Much has been written in recent weeks about the long-term future of tipping in America. The winds of change are swirling and the viability of gratuity as a way of rewarding restaurant staff is under scrutiny. We’ve weighed in on the argument and, though adapting a new business model may be inevitable, we believe that it wont be easy to reform an industry anchored in a culture of exchanging money for pleasure. One reason we support changing the current tip system is that it encourages servers to adopt a “whore’s mentality” toward satisfying the guest. The meal is the sex—our job is to make sure you enjoy it. Like an evening with a hired companion, the ending can be awkward and shameful when it felt like you shared intimacy but everyone knows it was only for the money.
Restaurant service can be described in simple—if not cynical—terms: You pay money to eat food in a comfortable atmosphere attended to by people who pretend to like you no matter how you behave. A restaurant functions like a whorehouse, albeit a far more soft-core version. You come to us to be serviced; we smile and put your needs first, you leave us money on the table when it’s over and we’ll probably never see each other again (or at least we won’t be the one serving you next time). Restaurants are like handsomely lit brothels that serve food. We turn tables, prostitutes turn tricks. Same, same.
But, unlike whoring, people think it’s easy to wait tables. In many ways, the intercourse is just as invasive—at least psychologically—and, as with prostitutes, there is an art to pretending to enjoy it. No amount of training can prepare you to deal with people’s eccentricities. Catering to the needs of insatiable guests requires a herculean amount of flexibility and patience. Why do you think so many waiters get “turned out” and leave their jobs within less than a year? It’s a transient business and the life-span of hospitality professionals is often fleeting. The waiters who stay in the game learn to compartmentalize the abuse and are somehow able to turn what most people perceive as an undesirable vocation—waiting tables is routinely at the top of any survey of worst jobs—into a very lucrative living. When you work in hospitality, you have to train yourself to tune out the noise. Otherwise, you will lose your mind. Some do.
We’re not saying that every good server is faking it. Many restaurant professionals genuinely get a thrill effacing themselves for the edification of others. They gravitate toward hospitality careers because they love making other people happy. In other words, they enjoy the sex. But a vast majority of waiters would rather be doing something else with their life, so, suffice it to say, many are just going through the motions. If service is really good, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. For an experienced server, compliance is the path of least resistance especially when your livelihood depends on it.
Talking back to a guest can have serious consequences, even when they deserve it. Waiters, just like prostitutes, don’t have many tools at their disposal to defend themselves against encroachment and some diners know how to take advantage of the imbalance of power. Many treat the server as though they are on display and find joy in poking and prodding them or by making corny jokes and expecting a reaction. It’s very difficult even for the most demure server to discourage unwanted attention from guests. If servers choose not to play along, it can be at the expense of their relationship with the table and the quality of their tip. Like certain johns, many diners feel they need to really know you. That ‘what’s your real name?’ stripper-dynamic can be exhausting for a server that is just trying earn an honest living. Isn’t that why we chose restaurant work over less savory employment opportunities in the first place?
Danny Meyer—the Guru of Good Service—shook up the restaurant world this week announcing his plans to do away with tipping in all thirteen full-service restaurants in the Union Square Hospitality Group by the end of 2016. He refers to this new policy compassionately as “Hospitality Included” and when implemented it will entail significantly raising menu prices to subsidize staff salaries in a way that will result in greater income equality between kitchen staff and front of house. We admire this courageous decision and share Mr. Meyer’s core belief that we are an industry in need of reform. But before we go giving each other high fives, it’s worth examining closer what might happen as a result of these measures. Regardless of how you feel about the future of tipping, considering the consequences of overhauling how restaurant workers are paid will give some insight into the future of the restaurant business.
The many opponents of tipping will cheer restaurateurs like Meyer despite the fact that they will probably end up paying the same amount for service—even when they are disappointed with it. Meyer admits that some of his guests may actually pay more than they do now even when you factor in the generous gratuity left to the server. There will be many grey areas in how management chooses to distribute service charges or how they set pay rates among the different positions. Finding a balance in a way that is considered equitable by all “stakeholders”—as Danny likes to call the team—may be a divisive issue no matter how much more money people make. For many servers, the $200-plus tipped dinner shift that made it worth staying at a job might become the $150-minus salaried one that makes it necessary to start getting your resume together.
There is no guarantee that diverting income away from FOH and toward kitchen workers will resolve the issue of attracting and retaining BOH talent. The depressed wages of line cooks are not the only factor in the heavy churn. Young cooks leave restaurant jobs prematurely to pursue experience that can help them start their own projects and, in some cases, more money cannot replace the skills they can acquire somewhere else. Sure, a modest raise in hourly pay will go a long way toward paying kitchen workers more fairly, but whether it attracts more people to cooking as a vocation and/or prevents them from fleeing the industry is a different story. Let there be no confusion: We are unequivocally in favor of anything that results in higher incomes for our hard-working friends behind the line.
Satisfying FOH workers who have been hooked up to the tip I.V. for years will be an even greater challenge for the folks at USHG and other revolutionaries. Cue the bitching about how servers are spoiled, rotten little brats who inevitably complain about their situation regardless. Yes, sometimes they do, but every industry has its divas. The underreported reality is that many highly educated and articulate people who otherwise wouldn’t set foot near a MICROS terminal are attracted to the competitive earning potential of gigs in top restaurants. Let us put it in more direct terms: Sometimes the quality of your server is better than it should be because of tipping. There is a strong likelihood—and USHG knows it—that this demographic may opt out of the talent pool if FOH wages stagnate or drop.
Salary also isn’t the only concern most waiters have. People gravitate toward hospitality jobs for flexible schedules and may resist the demand for full-time commitment that may be expected of full-salaried employees in these new systems. The opportunity currently afforded tipped employees to quickly raise funds through performance-based pay is something that, for many FOHers, makes it all worth it. The sugar high you get from being tipped well makes it much easier to cope with the demoralizing elements of the business—insane hours, psychological abuse, micromanagement. Most of today’s FOH employees have peripheral pursuits outside of their restaurant life and will resist efforts on the part of management to lock them in with a more regimented work schedule and pay structure. While it’s true that service-included policies are geared toward cultivating a new generation of hospitality professionals who exhibit a greater level of commitment to the industry, it is unrealistic to assume that a majority of “amateurs” working in restaurants want to turn pro.
This is to say nothing about how changes in pay may affect the caliber of service you receive when you dine out. Not every restaurant delivers service up to Danny Meyer standards. The tipping culture is designed to stimulate a sense of urgency behind service that many Americans take for granted. It has stood the test of time for a reason. Sometimes it works to motivate the staff to your benefit. While it may not be the most humane system to let the customer determine a server’s salary and not his boss, travel around Europe for awhile—where gratuities, by and large, do not exist—and see how service compares. Imagine a busy New York City bar three-deep on a Saturday night with a salaried bartender presiding. What forces can you expect motivate him to expedite his service? Of course, you will always find people who perform at a high level out of pride. But if you give the mice all the cheese in advance, don’t expect them to be hungry.
Restaurant jobs do not function like nine-to-five jobs. The work load for every shift can differ drastically depending on the day of the week, time of day or even season. Under the current system, the top waiters or most senior staff prefer to be assigned the busiest shifts where they have the opportunity to make the most money. Under a salaried system, that dynamic will likely change (although some restaurateurs like Meyer have suggested “revenue sharing” models to keep staff motivated). Whether you work in the kitchen or on the floor as a server, there will be no incentive to work on busy nights anymore if you are paid salary or weekly shift pay.
It is unrealistic to think that eliminating tips will work everywhere. Restaurants like those operated by USHG and Amanda Cohen’s East Village veggie-centric Dirt Candy (one of the first to experiment with eliminating tipping) have a much greater chance to succeed implementing this formula because they are busy. In the case of USHG, their restaurants are established enough that they have pricing power to move to a menu that has the cost of service (er…hospitality) baked in. But what about restaurants who struggle to fill the seats? Will they be able to subsidize a server’s salary while they wait for revenues to catch up? In the nascent years of a restaurant’s fragile development, it may not have enough milky teats to nourish its entire staff at full salary. Shifting the burden for paying servers onto the customer is probably an important reason why the tipping system has outlasted its critics all these years. This is a fact that is conveniently ignored in the tipping debate: When a restaurant is suffering, the FOH eases the financial burden through it’s artificially depressed wages. You don’t hear too many people heralding their sacrifice in the bad times. Yet, you can be sure they will always be villainized when a restaurant flourishes.
This is not a defense of tipping as much as it is a caveat to those who view this action by Danny Meyer as a messianic act. As brave as we think it is, there will be a long learning curve. We agree that tipping is an arcane convention of the restaurant world that deserves revision. We just know that it’s going to take more than a few drafts to get it right.