5 Bay Area Restaurants End Tipping—Will Others Follow Suit?

As in Europe, they’re adding a 20 percent service charge to checks instead.
(Photo: Angela Wyatt/Getty Images)
Oct 25, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

How much to tip?

Soon, diners at some restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area won’t need to ask themselves that question.

Five popular establishments—Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco, Comal in Berkeley, and Camino and Duende in Oakland—will ban tipping within the next few weeks. Instead, they’ll tack a 20 percent service charge onto bills, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Workers—both wait staff and those behind kitchen doors—will earn hourly wages based on their performance and the establishment’s revenue.

Though it might seem odd, this is standard practice in many countries.The California restaurateurs are hoping it’ll catch on at home.

John Paluska, co-owner of Comal, told the Chronicle that a widening pay gap between kitchen workers and servers and bartenders—who can earn twice as much thanks to tips—is one reason he’s making the change.

While tips only go to front-of-house workers, an automatic surcharge would go toward a restaurant’s revenue. According to the owners, earnings from the service fee will be used for wages, benefits, and payroll costs that cover all employees.

“Nothing is more exciting about this whole thing than sitting down with one of our cooks and saying, ‘You get a 20 percent raise,’ ” Andrew Hoffman, Paluska’s business partner, told the Chronicle.

Why pass the cost to costumers?

Most restaurants run on thin margins, according to the paper, and paying employees higher wages can quickly affect profitability. A surcharge, the restaurateurs argue, means more profit, and hence the ability to share the wealth.

Then there’s the service issue.

Proponents of tipping posit that an incentive-based system ensures good service. Yet studies say that’s not quite the case. One report found that a customer’s judgment of a server’s performance only accounts for a 1 to 5 percent difference in tips. Plus, as Slate points out, it perpetuates a “racially charged feedback loop…that African-Americans tend to be subpar tippers,” which compels some restaurant workers to prioritize some customers over others based on ethnicity—leading to the dissed customers tipping less, which just reinforces the impression.

All of which begs the question: Why do we tip anyway?

The idea goes back to 18th-century London, where a coffeehouse placed money-soliciting bowls labeled “to insure promptitude,” or T.I.P., on tables. As the economic boom created by the industrial revolution led to more instances of the poor serving an expanding bourgeoisie, the incentive-based system caught on. It made its way to the United States sometime after the Civil War. Europe eventually eschewed the practice and put higher wages into place, but tipping is still the norm in the U.S.

Today, there are 3.3 million American workers whose livelihoods depend on the whims of those who can afford to be generous. They’re twice as likely as other earners to live below the poverty line.