeps the servers’ interests aligned with the owners’—to extract as much money as possible from their most valuable guests.

The blameless environment of a restaurant makes rich people feel powerful. Regulars become codependent on the false affection money affords and servers are lured in by the handsome sums they receive in exchange for manufacturing concern. Once both sides get hooked up to the drip, it’s difficult to kick the habit. Of course, both parties are equally irritated when these capitalist forces turn against them. Servers seethe when they’re tipped poorly without proper cause. Parties with reservations waiting at the bar bristle when a group of regulars tips the maître d’ and is whisked immediately to their table ahead of them.

Market forces also dictate the supply of qualified labor. Tipped employees choose jobs based on their economic best interests. All things being equal, if a restaurant is busy and management has devised a system to facilitate its staff making good money, it will attract talent and staff will be loyal. If a restaurant isn’t consistently busy or the system of distributing tips is ill-conceived, retention will suffer. If restaurateurs want to attract and retain qualified labor, they must find a formula that keeps wages competitive with the market. Danny and USHG learned this lesson the hard way. 

Of course there have been many restauranteurs that have successfully implemented non-tipping models, but in general those experiments have occurred on a much smaller scale. Fostering the necessary trust and a sense of shared responsibility is a harder sell for larger restaurant groups.

We see the same tensions infecting our national politics. Shared wealth has struggled to be embraced as a mainstream political idea. You don’t have to look very far to see the unsuccessful attempts of progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to center socialism as the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. Republicans, on the other hand, spend most of their energy vilifying anything related to the notion of collective prosperity.

Just as many independent restaurants have successfully eliminated tipping on a local level, a new generation of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have burst onto the national scene with a socialist message that mirrors the changes in political attitudes in their home districts. This dichotomy suggests that changing the tipping system with the mindset of grass-roots community organizers might be more effective than a top-down approach that relies heavily on proselytizing and PR spin. 

At the end of the day, this isn’t a problem unique to the restaurant business, it’s a contradiction at the heart of the American ethos. E Pluribus Unum is E Pluribus Over. The disunion and moral decay began long before Trumpism, but the current political climate exacerbates the wealth gap between the winners and losers. Making America “Great Again” requires removing any barriers that impede one’s acquisition of personal wealth. To free-market capitalists, rewarding the resourcefulness of a convincing server with a commission of his or her sales drives both revenue for the restaurant and income growth for the server.

The problem is that capitalism can’t be bothered by the hardship that besets the people it leaves behind. Free markets must have winners and losers. It’s part of the game; The Art of the Deal, if you will. In our ruthless quest to amass capital, Americans view coming out on the losing end as a sign of personal weakness. But it isn’t fair to measure the aptitude of the players on a playing field that isn’t level.

Americans have a gift for deluding themselves into thinking that everyone is given a fair shake. The conservative pundits who want to scale back federal stimulus during the pandemic, for example, are convinced that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Unfortunately, not everyone’s boots have straps. Some people are barefoot.

The tipping system won’t go away until America is ready to face its demons. In most fine dining establishments around the country little has changed through the decades—the kitchens are filled with underpaid Black and brown people while the staff of most dining rooms are well-paid and overwhelmingly white. Other thriving industries like finance, technology, medicine and law systematically exclude communities of color from the prosperity they generate. Those industries, in turn, perpetuate a cycle of transferring wealth to high-end restaurants where white owners and white servers are the primary beneficiaries.

To eliminate tipping, we must first dismantle white supremacy by demanding equitable pay and an end to racial discrimination and gender bias. To do so means we have to care about each other first—a seemingly insurmountable task in America today. Deaths from the Coronavirus continue to reach nightmarish levels, conspiracy theories flourish, politicians point fingers and Karens throw daily tantrums at Trader Joe’s about wearing masks in public. For a country founded on Christian values, it’s clear that loving thy neighbor isn’t exactly our strong suit.

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Rebuilding the Restaurant Industry Starts With Destroying the Chains

I was in grade school when I first experienced the majesty of a piping hot basket of unlimited breadsticks from the Olive Garden. The bread had a pale off-white pallor, squishy and supple like the skin of a cadaver. It wasn’t a breadstick at all, not in the conventional sense, more of a cigar shaped tube of undercooked dough glistening with a sheen of garlic-scented oil that seemed to be pumped over it like movie popcorn butter (turns out it’s margarine).

Olive Garden was also one of my first encounters with Fettuccine Alfredo, an exalted delicacy for an American boy raised in the midwestern suburbs. After that, whenever I saw Alfredo sauce on the menu I never considered ordering anything else. It could arrive gluey and overwrought, but it didn’t matter I still lost myself in its lactating bosom.

As most food-illiterate American children growing up in the 80s, I wasn’t ready for the arrival of more sophisticated pasta recipes. Pizza, as far as I knew, was made in Huts. That was before my family discovered that at Little Caesars you could order one pizza and—through an some mystifying sleight of hand—they would deliver you two. I savored the waxy, burnt cheese that formed along the perimeter of its angled crust and the vaguely chemical tang that tasted like a mix of spent butane and dirty cast iron.

Unlimited Breadsticks
Unlimited Breadsticks at The Olive Garden

Now when I pass through suburban areas—having lived in New York City for over two decades—I feel a deep sadness about the state of American restaurants. Traversing county roads and freeways past the dull sameness of uninspired franchises, neighboring townships are indistinguishable from each other. There’s a deliberate pattern to their geographical placement that seems designed to make each brand universally familiar no matter what city you’re in. The Cracker Barrel peeks out from alongside the expressway ramp like a hearty welcome home; the Ruby Tuesdays flanks the mall entrance like an overweight security guard; the engine-red neon of the Texas Roadhouse awning beckons you like a rodeo clown from across the parking lot of the strip mall.

In the same way that retail empires like Target and Walmart have hastened a mass extinction event among small retail businesses across the country, independent restaurants have largely been displaced by corporate brands. Where we’ve identified underprivileged neighborhoods that suffer from “food deserts”—lacking proper access to grocery stores and fresh food sources—we’ve all but ignored the peripheral threat posed by “restaurant deserts” that exist in many of the same disadvantaged communities. We associate this problem primarily with fast food, but the same danger applies to these aspirational “fast casual” brands that advertise an elevated dining experience but rarely deliver on the promise.

The population where these chains thrive often relies on these ubiquitous brands without questioning the devastating effect they have on public health and the economy. Middle class and affluent communities are vulnerable, too. Family-owned Chinese restaurants that were once pillars of their communities have given way to places like Panda Express (2,200 locations) that have obscured the roots of Chinese cooking beyond recognition. Panera Bread (2,000 locations) has become the de facto America’s delicatessen, an ambition-less sandwich factory with no backstory. These restaurants recklessly jumble international cuisines, creating recipes like Applebee’s (1,800 locations) famous “Chicken Wonton Tacos” in ways that disrespect multiple cultural traditions on the same plate. We’re in the middle of a decades-long war on American taste buds.

Applebee’s “Famous” Chicken Wonton Tacos

Now is an opportune time to reverse the effects of the corporatization of the restaurant industry. The Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionality affected small restaurant businesses that were already struggling to compete against big chains. Americans need to demand both federal and local policies that incentivize small business and support independent restaurant owners. It’s primarily a real estate problem, where commercial landlords would rather lease to big corporations than to take risks with upstarts.

Municipalities should enact legislation to encourage landlords to partner with local entrepreneurs and to keep corporate restaurants out of their communities—much the same way that many have already outlawed big box stores. Corporations like these tend to drain resources from local communities by reinvesting profits elsewhere or returning them to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks. The menial jobs they provide aren’t worth the collateral damage.

The Trump Adminstration’s outreach, not unexpectedly, has prioritized corporate interests. His task forces on reviving restaurants have been comprised primarily of C-level white males that are more concerned about when their stock options vest than strategies for recovery. These multinational companies are not immune to the devastating effects of the Coronavirus outbreak, but they also stand to benefit from decreased competition if they can weather the storm. A recent report from the Independent Restaurant Coalition suggests that 85% of independent restaurants may close as a result of COVID-19. It’s an even more daunting statistic when you consider that over 50% of the total restaurants in the United States are independently-owned.

Rebuilding The Restaurant Industry
The fast casual sector has grown in recent years.

The future of dining in this country is doomed to become even more monolithic if we don’t demand change. The longer we allow these chains to thrive, the more essential they become to the definition of what it means to be American. For a country with a reputation for being so ruggedly individualistic, the American public is surprisingly accepting of the conformity required to patronize chain stores so religiously.

Author Amber Sparks recently asked her followers on Twitter, “What was your fancy, super special occasion restaurant as a kid?” It was eye-opening to see how many respondents—especially millennials and Zoomers—cited restaurant chains like Red Lobster and The Cheesecake Factory as personal examples of aspirational dining. The intent here isn’t to malign people for having bad taste. It’s to highlight how inseparable these chain restaurants have become from the American appetite and to quantify the consequences. While there may be certain nostalgia around childhood meals at these chains, they mostly serve lousy food. More importantly, embracing them has made the restaurant landscape more challenging for family-run businesses.

Growing up, my Olive Garden experience was an outlier. My parents had met in the city and retreated to the suburbs for greener pastures to raise a family. We lived in the outskirts of Chicago, but my father always insisted we drive forty-five minutes across the Indiana border to an Italian restaurant called Giovanni’s. The fake stucco walls and the arched entryways were painted gentle pastels to evoke a Venetian trattoria. My father always wanted to know the owners of these places. He grew up in Argentina where gnocchi was adopted into their culinary lexicon thanks to the many Argentines of Italian decent, and he would drive any distance to find one that met his standards. On fortuitous occasions, at least for my dad, the chef would cook tripe for him, which wasn’t on the menu and certainly would never be something they could whip up à la minute at an Olive Garden. Memories like these are so much more vivid when there are real people behind them rather than faceless corporations.

These narratives, mostly immigrant ones, defined the American restaurant industry for more than a century until fast food invaded in the Post War Era. As the country grapples with its racial demons and struggles to find common ground, we need these independent voices on our plates more than ever. Food can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of each other, and restaurants can facilitate that communion.

Mass-marketed chain food has no integrity. It’s designed to be hedonistic and unfussy. The more we consume these empty calories, the less say we have in shaping the character of our neighborhoods. You can already see the decay. As devastating as this year has been for the restaurant industry, it presents an opportunity to tear up the fields and replant the seeds. In the same way that monoculture and industrial farming is poisoning us and destroying the environment, we need to rebuild a restaurant industry using sustainable methods. We can’t do that without first having healthier rootstock.

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