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 workers – most 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.