Want Better Food? Get Rid of Tipping

Photo: Steve Czerniak

It started when I worked as a line cook in a restaurant. That’s where I learned that the back of the house workers (cooks) do not earn as much as the front (servers). I met servers who started as cooks and even sous chefs, but moved to the front because the pay was so much better. I watched as the restaurant struggled to find skilled cooks and chefs, because, really, who wants to work under all that stress and heat for $10 an hour?

And that’s when I started thinking: The tip system sucks. It created this inequality. The back of the house sees little, if any, of the tips, resulting in the front of house staff getting paid two to four times more, according to numbers shared with me by restaurant owners.

It took me awhile to get to this point, but others caught on much quicker. Almost 20 years ago, Chez Panisse in Berkeley instituted a mandatory service charge. Alice Waters, progressive not only in the farm-to-table approach she introduced to California, but in how she ran her restaurant, wrote at the time: “At our restaurant the quality of the food and the skill and taste of the cooks are at least as central to our success as the quality of the service. Unfortunately, traditional tipping has created great disparities in earning between the serving staff and the cooking and support staff.” Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se also abolished the traditional tip system, and, starting a few months ago, menus and bills at Sushi Yasuda in New York changed to include the line: “Following the custom in Japan, Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salary. Therefore gratuities are not accepted. Thank you.”

Sure, Japan does it. Europe does it. But this is America! And yet, ironically, this “uniquely American” custom began in 17th century British taverns. It spread among the European aristocracy and upper classes and jumped the pond when wealthy traveling Americans returned and started tipping to show off their worldliness. It wasn’t exactly embraced. The Anti-Tipping Society of America was started in 1904; six states passed anti-tipping laws; William Scott in his 1916 diatribe “The Itching Palm” wrote: “Every tip given in the United States is a blow at our experiment in democracy. The custom announces to the world … that we do not believe practically that ‘all men are created equal’ … If tipping is un-American, some day, some how, it will be uprooted like African slavery.”

And yet, it stuck. By 1926, the anti-tipping laws had been repealed. Meanwhile, Europe was phasing it out. In 1955, France passed a law requiring its restaurants to add a service charge to each bill, a practice we now associate with the entire continent.

Most restaurateurs I talked to would love to get rid of the tip system and pay the front and back of the house more fairly. “Tipping creates more problems than it’s worth,” says Kevin Hanney. At 12th Ave Grill, he estimates his servers make about $35 an hour with tips, whereas an experienced line cook can make $15 an hour. He’d prefer to get rid of tips and increase prices to pay everyone a living wage. “But I don’t think anyone would go for that,” says Hanney. “Even if the total check works out the same, people are used to the current system.”

Ed Kenney says, “It would have to be industry-wide all at once. It would be hard for one restaurant to say no tipping. If we raise prices 15 percent and say the tip is included, people wouldn’t naturally do the math” and would be left with sticker shock.

 “The system is not fair,” says George Mavrothalassitis, who has experience running restaurants in France. “But can we change it? I come from the perspective of the guest. I don’t want to disturb my guest with details like that.”

Ultimately, his concern is the customer experience. The diner doesn’t want to know all the details of who’s paid what. Instituting a mandatory service charge would require an explanation and, ultimately, a disruption of the dining experience.

Fair enough. We often dine out because we want to escape, to enjoy food and company and forget the troubles of the world. But if you go out to restaurants for good food, this is why you should care: The labor shortage in restaurants is one of the top challenges in Hawaii’s restaurant industry, more than high rents, the cost of doing business in Hawaii, shipping in ingredients. And especially when construction booms, as it is poised to with upcoming projects, more would-be cooks ditch the cooking jobs for construction, which can pay $20 and up, compared to the average $10 an hour for line cooks. This leaves restaurants short-staffed in the kitchen, making them less likely to create consistently good food, overworking the good cooks or resorting to hiring less-than-ideal cooks and leaving less time for chefs to create and experiment and push Hawaii’s food scene forward.   

This is not New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, where passionate cooks beg to work in kitchens, or where a steady stream of immigrants fuels the labor pool. This is Hawaii. Our idea of food progressiveness needs to expand to include how we pay those who prepare our food. Restaurants that care about high-quality food should abolish tips, and they need diner support.