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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is The Restaurant Tipping Model Bad For Waitstaff?



Does tipping in restaurants improve service and bring in much-needed revenue for waitstaff?

Or is it, alternatively, an archaic practice that does nothing to improve service, results in overall lower wages for waiters and waitresses and creates a pay disparity with other kitchen staff?

We ask food writer Corby Kummer of The Atlantic and Boston Magazine.


  • Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic and restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He tweets @CKummer.



From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And there's a fascinating piece in The New York Times today. It calls for an end to the custom of tipping in restaurants. Say what?

HOBSON: Yeah. Well, while the federal minimum wage is 7.25 an hour, it is just 2.31 an hour for food servers. Federal labor statistics show that with tips, they end up making more than the minimum wage, about 8.75 an hour.

YOUNG: But the restaurant critic for The New York Times, Pete Wells, says tips don't always go to waiters, and they don't encourage better service. Corby Kummer is senior editor at The Atlantic monthly, restaurant critic for Boston magazine. Corby, we wanted to check in with you. We know you've been working on just this very idea. There's a huge debate going on in the restaurant world. Do you agree with Pete Wells that tips aren't doing what they were supposed to do?

CORBY KUMMER: I agree that tips don't work, and that we all want a way of both rewarding and punishing service that we like and we don't like. The problem is we're not doing it when we're tipping. We are rewarding the whole staff, and we're punishing them equally. So, as Pete - who wrote a terrific piece in The Times, which I congratulated him on at midnight last night - wrote, when we think we're punishing the waiter who had a bad attitude and didn't bring the food to us, we're also punishing the guy who gave us a great table, or who recommended the terrific Sicilian white.

YOUNG: Because many restaurants are not just having these tips shared, there are lawsuits now from waiters - as Pete Wells tells us about - there are lawsuits now from waiters who are saying they're not getting the money.

KUMMER: Right. Sometimes waiters don't get the money, because sometimes it's distributed to management. So you never know how the tips are being pooled, but you can be almost 100 percent guaranteed it is being pooled, and you're not sending the message you think you are.

HOBSON: Well, in the other story - the other point that Pete Wells makes here that's pretty interesting is that the servers' profile you at the beginning and figure out before you do anything that you're only going to tip 10 percent, or that you're going to tip 20 percent, and they base their service on that.

YOUNG: Some. We should say some. A former waitress here.

KUMMER: You know, I think the facts...


KUMMER: Right. You know, I think everybody is like a former waiter. And it is the entry service job, and that's why it's got to be more fair. So I called up Danny Meyer, who is the head of the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, and many people would say that at his New York restaurants - and at Shake Shack - he's helped introduced the concept of good service. And he said, boy, would I love to implement an across-the-board service fee, which is what I've come down to. I just want those workers treated fairly and getting health insurance.

And I want - I am happy to have it incorporated into service. As Danny pointed out, when you are paying a regular entree price, you're paying the dishwashers, the cooks, everybody. You're not paying the waiter, particularly. Would you go back to the kitchen and say, I'm punishing you because you put too much salt in my steak?

YOUNG: Well, that's just it, the tip, and then it comes out - well, anyway, but what are you saying? Are you saying, as some restaurants are, that we're just going to have a service charge? You are saying that. Because some restaurants are saying we're just going to pay our waiters better and let our people know - pay everybody better, and let our patrons know, so that they don't have to tip.

KUMMER: So either one or both would be great. Raise the minimum wage, which is Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is doing, or implement an across-the-board service charge. But Tim Zagat, of the Zagat surveys, whom I've talked to about this, says Pete Wells is whistling in the dark. Americans like the tipping custom. People want to think they have an influence on it. Danny Meyer says if you want a way of punishing them, you say to the manager: Here's what went wrong tonight. What are you going to do about it? You either go back, or you don't. That's what you do.

HOBSON: And I'm sure our listeners have a lot to say about this. You can go to hereandnow.org, or to our Facebook page at facebook.com/hereandnowradio and let us know what you do. By the way, Robin, I tip 20 percent almost every time.

YOUNG: I'm still there.

HOBSON: And although whenever I want to...

KUMMER: Me, too.

HOBSON: ...not tip 20 percent, somebody says no, don't do that. You'll just punish the waiter. Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic monthly, writes about food for Boston magazine, thanks for coming in.

KUMMER: Thank you.

YOUNG: And remember, we want to hear from you. And waiters, waitresses of the world, unite at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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