Tipping is everywhere.
We have a standard practice here in America and it's called tipping. There are 31 different professions that perpetuate the system, which is more than any other country in the world. We're all familiar with it here in Denver and though the practice is voluntary many of us still participate. In fact, Americans shelled out about 40 billion dollars in tips last year alone. If you've ever eaten at a restaurant, stayed in a hotel, ridden a taxi, or gotten a haircut, you've probably tipped a service worker.
As members of the food service industry, we've been thinking a lot about the issue of tipping and come to the conclusion that, well, it sucks and we're not going to do it. Not only does it put the responsibility of paying a decent wage to service employees in the hands of customers when it should be the responsibility of the employers, but those customers also, statistically speaking, tip based on factors of appearance much more so than service quality creating a system rife with injustice and discrimination.
We're not the only ones who feel strongly about this issue. Badass San Francisco-based Chef Dominique Crenn made the switch to 20% service charges (in lieu of tips) at her famed restaurant Atelier Crenn and many other big-name chefs are on the bandwagon including Alice Waters and Thomas Keller. Danny Meyer, bigwig New York restaurateur, announced last year that his restaurant group would eliminate tipping altogether in their many acclaimed restaurants and raise menu prices accordingly so that they may subsequently raise their wages. In fact, he's been touting the merits of building the service costs into restaurant menus, just as Europeans have for generations, as early as 1994.
The folks over at Freakonomics took a deep dive into the practice of tipping and if you have thirty-ish minutes you should definitely give their podcast a listen. It changed our perspective completely. They state some alarming research that shines light on the discrimination that is ubiquitous in this system of inequitable pay, which also disproportionately has a negative affect on women service workers (who are about 70% of the tipped workforce) and black service workers. Customers who tip, whether they realize it or not, are largely motivated by the way a server looks and not the actual service they provide. They found that the relationship between service and tipping is so weak, in fact, that it only motivates about 4% of tipping decisions overall. One of the researchers in the podcast even stated that because discrimination is so inherent in the practice of tipping, one could make the argument that it is "a condition of employment that has an adverse impact on a protected class" and could conceivably be declared illegal if the case was ever presented in court (any takers?).
Looking deeper still, we find that tipping comes from truly despicable origins. According to Saru Jayaraman in her insightful New York Times op-ed, "not only is [the practice of tipping] a vestige of the feudal system, it is a legacy of slavery." Jayaraman explains that the practice arose in feudal Europe and Americans who traveled there, around the mid 19th century, brought the practice back believing it was fashionable. Restaurants latched onto tipping because most of their workforce at that time were freed slaves whom the owners resented having to pay at all. When Europe's labor unions fought for better wages and largely abolished tipping toward the turn of the century, Americans dug in their heels and eventually started devising subminimum wage laws to further ingrain and sanction the behavior.
And if you don't know, now you know...
1. Tipping = wage discrimination. Originally the "minimum wage" set for tipped employees was $0 (as in, their only wages were tips). For almost three decades that tipped minimum was set at $2.13 per hour (just over $4K per year), where it still sits in many states today, especially in the South. Conversely, the standard minimum wage is set just above $7 an hour. Only seven of our fifty states have improved the standard by setting a minimum wage that applies to all workers, whether they are tipped or not.
2. Tipping = social discrimination. Studies have found that customers tip women better based on their physical traits, even while controlling for the customers' perceptions of service quality. According to two different studies there is also substantial evidence of biases against black service workers, both male and female, who are payed disproportionately less in tips than their white counterparts. In addition, both black and white customers have been shown to tip black servers less than white servers, even when controlling for perceptions of service quality.
After looking at the issue from all these different perspectives, we decided that we had no interest in perpetuating a system that is inherently discriminatory. Instead of soliciting tips at The Preservery, we will price our menu items to reflect the true costs of labor. In some instances this will result in food costs that are slightly (up to 15%) higher than our competitors but the price we charge is the price you pay. We will also have a lot of small plates and affordable menu items to choose from for those on a tighter budget. If you're already a habitual tipper, you will most often be paying less than standard prices plus 20% at The Preservery, so you might even save money because of our tip-free policy.
This system will enable us to set our minimum starting wage at $14.50 which includes full health benefits and shift meals for all our employees (the calculated benefit of which is equivalent to $2 an hour, which is included in the $14.50 wage). Though not many places in Denver have joined the bandwagon, our hope is that we can show the restaurant community that eliminating tipping can work and that they, too, can be a part of this positive social change. We believe, as employers of service workers, that this is the direction we should all be headed. We believe it is our responsibility to provide a living wage for our employees, not the responsibility of the customer, and that we must create a wholesome work environment that rewards people based on the merit of their work and not the whims of each individual customer. Won't you join us?