Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:18 PM
SAN FRANCISCO — A couple of years after opening the Linkery restaurant in San Diego, the team and I adopted a policy of adding to each dining-in check a service charge of 18 percent — a little less than our tip average had been. We also refused to accept any payment beyond that service charge. (If someone surreptitiously slipped a twenty or two under a water glass, we donated it to a rotating “charity of the month,” usually selected by a staff member or patron.)
We made this change because we wanted to distribute the “tip” revenue to our cooks as well as our servers, making our pay more equitable. Servers and cooks typically made similar base wages — and minimum wage was the same for both jobs — but servers kept all the tips, which could often mean they were taking home three times what the cooks made, or more. In California at that time, it was illegal to distribute any tip money to cooks. (Recent court rulings in the Western U.S. have loosened that restriction somewhat). By replacing tipping with a service charge, we were legally able to redirect about a quarter of that revenue to the kitchen, which reduced the income disparity and helped foster unity on our team.
We had considered just incorporating that charge into the cost of each menu item, but we decided that it was easier for consumers to understand our pricing if we kept it analogous to that of a tipped restaurant. In a similar vein, we applied the service charge only to dining-in checks, since tipping is not yet a firmly established social norm for takeout. We used this service charge as a substitute for tipping from 2006 until we closed the restaurant this year to move to San Francisco.
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. Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.
It’s easy to understand why this is. Before I started working in hospitality, I worked in the tech industry, making fancy software for television set-top boxes. I was part of a skilled team in a challenging field, and we were expected to do our best work. Our compensation system followed two basic patterns. First, we negotiated our pay rarely, typically only at the beginning of a project (for freelancers) or once or twice a year (for salaried workers). We weren’t interrupted every hour or so with a trickle of payment that was supposedly based on how well we were perceived to have done a recent task. Second, we were compensated by, and we negotiated with, the organization that employed us, not the consumers who benefited from our work. We didn’t have to call up the end customers of our products and ask them to pay us for our work. (”Hi, Mr. Jones, I hope you’ve enjoyed using the auto-record feature on your cable box. You know, it took me like three weeks to write that code and I was wondering if I could get some payment for that.”)
These two principles probably apply at your work, too, if you work somewhere other than a restaurant and with your clothes on. They’re a well-established way of compensating people, in part because if you don’t have to always think about money, you can focus on doing your job well. Software engineers, marriage counselors, bridge builders, you name the profession — in almost every industry, it’s expected you’ll be able to do your best work if you’re not constantly distracted by compensation issues. Why don’t we want that for restaurant servers?
I can hear your objection now: How could servers be motivated to do a good job without tips?
This is a common question, but it is also a silly question. Servers are motivated to do a good job in the same ways that everyone else is. Servers want to keep their jobs; servers want to get a raise; servers want to be successful and see themselves as professionals and take pride in their work. In any workplace, everyone is required perform well, and tips have nothing to do with it. The next time you see your doctor, ask her if she wouldn’t do better-quality work if she made minimum wage, with the rest of her income from her patients’ tips. I suspect the answer will be a version of “no.”
Despite — or maybe because of — all the documented damage caused by tip culture, plenty of people are deeply, emotionally invested in keeping tipping propped up. When we abolished tipping at the Linkery, we met a few of these people. We would periodically hear guests express anger about not being able to choose the amount of their tip. Their refrain was, It’s not about money . . . I always tip more than 20 percent. These people were angry even though they had spent less than they otherwise would have, because they had been robbed of their perceived power over their server.
We also had guests — including, most memorably, a local food writer — who’d ask us, If you have a fixed charge, how are we supposed to punish our server for mistakes? In the case of the food writer, she opted to publish an article dressing down her server, using his real name, in the local alt-weekly. I’d suggest talking to or emailing a manager if you have service problems with any business.
Jay Porter is best known for founding the Linkery, San Diego’s leading farm-to-table restaurant, which he operated from 2005 to 2013. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Gold once wrote that the Linkery had “the best restaurant blog in America.” Jay now lives in San Francisco; you can find him on the Internet at jayporter.com and @eltakeiteasy.
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