Tipping at Restaurants: Yes or No?

Skating Waiter

Last week the Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns over a dozen restaurants in New York, announced that they plan to eliminate tipping from their restaurants by the end of next year. The first restaurant from the group to implement this no-tipping change is the Modern, found inside the Museum of Modern Art. To compensate for lack of tipping, the group’s chief executive Danny Meyer says they will raise prices on the menu and waitstaff and front of house will receive a higher base salary.

Meyer explains that the shift to no tipping should help close the wage gap between front of house and cooks in the back, who, under federal labor laws, cannot benefit from tip sharing because they have no direct interaction with the customer. This means waitstaff and hosts can bring home a healthy sum after a hugely successful night and the people actually cooking and preparing all of the food reap no similar financial benefit. The new policy is meant, Meyer says, to help attract new and better talent in the kitchen by being able to raise salaries across the board.

There are a lot of opinions about this. Many people say that tipping encourages a higher standard of friendly service. Waitstaff are motivated to do a better job knowing that they can earn more money and a loyal customer base if they are warm, gracious, and accommodating. Customers, in turn, like knowing that they don’t have to pay higher prices at the end of the night if they didn’t receive a satisfactory experience. They don’t want this option taken away. It’s an American tradition that is unique to our country’s dining experience.

In contrast—and this is the side I favor—tipping creates an imbalanced professional relationship between customer and server. Money is power and a hierarchical power struggle at the dining table is not what I’m after as a diner. Should a person’s income be subject to the whims of certain individuals in unpredictable environments like restaurants? In Switzerland and much of Europe, service is already built into the price and tables are not turned over like they are in the States. This means that there’s no false cheer at the beginning of the night and you aren’t served with the check before you’ve even tucked into your main.

I like knowing that the service isn’t dependent on a variety of unknowns. And, yes, maybe it isn’t as overtly friendly as it is in the US, but I’ve come to like the sparse service. I don’t feel hounded all the time, being asked if everything is alright while my mouth is full of food or if they can get me anything. And you can always signal for the waiter if you do need something or if everything isn’t alright.

I don’t agree with the excuse that people like the tradition of tipping because it’s a treasured American pastime. Trick-or-treating is; singing the national anthem at sporting events is; Fourth of July fireworks are. But, lording money over another person who is serving me is not an American practice I miss. It creates a culture of superiority and entitlement and the feeling that we are “owed” something specific.

According to the New York Times, the success or lack thereof at the Modern will determine the rate at which the practice of no tipping is adopted in all of the Union Square Hospitality Group’s restaurants. And, if it’s received well, it might slowly trickle into restaurants across the country.

What do you think? Should we eliminate tipping? Or do you like the practice?

(image of waiter ice skating in St. Moritz by Alfred Eisenstaedt via TIME)

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