Despite a lot of recent criticism of the deeply entrenched American practice of tipping in restaurants, the anti-tipping revolution still hasn’t come to pass in any significant manner. Instead of living-wage revolutionaries lining up outside establishments where employees have to depend on gratuities, the TV news crews show up when a restaurant decides to abolish tips—any restaurant, anywhere.
Opened a scant two weeks ago in San Antonio, Oaks Crossing has already been featured on the local TV news but not for its fairly standard menu of sandwiches, burgers, and “true Texas BBQ.” It was (gasp) because of the restaurant’s policy forbidding its servers to accept tips. Any tips left are gathered up and donated to charity.
“Great service is typically awarded with a tip,” the anchor for KENS-5 says as if he’s setting up one of those “gotcha” segments, like when they go after, say, a roofing contractor who has absconded with a lonely widow’s deposit. “But KENS-5 has learned that a local restaurant isn’t letting its staff pocket its tips. And customers have no idea about any of this. So where is all the money going?” (Italics, but not the dramatic delivery, mine.)
A couple of patrons accosted by the reporter in the parking lot express a kind of soft-spoken bemusement that fails to rise to the level of indignation the reporter was no doubt hoping for, at least judging by her narration.
“Well, I think they at least need to put signs out or notify you somehow,” one of the customers says.
Indeed, unlike the last no-tip restaurant to land in the news—Packhouse Meats in Newport, Ky., which plastered its “No Tipping!” signs everywhere and even removed the tip line from the credit card receipts—Oaks Crossing wasn’t as forthcoming. Kimberly Harle, a spokeswoman for H-E-B, the Texas-based grocery chain that owns and operates the restaurant, told me that signs informing customers of the policy would be in Oaks Crossing any day now.
Harle says the company was surprised at the flurry of media attention. H-E-B runs a restaurant in Austin that’s no-tip, though it’s not as full-service as Oaks Crossing. As for what would motivate a grocery chain dipping its toe into the restaurant biz to buck the industry standard and adopt a fairly radical and, to most American diners, baffling no-tipping policy, Harle has a pretty polished reply: “We invest heavily in our partners [i.e., employees], so we wanted to make sure they were fully compensated at the H-E-B standard and not the restaurant standard.”
When you think about it, that really says something about the state of the American restaurant worker. I mean, it’s not like working in a grocery store is going to put anyone on Easy Street anytime soon—but here we have a company that employs an army of baggers and deli clerks that thinks pay for restaurant workers is too low.
Of course, when H-E-B says it’s paying the servers at Oaks Crossing a “competitive wage,” that begs the question: What is the wage? Many commentators have expressed skepticism about what that might be—and I struck out in trying to get Harle to tell me.
“We can’t put a dollar amount out there because it varies; it depends on a server’s experience and other factors,” she says. She maintains that H-E-B undertook extensive research to determine what servers at similar restaurants make, including tips, then added a bonus (again, undisclosed) on top of that to come up with its undisclosed wage scale.
As for the charitable aspect, the first $1,000 in tips at Oaks Crossing is set to be donated to a local branch of the San Antonio Public Library, while future recipients will be chosen by the Oaks Crossing staff.
“We want them to pick nonprofits that they’re passionate about,” Harle says. “Because it’s their hard work that the tips are rewarding.”