In Defense of Tipping

As the owner of a fifty-seat restaurant in San Francisco, I was dismayed when a well-known New York restaurateur named Danny Meyer announced that he intended to end the practice of tipping a dozen or so of his restaurants. He said it wasn’t fair that the servers in his establishments were making so much more money than the cooks, and he was going to get rid of tipping and raise prices in order to control a bigger pile of revenue and pay each employee in a more equitable way.

That seems fair enough. How many industries are there after all in which proprietors pay certain employees minimum wage, and everyone involved willingly leaves the rest to chance and the goodwill of the patrons? Yet in the twenty years I’ve spent working in restaurants, tipping is a practice I’ve come to appreciate as part of the dining experience. I speak often with my staff about the idea of an unspoken social contract that exists when people come into the restaurant and take their seats. I try to make the case to servers that at every table, every night, we are being presented with a civic obligation. Guests who arrive at the restaurant for dinner tacitly express their willingness to pay for the experience that they expect to have. There is a 99.99% chance that they are going to pay the bill when it is finally presented to them, whether the food and service are fair, middling or spectacular. In that sense, especially when the dinner is likely to cost a couple of hundred dollars or more, they are putting their trust in us, in spite of the fact that we are often strangers to them.

It has been my experience that the best servers are inspired by this dynamic. They love the anonymity of it. They know that the four people in front of them are going to pay for dinner no matter how terrific a time they have, and they relish the opportunity to bend over backwards and create something special for them. Guests and patrons of any kind who are lucky enough these days to be the beneficiaries of expertly gracious service are well aware of what a treat it is. This give and take and trust is the core of hospitality.

Now the case has been made and with some legitimacy that a doubloon in the palm as thanks after someone has shown you a good turn need not be a part of the entire equation. People on both ends of transactions can feel good without the exchange of anything more than a smile and a thank you. Still, it bears mentioning that the demonstration of gratitude is a pretty nice feature of life on this planet; and also that monetary tipping as a custom grows directly out of this fairly wonderful impulse. I think it would be just as wonderful if people knitted scarves to say thank you, but as it happens most of us do not have the time to personalize the many appreciative gestures of modern life. So we rely on money a lot of the time, and when a monetary tip is gratefully accepted, it completes a circle, cements a relationship, however fleeting.

In an interview with The Eater website, justifying getting rid of tipping, Danny Meyer pointed out that in his restaurants, the practice has resulted in a stark disparity between what servers earn and what cooks earn. But then he went on to say that New York is experiencing a shortage of cooks. And that, I would wager, explains his decision to end tipping. The truth is that big city restaurants are facing a real crisis: they can’t staff their kitchens at the pay rate to which they and their business models have grown accustomed. The figure listed in the Eater piece as a starting salary for a Manhattan line cook is $35,000, which amounts to taking home about $2,000 per month, which may or may not be enough for just a warm bedroom in New York City. My guess is that if Danny Meyer had an abundance of kitchen applicants who were willing to work for the wages that are presently being offered even in Manhattan, his misgivings about tipping would be packed away somewhere in the back of the kitchen on a shelf next to the hazelnuts.

There is a systematic problem in the restaurant industry in this country, and it looks a lot like the systematic problem in other industries. As we have become very focused culturally on innovation and growth, we have neglected what were once known as the trades, and we have centralized the ideas we have about work. Our restaurants have become churches of expensive whimsy and special effects, and they are full of underpaid and undertrained culinary graduates who work three people to a station with tweezers in hand and a stack of paper towels to rest each tempura-fried baby turnip. These young people hear from everyone in their lives how great it is that they get to work under a famous celebrity chef. Depending on how much money they have when they begin their ‘apprenticeships,’ at some point they begin to wonder whether they might one day be able to make a living while working at a restaurant. Then they drop their tweezers and another fresh face with a diploma picks them up and assumes the position for $15 an hour.

We have moved away from small farming, teaching, carpentry, baking, cooking, private practice medicine and how many other things? — and into the sterile workshops of national and international corporations, and as a consequence, well-paying jobs are drying up. Not because we don’t have the talent or the willingness to do great work, but because corporations do not find it in their interest to pay fair wages. In the restaurant business, for example, local and independently owned fine dining establishments have become increasingly rare, and those that do exist often struggle. Large-scale business entities have been calling the shots with greater frequency, everyone knows, for the last few decades. A few hours after the Eater story about Danny Meyer posted, a follow-up piece appeared that carried extensive reactions from restaurateurs around the country, some of whom were listed not just as ‘Chef’ or ‘Restaurateur’, but given the additional title of ‘Empire Builder’.

Of course I understand that many products in the world lend themselves to some sort of scaling. It is hard to imagine very many of us buying automobiles from manufacturers who make fifty of them at a time. But should fine restaurants really be scaled, under the same corporate umbrella, to include ten or twenty different dining rooms and kitchens? What happens to the notion of a relationship between the proprietor and the patrons under such circumstances, if the proprietor is hardly ever there? What happens is the same thing that happens in big companies of all kinds: the implementation of systems. Companies choose paths of least resistance and they prioritize the achievement of dependable profits. The end of restaurant tipping may actually be on the horizon in this country, and whether you think it’s finally for better or worse, it isn’t a surprise that the catalyst might be the decision of a big New York City restaurant group.

Working as I do in the industry I do, I would say that some of our answers to mitigating these effects lie in getting our hands dirty with the real work that the real employees perform. In my case at the moment that means putting on an apron sometimes and peeling carrots and thinking a little less about finding a decent location to open another restaurant. It means figuring out creative ways to generate more revenue and pay my cooks more. I have only five of them, so the challenge usually seems manageable to me. In spite of the disadvantages I perceive as the proprietor of one little restaurant, one thing I often think I have going for me is a fairly ready ability to adapt. My patrons could suddenly sour on eating meat, or they could tell me they would much rather have dinner at four in the afternoon, and I think I could roll out quick fixes.

Enough with building restaurant empires already and let’s get serious about real training and a little modesty and working together to build strong local communities. Many of us take it for granted now that food is important, and we should stop burdening its production and its service with so much hubris. I think it would be really great if we began to see a proliferation of good, small, independently-run restaurants in this country. We already have plenty of talent when it comes to cooking and beverage service and hospitality. We also have plenty of mentors to lead by example who have spent years in the business and who once hungered to have just one dining room of their own, attached to one kitchen, in which to serve great meals to their neighbors.

An ample supply of gratitude awaits everyone involved.