Is Tipping Outdated? The Debate Over Restaurant Gratuities Goes National

A ‘New York Times’ restaurant critic jumps into the tipping debate.

Restaurant Tipping: Alternative Methods
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Taking a break from critiquing what’s on the plates of New York City restaurants, New York Times critic Pete Wells focused on checks yesterday—specifically tips, service charges and other models for paying restaurant employees above and beyond an hourly wage. The piece, “Leaving a Tip: A Custom in Need of Changing?” is further proof that the debate over restaurant wages—in fast food and in the fine-dining establishments Wells writes about—is having a significant moment; restaurant reviews in the Times seldom touch on labor issues, never mind tackle them directly.

“I could go on against tipping, but let’s leave it at this: it is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory,” Wells writes, making it more than clear that the headline is very much a rhetorical questions. “The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

What follows is an examination of various alt-tipping measures the owners of some of the country’s most lauded restaurants have undertaken, such as the surcharge added to checks at Chicago’s Alinea and Next, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, and Sushi Yasuda, a Manhattan sushi bar that did away with tips (and raised “most” of its prices, according to Wells) two months ago. “Following the custom in Japan, Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salary,” reads a card that diners receive with their check, he reports. “Therefore gratuities are not accepted.”

Jay Porter, who ran San Diego’s The Linkery as a tip-less restaurant for more than six years, mentioned the sushi-bar approach when I interviewed him for a story last month. “The whole sushi model, sushi bar model, a big portion of it is having the chefs interact with the sushi bar customers,” he said, referring to the double-duty the kitchen staff does as servers, passing customers plates of nigiri and slips of sashimi across the bar. “The operator is able to funnel part of that revenue stream legally to the sushi chefs,” because the service charge is indeed related to serving food—not just preparing it.

The distinction is an important one. As Wells points out, “The term [service charge] is misleading if the money goes to workers who don’t serve, and lawyers warn that in New York State, that would be illegal.”

The sole example Wells offers of a restaurant where dinner doesn’t cost a minimum of few hundred dollars is the Oakland, CA, restaurant Plum, where an 18 percent surcharge on all checks was scrapped after “diners rebelled.” Which might have you thinking that the upper echelons of the dining world are where workers receive the most egalitarian treatment.

But what’s missing is any talk of actual wages. Wells never mentions that the tipped minimum wage in New York is $5.65 per hour (the federal rate just $2.13), and doesn’t report what base wage employees are earning or how these surcharge funds are distributed.

He does mention the inequality in wages between front-of-house workers, who tend to pull in more tips, and “the blistered, stained and profane grunts in the kitchen,” whose earnings have stayed “low” despite the standard tip rising from 15 to 20 percent. “The rise of chefs that are also owners has brought a few of the grunts to power,” he writes, suggesting that having more chef-owners running both the kitchen and the business has brought about the push for tipping alternatives that balance out wages for all employees.

Except chefs like David Chang, who Wells says was considering but ultimately passed on implementing a service-included model at his Momofuku restaurants—see the likes of France—with its 35-hour workweek and generous benefits, as a cautionary tale for how labor laws can stifle culinary innovation. Chang wrote on Twitter in 2011 that lopping those extra few hours off of the workweek back in 2000 “killed french & UK fine dining.”

It was around the same time that Spain usurped France as the top destination for fine dining, and what’s seen by many chefs as French haute cuisine’s self-imposed fall from grace is a recurring theme in Chang’s food journal, Lucky Peach. “The whole Michelin systems collapsed in France when they started the 35-hour workweek and got rid of the stagiaires [apprentices],” Dave McMillan of the Montreal restaurant Joe Beef said in a 2012 Lucky Peach interview. “So many restaurants fell apart at that time. All the restaurants had to go from the twenty-five in the kitchen to the real five they were paying.” 

In 2003, Arthur Lobow wrote about the shifting center of the culinary world for the New York Times Magazine, reporting that France not only has a 35-hour workweek, but, “In addition to the benefits that the proprietor provides for his staff, which the customer pays indirectly, the state slaps on a blatant 19.6% value-added tax to the bill.”

Chang may have foregone a service-charge model, but service is included in the bill at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, where an army of chefs—many of whom are interns, externs or short-term stage employees—prepares the multicourse meals with exacting precision. Other high-end kitchens around the country are similarly staffed with a mix of full-time employees, earning commensurate wages and benefits, and interns. The French Laundry hasn’t responded to my inquiry about intern compensation, but if they do pay, it’s surely at a lower wage than officially employeed kitchen staff.

Wells doesn’t mention Porter’s writing about The Linkery’s no-tips policy, nor the “health and wellness” surcharge Portland’s Biwa has implemented. Both are examples of far more affordable restaurants seeking alternatives to the traditional tips and wages model, establishments that don’t have a nearly infinite pool of aspiring chefs who would be willing to work there for free or close to free. That’s not to discredit the ramen at Biwa or the sausages The Linkery served while it was still open; but it does make their alternative approaches to providing higher, more equitable wages (and benefits) more compelling. 

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