On Tipping, Danny Meyer and Foxes

On Tipping and Danny Meyer – and Foxes


by Robert McGarvey




When the fox tells you your idea for improving the lot of the chickens is a bad idea, that in fact it will make their lives worse, you have to know that you are heading in the right direction.

That’s how I feel when I hear the chorus of attacks on restaurateur Danny Meyer’s war on tipping which he in fact has now called “socialist.”

As for why Meyer wants to eliminate tips, he told CNBC this: “The tipping system is actually antithetical to creating a profession for people who really take their jobs seriously. You don’t tip your doctor if they do a good job; you don’t tip the airline pilot if the plane actually lands.”

Tipping, he added, is “demeaning.”

It’s not just Meyer. Most thoughtful people who have contemplated tipping have concluded it is a bad idea that fosters bad service.

Restaurateur Jay Porter in a Slate article said: “When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn’t feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn’t mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.”

Who is attacking also is interesting. It rarely is restaurant workersmost would take a job at a Danny Meyer restaurant in a heartbeat because Danny is known for treating his people well, in a business that generally treats them like disposable parts.

It also is not usually from Meyer’s fine dining competitors.  Most of them are probably mulling a similar policy anyway.

It definitely is not from people who know European restaurants because where I have dined on the Continent, generally service is included – and additional tips, such as they are, might be a Euro or two.  

And yet we hear that service will plummet in US restaurants if tipping is ended – and the irony is that the loudest voices chanting this are smalltime restaurant owner-operators.  The irony of course is you’d think managing service would be essential part of the ownership job but these owners, apparently, want to outsource waiter motivation to diners.

That is a ridiculous abdication of responsibility.

Besides, it does not work now and won’t work tomorrow.

Let me ask you this: when was the last time you were wowed by restaurant service, really blown away? I cannot remember the last time I was. Actually I can. It was maybe six years ago at Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. There were also really good times at Babbo, Del Posto, a few others. But I can count such nights on a pair of hands.

Mind you, I also cannot recall a time when the service was so horrendous that I wanted to stiff the server.  Usually it just is what it is. Adequate. Satisfactory.

Why cannot that be simply part of the meal experience – without the absurd dance of the tip at meal’s end.

Meyer — who incidentally is also taking on the challenge of making airline food edible in a deal with Delta, showing he is unafraid of La Mancha moments  – is saying it can and should be.

Some say waiter morale will plummet but, really….  Meyer, for instance, is raising wages and also menu prices (which went up 20+% at the Modern in Manhattan for instance).  What’s a waiter not to like?

Meyer also called tipping “socialist” – and, he explained, in most fine dining establishments tips are pooled and shared by servers.  Give Suzie a 100% tip on your birthday dinner because you want to share your wealth – and probably she will throw that generous tip into the pot and all will share equally.

So exactly how did your tip in fact directly reward good service?

The more I mull on the opposition to Meyer, the more I think a large part just is inertia, we all resist just about any change and in the case of US fine dining, we have lifetimes of calculating 15% or 20% at meal’s end and we are good at the math.

We just don’t want to change.

So why do some restaurant owners resist this? My guess is that causes are two-fold.  (a) They really do not know how to motivate their wait staff and they are hoping we, the diners, can do it for them.  (b) They already are getting pushback on too high prices at their tables and they are afraid that if they raise the tabs 20% diners will stay home.

They may be right about (b) – but that is their problem. It isn’t mine and it most certainly should not be the problem of the waiters and waitresses.

Rather than criticizing Meyer they might focus on motivating their own staff and impressing diners with the value for dollar of their offerings.

I suppose it’s easier for them to gnash their teeth than it is to address structural failings in their businesses.

I stand with Meyer on this.  Tipping makes no sense. It’s time to put a stop to it.  Now.

Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade or Free Flight for…a Free Drink in Economy?




Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade for…a Free Drink in Economy?


by Robert McGarvey

Call it the latest slap in the face to airline elites. In a sign that seat upgrades and free flights are ever more unattainable – just look at how full every flight you take is — United and American have announced that they will begin giving free drinks and food to elites exiled to cheap seats in economy.

Happy now?

Sure, before you got free upgrades to business class just because of your elite status or, worse guess, you spent some miles and bought the upgrade. Now you don’t get either.

Enjoy the free drink.

United said this in unveiling the program: “One new way that we’re enhancing the inflight experience for our most frequent flyers is by offering MileagePlus members with Premier® 1K® status free alcoholic beverages and snacks in United Economy®. If you’re a member with Premier 1K status, you’ll receive one free alcoholic beverage and one free Choice Menu food item when traveling in United Economy on United- or United Express®-operated flights within North America and between Guam and Honolulu.”

A Sam Adams or a glass of red is $7.99 on United.  A wrap and salad combo goes for $9.49.

American Airlines does similar. Said AA: “AAdvantage® Executive Platinum and ConciergeKeySM members traveling in the Main Cabin on board American Airlines and American Eagle® can enjoy a complimentary beverage from our standard alcoholic beverage selections as well as one snack. The snack includes any food item on our menu.”

Glass half full people are applauding all this as signs of a new airline generosity – but, really, how can they not be generous? Fuel has plummeted to prices not seen in years and capacity is at a stuffed like sardines into a can level.

So they throw us a bone and expect us not to yelp.

I have said before that airline miles are nearing null value.  The food and drink freebies underline that the airlines are trying to distract us from the uselessness of miles by giving us a few overpriced and blah items.

Items that I don’t want. Do you?

I don’t recall the last time I paid for a drink on a plane. I may never have bought food and I’d stopped eating it back when it was still free.  

I do like free flights, tho, and I am fond of spending miles for seat upgrades too.

It simply seems that now that is ever less likely to happen.

Add in program changes where ticket price paid – not miles flown – determines a ticket’s awards value and you have to know that the chances of redeeming miles for air travel get ever slimmer.

That is a reason why the airlines bombard us with offers to sell us stuff – merchandise – for miles. It also is why they are now throwing freebies at elites in economy – hoping those elites forget that just a very few years ago they almost always got upgraded to business class where drinks are free and plentiful and food too is free.

Some may call me cynical. They will point to breathless stories such as this one from Travel and Leisure that touts how miles and $5.60 bought a business class roundtrip to Ghana.   I applaud the wise mileage game player who managed this.

But it reminds me of George Orwell’s prescient comments on lotteries in 1984.  Wrote Orwell: ““The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.”

I am not saying nobody ever actually redeems miles for flights.

It happens.

Just a lot less often than it used to.
And you have to wonder if now is the time to stop playing the game.