It was the coat check tips that did it, back when I was working for a restaurant company and became friendly with a woman who staffed one of our hostess stations. It felt strange and demeaning to go from chatting about our weekend plans one minute to pressing a couple of sweaty bills into her hand in exchange for my coat the next. But to abstain would be even worse — it would mean neglecting my contribution to a pool of money that I knew comprised her income. I get the feeling she wasn’t too keen on the power dynamics, either.
The friendships I’ve formed with restaurant employees over the years have made me think seriously about why hospitality workers are singled out among America’s professionals to endure a pass-the-hat system of compensation. Why should a server’s pay depend upon the generosity — not to mention dubious arithmetic skills — of people like me?
So I was thrilled to hear that New York City’s Sushi Yasuda recently decided to eliminate tipping altogether. Including gratuity for parties of six or more has already become relatively commonplace; in a few restaurants, like Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry, it’s automatically added onto all checks. But Yasuda has gone one step further, dispensing with service as a separate line item — and implicitly, an “extra” — and folding it into their prices as a cost of doing business, along with the rent, and electricity, and ingredients.
If I had my way, we’d take this idea to its logical conclusion and get rid of the practice of tipping altogether. Just outlaw it. Here’s why:
1. People don’t even understand what a tip is
If you are of the belief that a tip is an optional kindness you’re doing for your server, you might be surprised to hear that you are not in France. Here in America, the practice is voluntary only in the legal sense of the word. You are not technically stealing if you don’t tip the customary 15 to 20 percent, but that’s probably the best that can be said of you. The tip you pay is a sort of wage: federal law allows tips to be used to make up the difference between a server’s salary and minimum wage, meaning they can make as little as $2 to $3 per hour from their restaurant employer. Tips are absolutely depended upon to make up the shortfall.
When you leave a bad tip, you are docking a person’s wages. This may either be because you’re confused about what’s expected or because you’re an asshole, and you really believe that your sea bass arriving lukewarm is justly punishable by making it a little harder for the guy who brought it to you to pay his rent.
2. Doctors don’t live on tips. Nor do flight attendants.
Tip confusion is understandable, because it’s not the way we choose to compensate most of our other people-facing professions. Imagine if when you went to the doctor, you decided how much he got paid based on how happy you were with the diagnosis; or if actors and musicians were paid discretionary sums by the audience, post-performance. Even within the context of the restaurant, some roles receive salaries and others rely on tips. Why do I tip the bartender who made my Manhattan, but not the line cook who grilled the excellent steak I’m eating with it? It’s completely arbitrary. Servers, whose job demands are not fundamentally different than that of hard-working office assistants, or hotel concierges, or spin instructors, or flight attendants, should be paid the competitive wage for what they do and how well they do it, and that cost should be factored into menu prices.
3. The percentage basis makes no sense
Did a server work less because I ordered a $40 bottle of wine than if I had ordered a $400 one? Should I feel a little bit bad when I’m a party of three on a table for four, as the waiter is getting stiffed on 25 percent of his or her optimal tip? Is it less hard to work at a roadside diner than Le Bernardin, where the check averages are approximately ten times higher? (Although that one isn’t entirely fair; a place like Le Bernardin is dividing the tip among a much larger staff).
4. Better service doesn’t actually beget better tips
Diners love the power to bestow or withhold financial reward at their whim; servers, in turn, seem to be motivated by the idea that really excellent service could be rewarded by a monster gratuity. The trouble is, that’s not actually how things pan out in practice. Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, has spent his career researching tipping behaviors, and found that perceived service quality only accounts for two percent of the variation between tips. Two percent! It’s probably not even enough to be picked up on by the server, much less cause a significant change in behavior.
5. It perpetuates racism and sexism
Lynn’s research also shows that tip amounts are affected by racial and gender discrimination. Female servers get larger tips than male servers; sexy women earn more than frumpy ones; white servers, more money than their black counterparts — regardless of what the perceived quality of service is. The system works the other way, too. Black diners tip less on average than do white diners, and research shows that servers provide black diners with inferior service as a result. The tipping system catches us all in a regressive cesspool of our own worst prejudices.
6. Smart people have been trying to end the tipping practice for a century
Backlashes against the tipping practice are not new. There was an anti-tipping movement at the beginning of the 20th century amongst Americans who saw it as an aristocratic holdover contrary to the country’s democratic ideals. Between 1909 and 1915 six states passed anti-tipping laws, all of which were repealed by the mid-1920’s as unenforceable or potentially unconstitutional. Samuel Gompers, who founded the AFL, was one political figure notably outspoken against tipping as promoting detrimental class distinctions.
But despite all this, the country as a whole has been loath to abandon the tipping convention. If knowing all of the above, you still balk at the idea of a service charge being rolled into the cost of your meal, maybe you should ask yourself why this is. Are you unwilling to participate in what a restaurant judges to be the fair, market-rate compensation for its employees? Do you think that you are a pawn in a nefarious plot by management to grossly over-reward servers, those men and women who are on their feet for eight hours, ferrying your drinks and foods to and fro? Do you believe that you are in a better position than the restaurant manager to motivate and evaluate his or her staff and make the complicated decisions about compensation and employment?
If yes, can I march into your office and adjust your pay depending on how well you do in our meeting? Or — more accurately — depending on your skin color, your breast size, or your age? Well, of course not, is the answer to that one. Because that would be barbaric.
(Editor’s note: As an employer in the food business I am 100% for eradicating the tip system. We pay our employees well so they are incentivized to give everyone top service, not just the people they think are going to tip them out. Slimy employers abuse the current structure by using a customer’s generosity to subsidize a worker’s living instead of taking care of their workers themselves.)