The beginning of the end for tipping?

With some states increasing their minimum wage and a general cry for improved living wages for workers, it seems that tipping may be going the way of the dinosaurs and eight-tracks.

Last year, the minimum tipping wage for New York went from $5 to $7.50/hr, causing restaurant owners to figure out how to fill the gap in pay. Belhurst Castle in Geneva, Ontario County is one such establishment. News broke recently after a couple shared their bill which included a 4.7% "NYS Labor Surcharge."

 Bellhurst Castle NYS Labor Surcharge

Owner Kevin Reeder decided it was better to add in the surcharge than to "hide" increases in the menu.

The main objective here was to save as many jobs here at Belhurst Castle as possible, taking on the mandate — the increase — without anything at all is just a life sentence. I am not trying to make a political stance. I’m not trying to offend anybody. What I am trying to do is to keep this independent business.
— Kevin Reeder, Owner of Belhurst Castle

While Belhurst still accepts tips on top of the surcharge, other restaurants are abolishing the practice all together.

The owners of the Davidson Bros. Brewing Company wrote an open letter that said they were banning tipping from their establishment and adding in an 18% surcharge (which they stressed was not gratuity) so they can "provide every employee a fair wage" which includes the kitchen staff as well as the servers. 

New York restaurants aren't the only ones banning tipping from their establishments.

Bar Noroeste and Saint Helens in Seattle have dropped tipping from their restaurants, according to owner Josh Henderson. Henderson told Eater that his group have been toying with the idea for about a year, describing it as a "matter of when, not if."

Instead of accepting tips, Bar Noroeste is now charging a 20% "service charge" to each check which goes completely to the staff "in the form of wages, benefits, and revenue sharing." Henderson said he's switching all of his restaurants to this "service charge" method.

 Waitress working for tips

In Pittsburgh, the small wine bar and cafe Bar Marco abolished tipping in April of last year. Each of their employees now get a $35,000 base salary, plus benefits including health insurance, PTO and company shares, according to the Huffington Post. To offset the cost, the wine bar increased prices. Despite the increases, Bar Marco hasn't lost any business.

We have people coming in consistently who partially come in because of what we’re doing, not just because of the service and food. They respect the general idea of what we’re doing and they support it.
— Joslynn Manges, Bar Marco manager

Should patrons tip anyways, that money is donated to the Food Revolution Pittsburgh Cooking Club, a nonprofit that encourages area high school students to develop their culinary skills and make healthier food choices.

Racism & elitism: The history of tipping

While the practice is being dropped mostly for financial reasons, others want to see it abolished because it's deep roots in racism and wealthy elitism.

The tipping tradition was originally born in Europe in the mid-19th Century. Rich Americans visiting overseas saw the system and, deciding it was fashionable, brought it back to the US, tipping hotel and restaurant workers.

Hotel workers eventually unionized, abolishing the practice in their industry. Restaurant workers, however, never did.

While the tipping movement eventually failed in Europe, in the US it flourished, thanks in part to newly-freed slaves being hired as restaurant service workers. It gave white citizens a legal way of exercising their racist views that black people were inferior and therefore deserved to earn less.

The origin of tipping is really the feudal system, it’s this idea of noblesse oblige. But when tipping came to the United States, it had a real racial tinge to it, because, originally, the workers who earned tips were almost exclusively black workers—they were newly freed slaves... The restaurant industry, which was hiring newly freed slaves as tipped workers, really wanted the right to hire these workers but pay them next to nothing. So they put forth this idea that they were valueless and really shouldn’t have to be paid by their employers. They essentially made the argument that newly freed slaves should get a zero dollar wage.
— Saru Jayaraman, Co-founder & co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United)

Not just about the waiters

The general assumption is that abolishing the tradition of tipping is so waitstaff can earn a living wage, and they're not wrong, but there's a second half to the equation. For many restaurants, it's also about bridging the divide between what the servers make and what the the cooking staff makes.

The NYC Hospitality Alliance puts the median hourly wage for servers at $25.34 while line cooks earn a median of $13. That's a big difference in pay and for a team that heavily relies on one another.

Gratuities are the legal property of a restaurant's waitstaff. Federal labor laws prohibit tip pools to compensate the cooks and back of the house staffers; they can only be shared among the servers.

I hate those Saturday nights where the whole dining room is high-fiving because they just set a record, and they’re counting their shekels, and the kitchen just says, ‘Well boy, did we sweat tonight.’
— Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group

Adding in a "hospitality surcharge" creates a revenue pool that can be shared among everyone working in the restaurant, evening internal pay gaps and providing better benefits considered standard in other industries.

Abolishing tipping would also eliminate the horror stories of servers being stiffed by unpleasant customer's whim.

While most Americans don't want to see tipping go away, Millennials are more in favor of seeing the practice go away for a more predictable and livable base wage. If that trend continues, the death of tipping in America is more a question of when and not if.

Is your restaurant thinking about abolishing tipping? If you already have, what's been your experience? How are you dealing with wage increases? Let us know in the comment section below.


Tip jar image by Nan Palmero.
Waitress image by Adam Croot.

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