Is it time to reconsider America’s restaurant tipping system?

Torri Donley

It’s a Saturday night in Dallas’ Uptown district, and valet lots fill up as music and laughter float from restaurants along McKinney Avenue. Inside the sushi bars and steakhouses, tables are full and bartenders dole out aperitifs to crowds of boisterous guests, because this is life before COVID-19. Servers and […]

It’s a Saturday night in Dallas’ Uptown district, and valet lots fill up as music and laughter float from restaurants along McKinney Avenue. Inside the sushi bars and steakhouses, tables are full and bartenders dole out aperitifs to crowds of boisterous guests, because this is life before COVID-19.

Servers and bartenders started the work day hours earlier polishing glassware, arranging place settings and memorizing new menu items to prepare for the long night ahead. They will spend the next 10 to 12 hours on their feet slinging drinks and clocking miles back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, but these are prized positions in the industry. One good night of tips could cover a month of rent.

But what happens to this profession when the dining rooms empty out and the weekend crowds disappear? What becomes of the workers whose paychecks rely almost solely on the generosity of customers when the very core of their occupation is threatened by a deadly, widespread virus?

Millions of restaurant employees around the country have been left without work or with their pay significantly reduced due to restaurant capacity limits and social distancing measures. As the industry tries to regain its footing and slowly rebuild, one of the many questions circulating amongst restaurant workers is –– is it time to reconsider the tipping system?

Attempts to shift America’s restaurant tipping model have never really been successful, but with the industry experiencing historic changes that will forever reshape the future of dining, some people think that changes to the restaurant pay structure might have a better chance of taking root.

The casoncelli dish at the Homewood restaurant in Dallas features eggplant, ricotta and sun gold tomato conserva as seen on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)

Pressure on customers

Seth Brammer, a Dallas-based hospitality expert and restaurant consultant who is vocally “super anti-tipping,” says it is past time to rethink the way restaurant workers are paid. He believes the tipping model is neither good for businesses nor customers.

“It creates a pressure on the customer to perform this role within your company where they essentially subsidize the cost of service in a way that is pseudo-voluntary,” he says. “Essentially, we’re letting people determine the cost of doing business.”

But there’s incentive for restaurants, particularly large restaurant chains, to uphold this system because of the channel it creates for cheap labor, Brammer says. The federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour, and restaurants rarely pay more than that.

Putting employees incomes into customers’ hands also creates a system of pervasive discrimination and significantly contributes to the pay gap within the restaurant industry, Brammer says.

“It actually mandates discrimination. You’re requiring the tipper to leave a tip based on who the server is as a person. When the customer leaves a tip, they are always making a statement, and sometimes that has everything to do with who you are [as a server] and nothing to do with what you did. You end up being at the will of this person. You’re literally performing for them,” he says.

Doctors look at a lung CT image at a hospital in Xiaogan,China.

Uncertain and unstable

Since Dallas restaurant dining rooms reopened after mandatory shutdowns were lifted, some servers and restaurant operators say customers are tipping more than they were before the pandemic. Generous tipping is an encouraging sign that customers understand the challenges many in the industry are facing, but it doesn’t negate the deficits restaurants are still up against, Don Myers says.

Myers, a sommelier who worked at Sassetta and previously at Macellaio, is one of the many Dallas restaurant workers out of a job. He says industry friends who are still working have told him of the big tips they’re getting, but when they sit down to balance their checkbooks and pay their bills, they’re consistently making about 25 percent to 50 percent less than they were pre-pandemic.

Myers says he and many of the tipped workers he knows would choose full-time hourly pay over tip-based income, especially now that the profession is even more uncertain and unstable than before.

“Personally, I always prefer the consistent money over the alternative,” he says. “You find any lifelong server and they’ll tell you that they’ll take the solid money vs. having to worry about if their check is going to clear next month.”

Exterior of Partenope at the intersection of St Paul and Main Streets in downtown Dallas

What about earning potential?

There is a downside to doing away with tips, though. A tipless restaurant system would mean servers, particularly those in fine dining establishments, likely wouldn’t have the same earning potential as they do as tipped employees.

Alex Biko, a bartender in Celina who has spent most of his 17 years in the industry working at fine dining restaurants, says he wouldn’t be able to make the money he currently makes in tips if he were paid a set wage.

“I’ve made close to six figures for the last 10 years or so,” he says. “No restaurant is going to be able to pay their servers six figures.”

Biko says his situation isn’t typical for the majority of servers though, especially those outside of fine dining restaurants where large tips are hard to come by.

Even within the fine dining sphere, tipped employees can struggle to make a livable wage. Krystal Johnson, who held a coveted Dallas restaurant job at Uchi in Uptown, says being furloughed and stepping away from her assistant server position made her realize how little she made for the hours she worked.

“Maybe the only positive that has come out of this is being able to separate myself long enough to realize that it wasn’t really as good as the Kool-Aid I was drinking. I was working six days a week for 10 hours a day, and my paychecks would be around $800 for two weeks, so it’s not great money,” Johnson says. “I worked three other jobs to pay my bills.”

She has been in the industry for 15 years and previously worked as a server at other fine dining restaurants, but she took a job as a server’s assistant at Uchi because it’s known to be one of the best Dallas restaurants to work at, and servers make substantial money from tips. Starting as an assistant is the key to landing one of those enviable serving positions.

“It’s seen as the top of where you can land in Dallas, really,” she says. “It made me proud to say I worked there.”

She says a percentage of servers’ nightly tips are split among the assistants who typically hold their positions for about eight months to a year before becoming servers themselves. This model isn’t uncommon for fine dining restaurants with extensive training programs and lower staff turnover.

“Now stepping back from it, it’s like, ’oh wait, I was in a pyramid scheme almost,’” she says. “The promise of what you will eventually get to make is what keeps you motivated … It’s hard to wait a year to make enough money to take care of yourself.”

Johnson says she’s not sure that she would prefer a tipless restaurant system, but she does think there is a better way for tipped workers like herself and underpaid kitchen staff to be compensated.

Part of Queso Beso's menu will be available to diners starting Aug. 21, 2020.

Reworking expectations

Reconfiguring restaurant pay structures isn’t so easy, though. The no-tipping restaurant model has been attempted over the years by a handful of restaurants around the country, most of which eventually reverted back to the old way of conducting business. Even Danny Meyer, a New York restaurateur and one of the pioneers of the no-tipping model, recently abandoned the practice at his restaurants.

Paying restaurant workers full wages requires factoring labor costs into menu pricing, and doing that means going up against customer expectations that are already unrealistic, according to Will Salisbury, a Dallas chef and co-founder of the Heard That Foundation nonprofit.

“People’s expectations of what they spend when they go out to dine have been unrealistic for a long time,” he says. “Essentially people go out to eat and what they’re paying is a subsidized amount for the meals they’re enjoying and the experience they’re getting … Consumers don’t understand that what they’ve been paying for their meals is not adequate to run a restaurant.”

To make things even more difficult, restaurants are essentially always in a price war with each other to be cheaper than their competitors, and now due to the pandemic, the costs of some foods have steeply increased, which makes it even harder for restaurant operators to hit the numbers they need in order to stay open, Salisbury says.

He’s an advocate for doing away with tipping and thinks restaurants and their employees, both front of house and back of house, would be far better off without it. But he says it’s highly unlikely such a seismic shift in the industry will happen without some sort of legislative measures. The One Fair Wage effort has succeeded in several areas, including Maine and Washington, D.C., and legislators in other states have introduced One Fair Wage bills.

But such a change would require a significant overhaul of the way restaurants work, and he’s not entirely optimistic that it will ever come to fruition. But Salisbury believes Dallas, recently dubbed the top restaurant city in the country, has what it takes to lead the effort or, at the very least, spark the conversation.

“Dallas has done a really great job of coming together as a community through [the pandemic], probably better than other places have,” he says. “And Dallas has a very strong restaurant community. But there needs to be strong leadership for it. There needs to be someone to bring everyone together.”

Source Article

Next Post

Cooking tips to keep all campers happy

If you’re a regular camper, it’s worth keeping a streamlined box full of the basics, that you don’t unpack between trips. Include a dedicated box of your utensils, with the all-important bottle opener, a wooden spoon, slotted spoon, fish slice, tongs, grater and wooden skewers. Always keep salt, sugar and […]
Cooking tips to keep all campers happy