Tip or No Tip? Bourdain Shares His Thoughts

As a subject of controversy, tipping has sustained as one of the most polarizing topics in the restaurant industry over the past few years. At The Rail, we regularly reference the subject from the news we curate to our own opinions on its relative direction.

While there are varying degrees of agreement on the need for a change to the restaurant culture, the real results have been mixed at best. So, who should we turn to for sober thinking surrounding the state of our industry and the way we compensate our staffs?

We respectfully suggest none other than industry icon Anthony Bourdain. He typically has the perfect balance of realism, business sense, and humanism for this very divisive subject.


“Cannot afford to eat in their own restaurants”

In a recent interview with the Kitchen Confidential writer on Thrillist, Bourdain offered a wide-ranging opinion on the subjects of overall compensation and tipping in our industry. While he doesn’t make any significant conclusion, he does make clear the need for change in the compensation culture.

On this subject, Bourdain is his most realistic self, because he has lived both sides of the conversation -- employee and operator.

The Parts Unknown host was asked specifically if he felt mainstream adoption of the no-tipping trend was going to happen. His response demonstrated his visceral connection to the people that populate our restaurants. His answer was clearly personal:

“I am very, very much for all restaurant people making a living wage. Because as it is now, most restaurant people cannot afford to eat in their own restaurants.”

Think about the import of that statement. Many of your employees can’t even afford to eat at your restaurants – their place of employment. What do you pay a dishwasher -- $10, $12, $15 per hour? Even at the high end with rent, transportation, ancillary expenses, can the average BOH employee afford a $50 meal for two at your restaurant? Maybe, but maybe not.


“Never had health insurance”

Here, the traveling chef references his own experience in the industry, saying in reference to benefits:

“I never had (health insurance). And you know, two weeks' vacation was pretty much unthinkable -- there wouldn't be a job waiting for me when I came back. Holidays off, nuh-uh. Maternity leave, all of those things. I would very much like to see all of that.”

That’s a truth that still pervades our industry.


The future of the restaurant industry

While Bourdain is clearly empathetic, he also sees how tight the margins are for the average restaurant.

“We're talking independently owned and operated restaurants with a thin, if any, profit margin.” 

Add to already taxed budgets new expenses like healthcare, paid time off and increased minimum wages and you can see why operators don’t willingly do more. Bourdain even references the efforts that Danny Meyer is making to improve working conditions for his employees.

“I think the fact that Danny Meyer chose to do it is an indicator of what the future is going to be. He tends to be way ahead on these things. I do have friends, however, who provide full benefits, very good salaries, and very good health care who really have a problem with it and say that it is not viable for their system.”

Ultimately, Bourdain doesn’t tell us how he would fix things if he were king. His thoughts are more a general industry survey which accounts for the issues facing all the parties in our industry. He is hopeful that leaders like Danny Meyer will pave the way, so more operators can deliver improved working conditions to their staff.

For most operators, there is a precarious balance they strike between the needs of their staff and their own desire to profit. Bourdain’s comments are fair proof that this conversation is ongoing, but should at least include a desire to improve the conditions of all people that work in our industry. We will all be judged not only by how we arrive at a profit but also how we treat the people that help us get there.

What do you think of Bourdain’s comments? Let us know in the comment section below!


More on tipping: