Many years ago a friend of mine offered to introduce me to Danny Meyer. I was going to be in New York to visit clients, and at the time I was writing a food blog called “Appetites.” It wasn’t a particularly important food blog, but it got some attention, if only because it was one of the few in New Orleans at the time.
When food-writing folks came to New Orleans in the early '90s, sometimes they’d contact me. Sometimes I’d have dinner with them, and sometimes those dinners would lead to lasting friendships. As in this case, though I’m not going to name the friend, he and his wife are great folks, great writers and great lovers of New Orleans.
So when I mentioned on my blog that I was heading to New York, my friend set me up not only to dine at Gramercy Tavern, but to do so with Danny Meyer.
Then my trip to New York fell through. I had to tell my friend I wasn’t going to make it, and I felt terrible. I felt bad, mostly, because my friend had gone out of his way to set me up with Mr. Meyer, but also because I would have enjoyed the hell out of having that meal and meeting him.
And now I’ve read that Mr. Meyer has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants and I have some thoughts about this. First, huzzah! The folks who serve us at restaurants shouldn’t depend on the whim of the customer for their income. Second, though, what do those folks think? Third, how do you put this into place across the board, such that you change the culture? Fourth, why can I not get over this cold?
The last question aside, my thought has always been that if you have good service at a restaurant, you should tip at least 20 percent. I have argued with people who feel that the concept of tipping is archaic and that if servers wanted to make more than their hourly wage they should find other employment.
The basis of my argument has always been that servers could not actually make a living wage without tips, and were in no position to negotiate with restaurateurs on the issue. I think that’s still the case, but if Mr. Meyer’s position takes hold, maybe that’s not the case.
Here, as I see it, is the problem: Mr. Meyer employs the best of the best where it comes to wait staff. His restaurants do not have to advertise for positions; people are beating down his door to get a job. That’s not the case in most restaurants, and certainly not the case in New Orleans.
Here, we have a shortage of qualified front-of-house staff – it’s a topic that comes up all the time when I talk to restaurateurs. So if you’re working with a limited pool of servers, some of whom suck, how do you force your customers to pay a service charge in place of leaving a tip? Then too, how do you calculate the service charge on the bill? Not everyone accepts that 20 percent is the standard. Are you going to get arguments from customers about the level of service, and what it was worth as compared to the food on the plates?
But here’s the real crux: who benefits from the tipping system? From the article I linked above:
Under the current gratuity system, not everyone at a restaurant is getting a fair shake. Waiters at full-service New York restaurants can expect a full 20 percent tip on most checks, for a yearly income of $40,000 or more on average — some of the city’s top servers easily clear $100,000 annually. But the problem isn’t what waiters make, it’s what cooks make. A mid-level line cook, even in a high-end kitchen, doesn’t have generous patrons padding her paycheck, and as such is, on average, unlikely to make much more than $35,000 a year.
Servers work hard for their money, but so do cooks, and the cooks often do so in less comfortable conditions. I don’t want to diminish what front-of-house folks do, but ultimately it’s the men and women in the kitchen who make a meal good or bad.
We don’t tip them.
That’s how it’s always been, and how I suspect it will be for the foreseeable future, because despite the logic behind doing away with the tip system, changing it would cause the sort of upheaval that established businesses aren’t willing to undertake. Doing away with tips means that you have to pay your servers more, and that means increasing prices or cutting profits. I’ll let you guess which of those two things most restaurateurs will choose.
I applaud Mr. Meyer for his stance, and I wish I thought restaurants in New Orleans would follow suit. My guess is that it’s a long way from happening. The increase in menu prices that would be required seems unlikely to go over well in New Orleans, but perhaps I’m wrong?
I don’t mind tipping, but I do hope we’ll eventually get to a system where the folks who cook our food are sharing in the wealth. I’ve spent an hour or two in a restaurant kitchen, and while my experience differed from Orwell’s description of his time in Paris and London, it qualifies as heavy labor as far as I’m concerned.
At the risk of coming across as a communist, all of the folks who contribute to our experience at a restaurant should be compensated fairly, and if that means raising menu prices while eliminating tips, so be it.