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Service Charged

Who gets stiffed in the tipping wars?

In October 2015, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that he would eliminate tipping at his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants. In its absence, menu prices would increase to account for servers’ hourly wages. The policy was called Hospitality Included, which Union Square Hospitality Group referred to on its website as a “new way of doing business.” In an accompanying letter, Meyer wrote that the decision was reached after “a thoughtful, company-wide dialogue.”

Meyer’s announcement came amid renewed attention on the issue of tipping and the subminimum wage, which varies from state to state but has remained locked at $2.13 an hour at the federal level since the 1990s, thanks to lobbying from Herman Cain and the National Restaurant Association. In 2013, the lawyer and activist Saru Jayaraman—who previously cofounded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit started to support restaurant workers displaced by 9/11 that fights to improve working conditions across the industry—launched One Fair Wage, the leading proponent for ending the tipped minimum wage. In a column published that same year, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells called tipping “irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.”

Some momentum was gathering. Starting in 2013, a small number of mostly high-profile, fine dining restaurants around the country—including Sushi Yasuda, Dirt Candy, and Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in New York; Coi and Bar Agricole in San Francisco; and Alinea and Next in Chicago—nixed tipping or instituted mandatory service charges. They joined a handful of heavy hitters that had made the shift years before. Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse added a service charge in 1989, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se followed suit in 2005. (Alternative spaces, like Bridgeport’s feminist cafe Bloodroot, had made no-tipping part of their mission for decades.) At the time, Meyer had warned that Keller, as the Times put it, “might face a mutiny among his waiters.”

When Meyer went public with his own decision to eliminate tipping a decade later, the coverage was breathless. Writing about the news for Eater, Ryan Sutton declared that this shift would “save the hospitality industry” and “forever change how diners dine.” He wasn’t alone. Time Out argued that Meyer going no-tipping was “a real game-changer” because his restaurants “serve around fifty thousand meals per week.” In the New York Times, Jayaraman wrote more cautiously of Meyer’s decision, “I hope it will help set a new standard for the industry.” But the media consensus seemed to be with Sutton, who insisted that “nothing will ever be the same.”

Spoiler: everything remained the same. Most of the restaurants that went no-tipping switched back, some in as little as six months. While the Union Square Hospitality Group held out for longer, the policy was plagued by issues. USHG’s chief restaurant officer told Eater in 2015 that servers should make as much, if not more, than they had been after the switch. They didn’t. Servers at Maialino and Gramercy Tavern told Grub Street that their pay dropped by $100 a week. Another at Union Square Cafe said her annual income fell by $10,000. In 2017, a former manager at Union Square Cafe said that most of “our strongest people have left,” and Meyer himself eventually admitted that his company had problems retaining staff, losing as much as 40 percent of its front-of-house employees. USHG ultimately reversed course during the summer of 2020, claiming the uncertainty of the economy in the midst of the pandemic necessitated the change. In a story about the decision, Meyer said that he didn’t want to deny employees the tips that customers were clamoring to give them. The next day, Meyer published an op-ed cowritten with Jayaraman in which they argued that “paying all hourly workers One Fair Wage—a full, livable wage with shareable tips on top—is vital to the future of a healthy, vibrant restaurant industry.”

This wasn’t the plan. But then, why had we been told that tidal change was going to come from a single business owner, whose decision wouldn’t have any impact on policy, in the first place? Meyer may have been one of New York’s most famous restaurateurs, but at the time it went no-tipping, USHG had 1,800 employees, a fraction of the roughly 163,700 then working in full-service restaurants in New York. The restaurant industry is now the private sector’s second largest employer and a fast-growing part of our ever more service-oriented economy.

“We are relying on individuals to fix systemic problems, and that’s why the discourse around [tipping] fucking sucks,” says Etinosa Emokpae, who worked in restaurants in New York and Philadelphia and is in the anti-tipping camp. As she sees it, the broader conversation around tipping—its focus on supposedly benevolent owners and customer gripes and expectations—bypasses what we should actually be talking about, starting with the racism that’s been tangled up with tipping from the get-go. “We’re not getting to the root cause of this.”

Dine and Dash

If you’re an American, chances are you have an opinion about tipping. Maybe you can be lumped into one of these common groups: conservatives who resent having to pay “extra.” Liberals who don’t want to be reminded of their class anxiety and guilt. National Restaurant Association members who swear that the restaurant industry will go up in flames if the tipped minimum wage is raised. You might refuse to tip so as not to enable the boss’s continued oppression of their workers. (Good on you, brother.) Or perhaps you are just a European on vacation, taking to Twitter to express your confusion at this exotic custom: you see in Paris, we only tip if service is super.

“What we’re disregarding is just, so what is the alternative? And I think people like to say, well, the alternative is that your boss would just pay you properly.”

Tipping discourse is almost as old as tipping in the United States. The practice was imported from Europe in the 1850s and became more established during the Reconstruction Era, when it was seen as a convenient way to get around paying the formerly enslaved. From the beginning, it was derided by some as un-American, and, as journalist Nina Martyris put it, “blamed for encouraging servility and degrading America’s democratic, puritanical, and anti-aristocratic ethic.” Of course, all of this only really applied to white Americans. Martyris notes that the early twentieth-century journalist John Speed, who is quoted in Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, once said it was okay to tip Black workers because “it is a token of their inferiority.” Tipping whites though? “That was embarrassing to me.”

Anti-tipping laws were passed by some states in the early 1900s, when workers organized against the practice, though their efforts were ultimately futile. One such law, passed in Washington state in 1909, only lasted four years, during which time it was largely ignored. Arkansas and Mississippi also passed anti-tipping laws. Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee did the same in 1915. But according to Segrave, by 1926, these laws were all off the books, partly because tipping had taken too strong a hold.

Reading about the history of tipping, the same arguments and complaints crop up again and again. From the beginning, opponents have made the case that tips make workers servile to better-heeled customers, while those same customers tend to agonize over what their tips say about them. In 2009, then New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a column about reader complaints regarding tipping. “It puts us customers in an awkward position, fretting over what’s really generous versus what’s really stingy,” he complained. A post made on the website Waiter Rant that same year asking “Who Are the Worst Tippers?” generated nearly thirteen hundred comments, some of which were posted as recently as this year (more than a few contain racist vitriol). In 2012, a website called Lousy Tippers started attracting mainstream attention, providing servers with a centralized database for shaming bad tippers. Social media has provided yet another forum for people to share such stories (those damn Europeans again!).

The cheapskate tipper has become such a recognizable, disdained archetype that showing a character stiffing servers is a classic shortcut to conveying they’re a piece of shit. Take Reservoir Dogs, in which the criminals at the center of the plot confab at a local diner. When the meal comes to an end, Steve Buscemi’s greasy-looking Mr. Pink refuses to put out any change for his coffee. “I don’t tip,” he says. “You know what these chicks make? They make shit,” Edward Bunker’s Mr. Blue says. Pink retorts with the quintessential American argument that their waitress can quit then. Even among a group of criminals, one later revealed to be a sadistic psychopath and eager murderer, Pink is the lowest of the low: the bad tipper. Look, we may rob banks, we may kill the occasional cop, but what we don’t do is stiff the working class. That is a bridge too far.

One reason many people feel obligated to tip widely and generously is because the federal tipped minimum wage is obscenely low. This is far from the only argument against the current way of doing things. A 2017 paper by a law student at the University of Wisconsin called tipping “a Trojan horse of workplace discrimination” that perpetuates various forms of injustice. Data shows that overall, white servers tend to be tipped better than people of color. Poverty rates are significantly higher among restaurant workers generally, and even higher among Black and Hispanic restaurant workers. One possible contributor to this pay gap, as Vince Dixon pointed out in an Eater article analyzing government data, is that white people make up 78 percent of service jobs in fine dining, where earnings are higher—a hiring pattern that can be equally as prejudiced as tipping. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the restaurant industry’s average hourly earning for “production and nonsupervisory employees” was $17.88 as of June 2023, and the average number of weekly hours worked was 24.1.

In addition to discrepancies based on race, men tend to receive higher tips than women, and studies have shown that men tend to be tipped for aptitude, while women are tipped for conforming to gendered stereotypes, including conventional and racialized beauty standards. The authors of one 2021 study said their work showed an empirical link between tipping and sexual harassment. (From my own experience working the floor, I can say there is an empirical link between sexual harassment and owners telling their employees to deal with it because the customer is always right.) As Dixon put it in his Eater piece, “The case against the current tipping system in America is stronger than ever.”

And yet, many servers feel otherwise. To say that everyone in restaurants wants to get rid of tipping would be a lie. I’ve spoken to service workers in Washington, D.C., who opposed a bill ending tipped wages because they believe they’ll make less, as well as servers who think the no-tipping movement is a sham. Restaurant workers in Maryland, New Hampshire, and elsewhere have come out against ending the tip credit, an essential tax policy for allowing restaurants to pay a subminimum wage. Why would anyone fight for $2.13 an hour, or to preserve a practice so vulnerable to discrimination?


An empty jar floats over a colorful background of fuzzed-out flowers with the words “TIPS ARE ALWAY” above and “APPRECIATED” below.

Tipping Point

The answer is complicated. Some see servers’ defense of tipping as a form of false consciousness, or evidence that they’ve imbibed too much propaganda from the National Restaurant Association. But for many servers, their pro-tipping stance is genuine and heartfelt. There are a lot of bad, low-paying service jobs that will get you nowhere: the federal tipped minimum wage is a very difficult starting place, especially in cheaper restaurants, and it is hard to close that gap and make a real living. There are also service jobs where you can make $70,000 to $100,000 a year or more. A server in D.C. may be “wrong” to oppose ending the city’s tipped minimum wage, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t earnestly considered what they feel is right for them. The restaurant workers I’ve spoken to over the years who support tipping don’t do so because they desperately want to protect their boss’s bottom line. They do it because they see tipping as their best shot at making the most money possible, or because they find the idea that their employer will willingly pay them as much as they’re currently making laughable.

If fine dining servers are disproportionately white, kitchen workers are still largely people of color, and many are immigrants.

“I think that the general conversation of ‘let’s get rid of tipping’ often comes from a well-intentioned place,” says one server who works in a higher-end New York restaurant. But even when it is well-intentioned, “what we’re disregarding is just, so what is the alternative? And I think people like to say, well, the alternative is that your boss would just pay you properly.”

“I would trust my current employer to pay me the equivalent if it was remotely possible,” says Parker J. Story, who has worked various restaurant and bar jobs in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; and now, the Bay Area. “I’ve seen the margins. It’s hard to make money as a small business. You’re often doing this labor of love thing, which I think gives a lot of people who treat workers like shit a pass. I’ll say that nowhere I’ve worked that generates enough revenue to pay me what I make off tips would I trust to do it.”

In an episode of the service industry podcast FOH, cohost Kelly Sullivan, a bartender in New York, argues that servers are not going to win a $50 hourly wage, or something consummate with the higher end of tipped earnings. As she put it to me, this is an equation that no one has yet found a good way to balance. “I think on the whole, like on a basic level, I am pretty pro-tipping. Not exactly the structure of how restaurants pay now,” Sullivan says. “But it’s also undeniable in New York that you do make good money off of tips, and I’ve worked in restaurants that were gratuity-free, and you don’t make good money.”

This is the complicated reality: many tipped restaurant workers I talked to don’t believe their bosses will pay them as much as they make now. And why should they, when their coworkers in the kitchen are paid a pittance? But customers also can’t exactly be trusted to pay service workers what they deserve. Sullivan has talked about the fact that people will respond differently to her fucking up a drink than a Black woman; a customer is more likely to punish the Black bartender, she says, whereas she’d be extended sympathy. “It’s not something that I really see discussed even though, especially in New York, how segregated it is,” Sullivan says. “But that’s like the only conceivable reason to me to think about not relying on people’s discretion with tips.” She added that “no-tipping in Europe is a byproduct of so many other things”—like a substantial social safety net, and health care that isn’t tethered to employment.

Another major motivation for the no-tipping movement is the discrepancy in pay between service and kitchen staff. When chef Amanda Cohen nixed tipping at Dirt Candy in 2015, she told Eater,“We’re trying to balance it out so it becomes even more equal over time.” If fine dining servers are disproportionately white, kitchen workers are still largely people of color, and many are immigrants (though in prestigious restaurants, these class dynamics change—you may instead find the line manned by trust-fund kids from abroad, or ambitious young cooks willing to work for free). Cooks and porters have always been paid abysmally low wages. In the early 2010s, even in major metropolitan areas, many were still making $9, $10, or $11 an hour without tips. This is about what a cook could expect to make in New York City before the minimum wage began annually increasing to $15 in 2013. Some argue that ending tipping is the way to ensure all restaurant employees are being paid fairly, which in practice can mean servers making less in order for cooks and porters to make more. Telling people who are making enough money but not boatloads that they should take a hit to their income can be a tough sell, however.

While some servers are unequivocally supportive of tipping, others see it as a flawed or broken system that is still, in their eyes, better than the alternative. “I’d love to see an end to tipping culture,” one former New York server told me. “But honestly tipped jobs are the only way to make a living wage if you don’t have a professional degree or job.” This is something that came up repeatedly in my conversations with servers: tipped work can suck, you can’t deny how much discrimination factors in, and yet it is also a practice that allows some people without degrees to build a life. Another server argued to me that tipping, as it exists now, is an example of blue-collar workers turning an exploitative system into one that benefits them. “I believe that, essentially, tipping does have deeply racist, deeply classist origins,” they said. “Just like pretty much every other oppressive situation in history, I find it deeply unsurprising that the oppressed group has found a way to make gold out of straw, you know.”

The restaurant industry is rife with wage theft, and moving toward a service-included model doesn’t automatically change that.

On the other hand, even some of those who’ve made good money from tips would rather see the practice die. “I’ve worked for tips for years, right, and, so, I like ’em. I love when I make $800 in a night,” Story tells me. Tipping, he says, can be thrilling, like working the slot machines. Nonetheless, “We’ve got to be giving everybody at least $22 an hour. If you give me the power to flip the switch on tipping, it goes away the next day.”

The question is what replaces it. No-tipping made little if any change on a broader scale; after a half-decade of discourse, we’re just listening to the same old complaints, only intensified. Among employers that One Fair Wage works with, Jayaraman says that the no-tipping model has always been the least-used. The energy appears to be elsewhere. There has been a shift toward higher wages, and service charges have also gained popularity as a solution, though the latter come with their own issues. Tips are still accepted at most establishments with a service charge, which can lead to customer confusion and—some things never change—complaints. Some front-of-house workers see these charges as a way for restaurant owners to capture tips—our money—because service fees don’t have to go toward employee pay. A spokesman for the Aviary, Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz’s high-end cocktail bar, told the New York Times that its service fee can be used to pay for any cost of business, including employee compensation.

The restaurant industry is rife with wage theft, and moving toward a service-included model doesn’t automatically change that. Unscrupulous owners will continue to be unscrupulous. One server, who has worked in the Great Plains and on the East Coast, was retaliated against for being transparent about their pay at a service-included restaurant. “After they’d eaten and paid, a guest asked me to clarify the service charge. I told her, and she asked me straight up how much I got paid,” he says. The customer made a “big stink” about how servers weren’t being paid enough, leaving an online review that the server believes got him fired. For his part, Story says that he is owed thousands of dollars from a restaurant where the owner illegally kept some of the service charge income for themselves.

Getting Gratuitous

Among restaurant owners, even good-faith proponents of no-tipping have talked frequently about how difficult it is to make it work. In 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that nearly 90 percent of Zuni Café’s servers left after the restaurant switched to a service charge model (the restaurant does allow for additional tips on top of its 25 percent “fair wage” surcharge). This year, CNN’s Audie Cornish interviewed Amanda Cohen and her fellow New York restaurateur David Stockwell, who tried to make his Brooklyn spot Faun a no-tipping establishment when it opened in 2016. As the two explained, restaurants that eliminate tipping end up forking over more payroll tax and increase their insurance burden. “My payroll taxes every week if I had tipping would be around $3,000, $4,000,” Cohen told Cornish. “And instead, every week they’re $10,000. That’s a lot of money for a restaurant.”

In an industry where business owners frequently lament the difficulty of making money, this has proved too much for many. The tip credit allows businesses to put customer gratuities towards an employee’s minimum wage, and employers can then get a tax credit if the employee’s tips exceed the federal minimum wage. Restaurateurs that go no-tipping, or offer a higher wage coupled with a service charge, are effectively penalized. If tips are not taxed, Jayaraman argues, then service charges that are passed on to employees shouldn’t be taxed either.

Even if the no-tipping establishments had achieved all they set out to do, the significance of the experiment was still vastly overblown. At the end of the day, this was a small number of restaurants, mostly on the higher end of the industry. Looking back, the framing of the story only feels weirder and weirder. We are constantly talking about the restaurant industry as being full of bad operators, so much so that people quip that you can’t make money in the industry if you’re an honest person. Yet the historically intractable problem of tipping was going to be solved by . . . a few business owners? Don’t worry, servers! Your boss will totally pay you the same.

After the momentary generosity of the pandemic economy, contention around tipping has flared up once again. Since the winter of 2022, endless stories have been published about tip creep and “tipping fatigue,” a previously unknown but apparently long-lasting symptom of Covid. We have to tip how much now? outraged diners cry. I have to tip for that? In one characteristic example from July, Seattle Times cartoonist David Horsey wrote dramatically of electronic tip prompts, “I do not know how my father would cope with the digital technology that now faces consumers everywhere they go.” A June survey conducted by the company Bankrate found that “two-thirds of Americans” purportedly view tipping negatively and “are getting annoyed with tipping.” Even Meyer argued recently that you shouldn’t feel obligated to tip on takeout and coffee, causing more hubbub.

As Emokpae sees it, relying on industry leaders to fix the tipping problem was always going to fail.

Everyone has something to say about tipping, and you may be thinking by now, I am really tired of these conversations. But no one is as tired of it as your servers, food runners, and bussers. On Reddit forums like Tales From Your Server and Server Life, the issue has been discussed so much that moderators talk about banning the topic. In a thread titled “The tipping debate posts are getting old,” one user wrote, “This is pissing me off so much. . . . No one is arguing that the tipping system isn’t stupid as hell.” A moderator responded, “We’re considering just not allowing the conversation” because of the daily, repetitive posts. When a user of the Server Life subreddit asked this year to ban discussions about whether or not tipping should exist, another added, “No matter how many times you explain that stiffing workers doesn’t hurt the restaurant owner they’re somehow Fighting Capitalism TM.”

Over the last thirteen years—a time during which the no-tipping movement went mainstream and faced some very high-profile setbacks—many restaurant workers have seen real gains in their income. Activist groups like Fight For Fifteen successfully pushed to increase the minimum wage, getting states and cities around the country to raise it to $15 an hour—even if many now feel the change was made too late, or that the fixed number was a mistake; undoubtedly, inflation has cut into purchasing power. Meanwhile, One Fair Wage has successfully campaigned to end the subminimum wage in states including California, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., which will gradually phase out the tip credit by 2027. (The nonprofit is also campaigning in other states, including Michigan, where there is an ongoing battle in the state court system.) Great gains were also made during the Covid labor market, when cooks started demanding wages of $18, $21, $23 an hour or more. It seems numbingly obvious, but the data shows that a higher minimum wage makes for a better economy for more people: according to the Center for American Progress, employment job recovery was faster in states that pay low-wage workers more. As One Fair Wage has noted, even Denny’s CFO Robert Verostek admitted that California locations “outperformed the system” during the years the state began raising its minimum wage. None of these changes were the product of individual business owners acting as Good Samaritans, but of the collective demands of cooks and servers and organizers who insisted on something better.

It was and remains wrongheaded to expect a solution to come from a handful of business owners, rather than the people working the jobs or, say, those shaping labor policy. As Emokpae sees it, relying on industry leaders to fix the tipping problem was always going to fail. “If we had universal health care and a true living wage for all people, which can only be solved legislatively, tipping wouldn’t be necessary,” she says. “It would be more manageable for smaller restaurants to pay their employees fairly and justly!”

Most people I know who work in restaurants don’t think that tipping is the best system, much less a perfect system—though we should stop acting like there aren’t servers perfectly happy with it. One thing it seems like people can agree on is that they’re tired of idle observers outside the industry debating their worth. “I don’t think that this is a conversation that we really ever have anywhere else. No one’s like, well, how much exactly do you think a nurse deserves to be paid?” one server tells me. “I think that if you were to ask a lot of people how much money they think a waiter deserves to make, it would be significantly lower than what I make.”