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Last week, Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a celebrated restaurant in Manhattan, penned a column for Eater.com titled, “Why Tipping Is a Devil’s Bargain.” Overall it’s an argument to end the questionable practice of tipping because it’s not fair …

  • To kitchen workers who work hard and earn disproportionately less
  • To guests who don’t always relish the responsibility of figuring out their server’s reward
  • To service employees who are at the mercy of so many things out of their control that ultimately affect their tips.

Cohen takes a lashing from numerous commenters on the piece who say she’s naïve, that her suggestions for correcting the problem are mathematically inept, that she’s back-of-the-house biased, plus other names not worth repeating. Regardless of whether the criticism is fair, she deserves big props for her willingness to say out loud that tipping is one hell of a screwed up way to pay a staff.

The chorus of restaurant operators who agree with is increasing. Sadly, most are singing sotto voce, though they know it’s time to end it for many reasons. Among them:

  • They cannot legally force servers and bartenders to share or “pool” their tips with other front-of-the-house employees, though servers can’t do their jobs alone. (Think this isn’t a problem? Ask the owners of Doc Crow’s and Ditto’s Grille, who’ve been sued over this.)
  • Every state has different standards for the minimum wage of tipped employees, yet the IRS wants operators to report to a single standard. (Bookkeepers just love this!)
  • The IRS recently ruled that mandatory tipping (i.e. that “18 percent gratuity added for parties of six or more” warning on menus) is a taxable service charge. (That’s another owner headache.)
  • Despite the growth of credit card use, fraudulent reporting of cash tips as income is still common and as easy as ever, especially in bars. Worse, though operators have little control over what servers report, they’re held liable if the restaurant is audited. In the end, Uncle Sam will get his due from somebody, and it’s nearly always the person with the most money.

With so much on the line, why don’t more owners work to end tipping?

Most tell me it’s not that high on their list of priorities.

“My life is already stressful enough,” one told me recently, “so why do I want to go adding more changes to the way I do business by complicating it with a change in the law?”

Bob Conway, owner of the questionably named Packhouse Meats restaurant in Newport, Ky., made the unquestionably controversial and courageous decision to institute a no tipping policy for his wait staff. Packhouse servers earn a base rate of $10 per hour plus a 20 percent commission on their sales. That doubtless adds up to a sum higher than what cooks and dishwashers earn on the hour, which makes serving tables an attractive part-time employment option.

Conway said he thought it the fairest thing to do to protect servers from the nightmare guests who leave a $3 tip on a $100 tab.

Though experienced servers will affirm that such a “stiff” is rare, what most customers don’t know is that server must report a percent of that sale as tipped income, even when that percentage exceeds the actual amount received. In other words, she loses money to wait on such lowlifes.

End tipping, however, and all risk disappears.

Conway also said in published reports that he doesn’t want customers deciding what his employees earn. That’s his business. And by controlling that, he protects both his servers and himself in audit because all the numbers are recorded.

Boss is happy. Servers are happy. IRS is happy. And all is legal.

But will diners be happy?

They should be. The restaurant would do every guest a favor by removing tipping. It’s one less thing to worry about at the end of a meal when, as Cohen wrote, you’ve had a drink or two and suddenly simple math is a challenge. Sometimes you’re just tired and ready to go home, or a couple is in an amorous mood and more eager to skedaddle than ‘cipher.

It also removes common bias toward servers. Sadly, research has shown that black servers are often tipped less than white servers, and that attractive female servers tend to be tipped more.

Some in the “end tipping” camp suggest adding a service charge to every bill, but why even bother? Just build your employees’ wages into menu prices just like every other retail outlet does. Last time I bought a sport coat at Stein Mart my bill didn’t show a service charge (though the service was exceptional, I might add), it just showed a price.

And, diners, please don’t tell me you want to continue tipping, “Because I like to reward my server personally for such a great meal.”

Seriously? Because that one person is responsible for your whole experience and deserving of that tip?

What about these guys?
What about these guys?

The person who worked the phones at the crack of dawn that day to order the right and best-priced ingredients, doesn’t he deserve some of that? The kitchen crew that came in early to prep those ingredients and turn them into food for your plate won’t either, but your meal wouldn’t have happened without them.

What about the team that sanitized the whole restaurant for your comfort and safety, will they get a slice? Fat chance! While there’s no shortage of surveys showing restaurant cleanliness is high on the list of customer desires, the people charged with cleaning up men’s notoriously bad aim at urinals and the snowfall of tissues women can’t seem to place into the garbage can are paid like paupers.

You still want to reward that one person just because he was your conduit to that incredible experience? Or is it because our current system provides customers no options for expressing gratitude other than leaving a tip at the end of a meal?

None of this is likely to change until more operators like Cohen enter the discussion on how to end tipping, or, like Conway, gut it out and just make the change.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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