What the hell is tipping, anyway?
As immortalized in the opening to Reservoir Dogs, tips aren’t really required by law but neither are they truly optional. If tipping was ever actually some sort of additional bonus to reward exceptional service, that era ended long ago—now tipping usually is that waiter’s wage, as tips allow many employers to pay their tipped employees less than minimum wage, as low as $2.13 an hour.
Brian “The Explainer” Palmer made a compelling case against the practice of tipping back in July, saying that they were bad for the workers who may or may be getting a fair wage, bad for customers who aren’t getting any better service with the “incentive” of a tip, and even bad for restaurants.
But tipping also feels pretty firmly entrenched in our culture. Paying the tip might just encourage the practice, but skipping out on the tip just screws over the very person the abolishment of tipping should help.
But those who abhor tipping can take heart—there are green-shoots of an anti-tipping revolution rising in upscale restaurants and showing up on speculative trend reports for 2014.
I called up Andrew Freeman, whose seventh annual trend report included the rise of ice cream sandwiches and fish cheeks and the end of tipping. The founder and head of the hospitality communications agency, “Andrew Freeman & Co,” starts writing down trends and collecting menus the day after he finishes with the previous year’s trends. Upscale restaurants and destination hotels—the types of business that hire hospitality communications agencies—having taken cues from the fashion industry, now change almost as often, and Freeman’s annual report tries to track trends from the metropolitan centers across the world, and attracts a readership both from the industry and from overly-interested people who willingly describe themselves as “foodies.”
The 2014 report attracts an even wider array of people, because everyone has a feeling about tipping: people who rely on tips, people who think that 20 percent is too much, people who felt that they earned their tips, but that these durn kids today who just want to be actors aren’t refilling that Diet Dr. Pepper nearly fast enough, etc, etc, etc.
“I was on the radio the other day, talking about tipping and whether or not it will go away and be replaced by a service fee,” Freeman told me. “It was a station in Toronto and they had a live chat and people were calling and going a little ballistic about it—which is funny but also like ‘wow, we touched on a subject here.’”
Interestingly enough, Freeman doesn’t think that restaurants are going to all wake up, pay their employees decently and adjust their prices to honestly reflect that. And just because it’s 2014, you’re not magically excused from paying gratuity on your meal tonight, and at many places, you’re going to still be responsible to pay someone’s wage into 2015 and beyond.
“It’s not going to be right for everybody,” Freeman said.
But Freeman thinks that upscale restaurants might take a “nod towards Europe,” and replace the “tip” with an included service fee. Anything you leave on top of the service fee then becomes that retrograde-maybe-never-real “discretionary addition for really good service.” The goal isn’t to make things fairer for the wait staff, but rather to spread the (now compulsory) love to the back of the house as well.
“Our thinking was with all these new restaurants opening, there’s obviously a shortage of back-of-house people—cooks and sous chefs and things like that,” Freeman said, “so our thought was that [the practice of tipping] is going to really change because in the service fee model, when there’s a service charge added in, that gets split between the front and back of the house.”
So it doesn’t really address concerns that prices in restaurants don’t accurately reflect the cost of the meal, but by removing the optional part of tipping, waiters, busers, and chefs will all at least know what they can expect to earn for working a shift. It also ties into the on-going interest in the chef. “We were seeing this as a solution to keeping really good cooks in place and to build on their contribution to the whole experience,” Freeman said.
But how this will look and when you can reasonably expect it to disseminate from the farm-to-repurposed-wood-table gastropub all the way out to Chili’s is anyone’s guess.
“There’s obviously implications for wanting to tip to reward good service, and there’s also tax questions and all of that,” Freeman explained. “We’re definitely thinking it might take on different models—maybe they’ll just start splitting gratuity between front and back of house without switching to a service fee.”
That, of course, sounds like a wait staff’s worst nightmare, but “tip pooling” is mutually exclusive with paying less than minimum wage, whatever that’s worth—not nearly enough, I'm sure.
In response to tipping and the idea that they're paying someone's wages by doing so, some people feel that the restauranteur is really at fault, and I empathize with that attitude. It feels preferable that everyone get paid a living wage and prices straightforwardly reflect that, rather than paying an artificially lowered, mystery amount and risk screwing someone else over when the bill comes. But a change like Freeman envisions seems like a more conceivable end of the meal ritual—one where the owners are still off the hook for raising prices, but where working stiffs can't be stiffed. Anything that spares us more receipts going viral.