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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Restaurant Life

Coronavirus Canapés and the Moral Bankruptcy of Fine Dining

Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Nordic temple of gastronomy, recently christened its “Summer Season” after months of mandated closure. As its staff scrambled to reopen, Chef Redzepi shared an Instagram video of an edible butterfly made of a colorful array of meticulously tweezered radishes enveloped in a glass display like a precious bauble. He proclaimed that “the creativity is slowly returning” even though some iteration of this strange butterfly thingy had already appeared on Noma’s menu before the pandemic hit. For the low, low price of $400 USD a head, diners could put their COVID cares away and gorge themselves silly on radish insects and other culinary gewgaws from the mind of one of the greatest chefs in the world.

When restrictions were eased in Copenhagen, Noma initially transformed itself into a burger joint and natural wine bar. Redzepi said publicly that returning to business as usual didn’t yet feel right. In case anyone dared worry that his ambitions as a chef were receding, he shared footage of a masked battalion of kitchen apprentices vigorously slapping and massaging ground beef patties to maximize their tenderness. Of course, the burger would also be seasoned with some fermented feral animal tinctures developed in Noma’s food lab. Service was moved outdoors to a smattering of picnic tables arranged at an appropriate social distance. Redzepi would donate a portion of the proceeds from burger sales to charitable causes.

As American cities began to emerge from quarantine, Alinea in Chicago—one of the world’s most decorated restaurants—launched an outdoor rooftop pop-up where guests could relish in one of their signature ticketed tasting menus al fresco. In the early days of lockdown, the restaurant had been successfully selling high-end comfort food for takeout designed by Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz. The tasting menu at AIR—an acronym for Alinea in Residence—included a bite-sized canapé molded into the shape of a microscopic Coronavirus cell.

When one of AIR’s guests posted a giddy photo of the dish on social media, the post went viral (no pun intended). “Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different,” Kokonas wrote on Instagram. “Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.” But as cases surpassed 60,000 per day in the United States alone, the food media whipped itself into a frenzy.

Defenders of Achatz’s creation—including two white male food critics from both of Chicago’s major newspapers—have cited the public’s need for escape. His Coronavirus canapés, they argued, were intended to deliver a dose of desperately needed levity. But with the death toll continuing to rise, it seemed like an inappropriate time to be making light of the pandemic. It’s an especially bad look in Chicago—home to many of the nation’s poorest Black and Latinx neighborhoods—given how communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the spread of the virus while the city’s affluent communities where many of Alinea’s guests reside have largely been spared.

The hiatus caused by the pandemic has forced many chefs and owners to reconsider their businesses models. The COVID crisis presents logistical challenges that make high-end service impractical or outright impossible. Canlis, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Seattle, turned its fine dining operation into an outdoor crab shack. Saison, a two-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, started smoking meats in its sister restaurant Angler and became Saison Smokehouse, a takeout barbecue joint. At N/Naka in Los Angeles, where 13-course prix fixe menus averaged $250 per person, Chef Niki Nakayama started offering $38 bento boxes. Even the legendary master of haute cuisine Daniel Boulud retrofitted his flagship restaurant Daniel for outdoor dining with a new a la carte bistro menu.

“Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different. Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.”

Nick Kokonas, Owner of Alinea

Even before the onset of the pandemic, upscale restaurants had already become grotesque theaters for unapologetic capitalism. Menus at high-end restaurants are designed to empty wallets by making food and wine purchases status symbols. The most successful fine dining restaurants desensitize guests to prices. They surround you with accoutrements that are more luxurious than you’ll ever own and a charismatic cast of characters whose cheerful temperament is unflappable. It’s the same manufactured joy that entices people to fork over hundreds of dollars to see a mediocre Broadway musical. Even when the performance sucks, you still leave tapping your feet.

While the fate of the industry hangs in the balance, it feels beyond self-indulgent for chefs to be flexing their cooking muscles for the enjoyment of a privileged few. The moxie of chefs like Achatz and Redzepi to return to business as usual while the COVID threat remains alive is confounding. While no one is immune to the economic impact due to the shutdown, affluent people have been insulated from its worst effects. Alinea’s rooftop is already booked through August.

But the euphoria may be short-lived. California, which reopened restaurants for indoor dining in late May, has already had to shut down restaurants again when indoor dining caused a dangerous spike in cases. The pattern is doomed to repeat itself in other American cities like Chicago where income inequality and vibrant dining scenes coexist.

This has always been one of the moral dilemmas presented by fine dining in densely populated urban areas. Many of the world’s most exclusive restaurants are located in cities with the highest levels of poverty. As a server, I’ve cringed watching rich people struggle with the question of whether or not they’d like to have their leftovers wrapped. On too many occasions, guests who’ve just eaten enough to feed a small family congratulate themselves by announcing proudly that they plan to give their uneaten food to a homeless person. These same people cheer when local mayors and police announce initiatives to “clean up” the city by forcibly removing the homeless from the streets.

Let’s be honest—fine dining caters to a white audience. It’s always been a safe space for white people to celebrate their privilege. That’s probably why so many Karens are going apeshit when they’re asked to put on a mask in a restaurant. Karens are accustomed to sidestepping the rules because upscale restaurants can’t afford to lose their business.

The fact that Kokonas defended his actions by telling his detractors to start thinking “a single level upwards” reveals elitist underpinnings. There’s an implication in his response that those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to procure a seat at Alinea’s exclusive soirée have a comprehension level a notch below his clientele’s. Maybe Kokonas and Co. should start thinking a level down or at least get their heads out of the clouds long enough to see beyond the prosperity of their own business.

The most fervent defenders of fine dining will argue that we all have the right to spend our hard-earned money however we please. They’re not wrong. This is America. Land of the Free, Home of the Shellfish Tower. The problem is that quite often the money spent in fine dining restaurants isn’t hard-earned at all. It’s spent recklessly from corporate expense accounts or inherited wealth. In most cases, the beneficiaries are white. The person washing their dishes isn’t.

Capitalists will tell you not to worry because the money trickles down when people spend frivolously. But now we’re learning the hard way what happens when the faucet gets turned off or a water main bursts. Without enhanced unemployment benefits, many restaurant workers would already have fallen into poverty and some may be at risk of losing their homes. Wealthy people, on the other hand, are battening down the hatches in their vacation homes, watching their stocks go up, while the rest of us worry about getting sick because we don’t have health insurance.

A few days after Alinea’s Coronavirus canapé went viral, the restaurant temporarily shuttered when a staff member tested positive for COVID. Until medical treatment is readily available, it’s hard to imagine an outcome other than the fits and starts we’ve seen across the nation as cities rush to reopen. Not surprisingly, bars and restaurants have proven to be nexuses of transmission and community spread. Until political leaders are able to look beyond stimulating economic growth, the restaurant industry will have to rely on its own instincts to create a paradigm that allows it to serve food without killing people.

Let’s face it. The world doesn’t need fine dining right now. Maybe it never did. It needs community support and unity across racial, political and economic lines. Fine dining restaurants that cater only to the wealthy are a symptom of society’s underlying sickness which is how desensitized we’ve become to human suffering. Profiting from privilege during the worst public health crisis in a generation while putting workers and patrons at risk only further deepens the divide. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for immorality.

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