Are we reaching the tipping point on restaurant tipping?

The minimum wage campaign has focused new attention on the inequities of tipping

The gradual move toward a higher minimum wage in many localities has revived the debate over restaurant tipping--not that it's ever been too far below the surface.

There's a good reason for the new attention on tipping: a differential between the minimum for tipped and non-tipped workers has been introduced in some places along with the higher minimum. It's also advocated elsewhere, typically at the suggestion of restaurant owners who say it would moderate the strain on their bottom lines.

Seattle, which will move toward a $15 minimum wage over the next seven years, will introduce a differential on April 1, when the city hourly minimum rises to $11--but $10 for workers who make least $1 an hour in tips. The federal minimum wage is nominally $7.25 an hour, but it's only $2.13 for workers who get tips. In California, where the minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $10 an hour in January, there's no discount for tips.

A couple of recent essays underscore how perplexing and pointless America's tipping customs are. Last week the women-oriented website xoJane published Sarah Bartlett's "I Don't Feel Guilty for Not Tipping You," a screed against restaurant wait staff who feel "entitled" to complain about poor tips. "We don’t owe you anything but decency, respect, and the listed prices we’ve agreed to pay," Bartlett instructed her waiters and waitresses.

Her piece drew immediate counterfire from C.A. Pinkham at Gawker Media's Kitchenette blog. Pinkham informed Bartlett that "part of the social contract as currently constructed is that you are expected to tip, because by not doing so, the only person you are punishing is your server....You're not some brave warrior fighting against injustice. You are serving your own interests, and the least you could do is be honest about it."

The core sentiment of both these pieces is that tipping is an unfair mess. That's absolutely true. As it's practiced in the U.S., tipping is not even well understood by the diners who pay it. It causes resentment among recipients and headaches for their employers, and it's subject to racial and gender distortions. As fundamental components of workers' wages, tips are exploitative. According to the National Employment Law Project, they're "notoriously erratic," varying from shift to shift and by season, and shrinking during economic downturns.

Most people still think of the tip as a reward for good service, although that hasn't been the reality for years (if it ever was). The authoritative work on the topic was published in 1996 (and updated in 2003) by Michael Lynn of Cornell University, who found that service quality "explained an average of less than two percent of the variation in a restaurant’s tip percentages"--in other words, virtually no correlation at all. The best ways to increase tips, he found, involved psychology--servers got higher tips when they introduced themselves by name, smiled at customers, touched customers "briefly on the hand or shoulder," and wrote "Thank you" or (for waitresses) drew a happy face on the check.

It's likely that diners see the tip as an instrument for expressing displeasure with service, though these days a waiter or waitress would probably have to be egregious beyond all imagination to be deprived of the entire tip. The whole joke in the famous "I don't tip" spiel of the Steve Buscemi character in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (caution: clip is spectacularly NSFW) is that even to the film's low-lifes, "Mr. Pink" comes off as a huge jerk.

It's hard to avoid the impression that restaurants rely on tips to pay their staff because it makes their menu prices seem smaller. It has become so much the custom for most people to pay a tip automatically that many restaurants don't feel shy about doing the math for patrons and listing 10%, 15% and 20% options on the bill. 

A few higher-end restaurants are ending the tip option entirely, though some are preserving the fiction of a separate charge for "service." Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York fold service charges into the bill, though patrons have the options to supplement the charge if they wish.

A more radical approach of banning tips was taken by the now-closed Linkery in San Diego, which barred tips and donated stray currency left on the table to charity. The restaurant's owner, Jay Porter, explained in 2013 that the policy allowed service charges to be distributed among all workers, which wasn't then permitted for tips by California law, thus reducing income disparity for the staff. The supposed motivational effect of tips was a myth, he reasoned: what drove good service was that "servers want to keep their jobs; servers want to get a raise; servers want to be successful and see themselves as professionals and take pride in their work."

The Linkery's policy has been advanced by the New York restaurant Sushi Yasuda, where the bills inform customers that "gratuities are not accepted." The restaurant raised staff salaries and benefits, and menu prices, to reflect the change. 

Tipping has become such an ingrained ritual of dining in the U.S. that it's not likely to disappear soon, especially at lower-end locations where it gives customers a chance to adjust their expenses on the spot. Incorporating tip differentials into minimum-wage increases will encourage the survival of tipping rather than its eradication, by giving the practice a sort of official stamp of approval.  

Still, the attention that the minimum wage movement has aimed on the economic struggles of low-wage restaurant employees may help customers understand how tipping perpetuates the instability of income for these important but often-invisible workers. Eliminating tips and incorporating their value into workers' paychecks is a long-term project, but it will yield long-term benefits.

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