A test for no-tip policies

Wage woes push some concepts to buck tradition.

Asked to name the restaurant trend of 2015 by Tasting Table, chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine in San Francisco predicted a move away from tipping. But instead of pointing out unfairness or discrimination as the catalyst, they cited a different motivation: restaurateurs’ desire to find alternative methods of compensation. “It is difficult to move away from this system as our entire restaurant culture is built around it, but many restaurateurs are starting to look for a new method,” they said.

With minimum-wage hikes looming, new restaurants are pioneering no-tipping policies—eliminating gratuities in favor of higher hourly wages for servers (and often back-of-house workers, too). To do so, most are taking one of two paths: adding an admin fee to the check or building the added cost into menu prices.

At Girard in Philadelphia, co-owner Cristian Mora has inflated menu prices about 20 percent to be able to give servers a base pay around $13 per hour. “We just wanted to find a way to take good care of our staff … it’ll help us keep staff longer,” says Mora, who also offers health benefits and paid sick and vacation days.

“I can’t be the only one with high [menu] prices,” says Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy in New York City. Instead, she settled on an administrative fee that falls somewhere between 18 and 20 percent. The charge is added to every bill, and the extra money is redistributed to pay front- and back-of-house staffers “a stable, consistent wage.”

Why do these operators think no-tipping policies have a chance of succeeding now, when they haven’t before? Mora points to the heat around minimum wage. “The tide has turned; people are ready for a different system,” he says.

When hiring, both Mora and Cohen have found that servers seem excited about the idea of a guaranteed wage. But this model isn’t for everyone. “There are a lot of people making a great living with the tip model; this is not so much for them. It’s more for those wanting stability,” Mora says.

While Cohen anticipates some initial sticker shock from consumers, she says it’s about setting expectations. “Most people tip 18 to 20 percent anyway. They just don’t have to do math at the end of the night.” At Girard, says Mora, “Some customers have asked questions just to be clear on the policy (which is listed on the website, check and menu). Once it’s clear, there are no issues,” he says.

But the National Restaurant Association says this isn’t always the case. “Our research continues to show that customers enjoy the practice of rewarding good service,” says Christin Fernandez, director, media relations and public affairs at the NRA. She adds, “Along with flexible work schedules, tipping is part of what makes a restaurant server an attractive profession for millions of Americans.”

Still, Cohen says, other operators are watching Dirt Candy and the like to see what happens. If it works, others will follow, she predicts. 

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