OK, We All Know Tipping in Restaurants Is Ridiculous—Right?

Despite a lot of hubbub, the anti-tipping revolution has trouble getting off the ground.

(Photo: Fuse/Getty Images)

Jun 10, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Can we all agree that tipping in restaurants is ridiculous? Apparently not.

Like any new restaurant owner, Bob Conway no doubt girded himself for the online snark fest that inevitably seems to ensue following the debut of just about any local establishment, courtesy of those semi-anonymous self-anointed critics who post scathing reviews that trash everything from the food to the service to the decor. But what he may not have prepared himself for was the hostility he provoked by instituting a strict “no tipping” policy at his Packhouse Meats in Newport, Ky., across the river from Cincinnati.

He got “pummeled,” according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Yelp reviews prove it. The reactions range from baffled (“This is the weirdest thing I have ever heard and thank god we had some cash on hand for once to give [our waitress],” writes one reviewer) to vexed (“We’re not sure where the owner gets off with this”) to annoyingly supercilious (“The restaurant has a no tipping concept, but that leads to no incentive to provide good service”).

There’s only one problem with that bit of logic, to which we Americans seem to cling as tenaciously as our aversion to the metric system, our suspicion of universal health care, and our guns: It’s not true.

Thanks to a spate of articles and op-ed pieces beginning last year, we now know that tipping does little to nothing to inspire good service. As Brian Palmer astutely pointed out last July in Slate, “The factors that correlate most strongly to tip size have virtually nothing to do with the quality of service.” Among other things, Palmer cites a 2000 study from Cornell University that found our evaluation of how well a server performs his or her job only accounts for between 1 and 5 percent in the variation of our tips.

What accounts for just as much, if not more? How about whether your server draws a smiley face on your check? Or touches you on the arm or hand? Or crouches next to your table? Or is blond? Or wears red?

According to the New Republic, all five factors—many of which are strongly associated with interactions between female servers and male diners—corresponded to higher tips in separate studies.

Such nonsense would seem to put tipping squarely in the category of the ridiculous, as New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells put it in September: “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. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

Yet even as such salvos appear poised to launch an anti-tipping revolution, with big-name chefs such as Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio, and David Chang musing about converting their much lauded restaurants into no-tipping establishments, the movement really has yet to take off.

Hence, it’s news when a hip meatball joint in Kentucky decides to do it, joining a scant handful of recent converts, such as Brand 158 in Los Angeles and Sushi Yasuda in New York.

Why Americans remain so wary of giving up tipping is something of mystery, though it would seem primarily bound up in ingrained habit—I’ll admit that I’d feel something like a boor leaving the table without dutifully plunking down my 20 percent—and maybe something more insidious, a kind of classist condescendence masquerading as solidarity with the proletariat.

If that sounds far-fetched, ask yourself why is it that we somehow believe we’ve got to essentially dangle money in the faces of the people who take our order and bring us our food to spur them to do a decent job when that’s not the world most of the rest of us work in? Isn’t there something inherently condescending about that?

“Servers are motivated to do a good job in the same ways that everyone else is,” Jay Porter, who ran a tipless restaurant in San Diego for six year, wrote last summer in Slate. “Servers want to keep their jobs; servers want to get a raise; servers want to be successful and see themselves as professionals and take pride in their work. In any workplace, everyone is required to perform well, and tips have nothing to do with it. The next time you see your doctor, ask her if she wouldn’t do better-quality work if she made minimum wage, with the rest of her income from her patients’ tips. I suspect the answer will be a version of ‘no.’ ”

Anyone who still wants to counter that tipping is somehow providing a more equitable wage for restaurant workers should take note of stats compiled by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, which advocates for better working conditions for restaurant workers. Tipped restaurant workers, who can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour, rely on food stamps at a rate double that of the rest of the American workforce, and they live in poverty at triple the rate.

The ROC’s first recommendation? Raise the minimum wage already.