I Abolished Tipping at My Restaurant, and Our Service Got Better

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Aug. 14 2013 2:23 PM

What Happens When You Abolish Tipping

I got rid of gratuities at my restaurant, and our service only got better.

(Continued from Page 1)

Creating a non-tipping culture in restaurants is possible. We made our non-tipping restaurant work in the U.S. for more than six years, and from what I saw, eliminating tipping is a superior model. And, as Slate’s Brian Palmer has shown, there’s plenty of research to back up my observations. Studies have shown that tipping is not an effective incentive for performance in servers. It also creates an environment in which people of color, young people, old people, women, and foreigners tend to get worse service than white males. In a tip-based system, nonwhite servers make less than their white peers for equal work. Consider also the power imbalance between tippers, who are typically male, and servers, 70 percent of whom are female, and consider that the restaurant industry generates five times the average number of sexual harassment claims per worker. And that in many instances employers have allegedly misused tip credits, which let owners pay servers less than minimum wage if tipping makes up the difference.

Despite—or maybe because of—all the documented damage caused by tip culture, plenty of people are deeply, emotionally invested in keeping tipping propped up. When we abolished tipping at the Linkery, we met a few of these people. We would periodically hear guests express anger about not being able to choose the amount of their tip. Their refrain was, It's not about money ... I always tip more than 20 percent. These people were angry even though they had spent less than they otherwise would have, because they had been robbed of their perceived power over their server.

We also had guests—including, most memorably, a local food writer—who'd ask us, If you have a fixed charge, how are we supposed to punish our server for mistakes? In the case of the food writer, she opted to publish an article dressing down her server, using his real name, in the local alt-weekly. I'd suggest talking to or emailing a manager if you have service problems with any business. 

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I think the most notable opponent we encountered who wanted to cling to the tipping model was our local city attorney. In spite of our posted signs and check stamps and menu text and blog posts that outlined the service charge, his office accused us of trying to deceive consumers with it, and threatened me with fines and jail time. I thought this made me a special kind of outlaw, until this year when the same city attorney tried to stick one of my neighbors with 13 years in jail for writing protest slogans on the sidewalk using water-soluble children's chalk. In neither case did the prosecutor prevail. But the example illustrates, I think, the kind of person who will fight to save tipping culture: a person who lives in a world of offenses and punishment, someone invested in the idea of authority and the feeling of power. Incidentally, this kind of person is often a middle-aged white guy.

Thanks to people like this, the forces of tipping may have the upper hand, for now. But, if more businesses experiment with alternative models, and courts are eventually asked to grapple with tipping's discrimination issues, the situation may change. Maybe in a not-too-distant future, every restaurant will present us a bill that includes everything we're supposed to pay, including enough to pay good wages to all the people who work there. It's a system that's successful in other industries, and in restaurants in other countries. It can work here, too—and it can work better, in almost every way, than the system we have now.

Jay Porter operated San Diego’s farm-to-table restaurant The Linkery for about a decade; his new restaurant, Salsipuedes, will open in North Oakland later this year.

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