Ever since restaurants have existed, there has been friction between employees in the back and front of the house. Kitchen workers feel their talent and skill is what makes a restaurant successful. At the same time, servers believe that the personal connection they create with customers is what keeps the clientele coming back.
Both groups may have a point, although their compensation tends to be wildly different. With the exception of the occasional media sensation or multi-unit operator, cooks aren’t well paid. Servers, particularly in top restaurants, can rake in amounts of money that might seem staggering to the average person. According to Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales, a leading culinary school, wages for non-tipped employees have risen 25% over the past 30 years, while the pay of tipped employees has gone up 200%—mostly due to a rise in food prices and an increase in the average tip from 15% to 20% of the check. In very expensive and popular restaurants, it’s not unusual for servers to be making six-figure incomes.
One of the latest trends in the hospitality industry is the elimination of tipping. Famous restaurateurs such as Thomas Keller and Alice Waters spearheaded the practice, and the latest high-profile operator to abolish tipping is Danny Meyer of New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Eleven Madison Park, holder of three Michelin stars, has followed suit. On the surface, it seems like an ideal solution: diners don’t feel pressured to leave a gratuity, and the service staff is free to treat all customers equally.
However, there’s trouble in this particular paradise. Restaurants that have eliminated tipping have either added a service charge to the bill or raised prices to compensate, and neither solution tends to make their clientele feel happy. Remember the $500-per-week cook who wanted a raise to be more equal with his $1000-per-week service colleague? When that cook gets his pay increase, it’s likely to be coming out of the tip pool rather than his employer’s pocket. Meyer is the target of a class-action lawsuit over tip distribution, and is reportedly considering reverting to the old system.
One thing is certain: Life isn’t fair, and all skills are not valued equally (just ask your high school teachers). If we ever get to a point in the world of hospitality where everyone is being paid the same, the person paying those salaries won’t be the restaurant owner. It will be you.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books this year. For more information, go to amazon.com