Should Americans dispense with paying gratuities at restaurants?
Last week's decision by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer to do away with tips is getting applauded in some quarters and drawing predictions of failure in others. And, underlying the varied views looms the possibly bigger question of whether the dining public is ready or willing to give up on a long-standing practice.
Meyer is "a very prominent restaurateur -- I imagine that would assist him in the roll-out, versus a lesser known, small mom-and-pop outfit in Queens," said Andrew Rigie, executive director at the New York City Hospitality Alliance. "It's unfortunate that a lot of the public discourse on wages and tipping is so controversial."
Self-described cynic and blogger Steve Dublanica is more blunt. "I met Danny on several occasions, and I don't doubt his sincerity," said Dublanica, who worked as a waiter from 1999 to 2008. "I doubt the reality of this working -- Danny can tack on 20 percent to his prices, but Tony's Corner Bistro can't."
Among restaurant owners and their staff, the gap between what servers earn and what those working in the kitchen make is part of the underlying debate.
"There has always been disparity between the front and the back," said celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who welcomed Meyer's move as one that will help professionalize the restaurant industry.
Colicchio launched lunch service with a no-tipping policy a month ago at Craft, his flagship restaurant in Manhattan, where menu items are priced 20 percent higher than they otherwise would have been. "Customers aren't batting an eye, and they're still leaving cash tips."
William Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University of Hotel Administration, said while a risky business proposition, the move to getting rid of tips is understandable. "The front of house makes substantially more than the back -- that creates conflict within a restaurant, and makes it hard to retain back-of-house staff."
"Many restaurant owners are of the opinion that the waiters are making too much and the folks in the kitchen who are actually making the food are not making enough," said Louis Pechman, a New York attorney who specializes in labor law. "What is happening here is a redistribution of wealth -- it's like Bernie Sanders has taken control of Danny Meyer's restaurant empire. On a cultural level, this could this be the spark that leads to a different mentality about tipping."
Still, trying to make things more equitable among those working both ends of a restaurant could lead to an exodus among a segment of the staff.
"Danny Meyer might be able to implement a no-tipping policy at a very high-end restaurant, but the question that has not been addressed is what exactly will that hourly wage be? -- $25 seems reasonable, but that might pale in comparison to what they may make at another high-end restaurant, and then those servers won't be sticking around," offered Pechman, who also runs a blog, waiterpay.com, detailing wages and hour laws specific to New York state's more than 38,000 restaurants.
"I've always worked for tips and I like working for tips, but for those that more heavily rely on them than I do, a steady paycheck would make them have less to worry about," said Carolyn Brill, a 23-year-old Brooklyn resident who worked as a restaurant server in Washington, D.C., while attending college.
"Seasons change and in the winter there is less foot traffic. For some people, their paychecks drop, and for people with kids, that becomes a problem," said Brill, who currently works 30 hours a week at an upscale Italian restaurant in Brooklyn and another 30 hours doing office work at a marketing research firm in Manhattan.
While society believes it's acceptable to tip poorly for poor service, if servers were paid an hourly wage, the customer could complain to the manager, who could deal with situation accordingly, reasoned Brill. "Just like if you're making $40,000 a year and sitting at your computer and slacking off."
The sentiment is echoed by Colicchio: "I want a little more say over what my staff makes and how they get compensated -- we know who is doing their job."
At Brill's restaurant, tips are pooled and divided among the servers, bartenders and back waiters, with Brill clearing between $13 and $25 an hour. In addition, she earns $5.00 an hour, a rate scheduled to increase by 50 percent in 2016, when the tipped minimum wage in New York City rises to $7.50 an hour.
And, while people might believe the amount they tip is based on service, research shows otherwise. Lynn's research has shown a weak correlation between service and tips. Overwhelming, the size of the bill determines the amount of the tip, with most Americans leaving servers between 15 and 20 percent of the tab, said the Cornell professor.
"You think you tip on service, but it's the illusion of choice, people are not going to like that being taken away from them," said Dublanica, the author of the book "Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter."
Brill offers further anecdotal evidence to back Dublanica's contention and the professor's work.
"People tip what they tip. Most are taught a certain way how to tip, you're taught 15-to-20 percent. Because I work in a restaurant, I tip 20 percent. My parents tip 18 percent every time."