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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 25, 2020
This week, two popular Canadian restaurants — Burdock, the dining arm of the Toronto brewery, and Ten, the fine-dining Toronto establishment known for its extremely limited seating — made the decision to eliminate tipping.
In this they join Richmond Station in Toronto’s business district, whose owners announced in late July that they would move to a “hospitality included” model, raising prices across the board by 18 per cent, and increasing wages for their serving staff commensurately.
Burdock is raising prices, while Ten is adding an automatic 18 per cent surcharge to bills; both restaurants aim to better compensate their employees and provide, as Burdock put it in a statement, “a predictable living wage for our servers and kitchen staff during these unpredictable times.”
Tipping has long been a subject of much discussion across the restaurant industry — and the focus of much debate. In North America, tipping is a well-established custom, while in Asia and in much of Europe, tipping is practised seldom, if at all. Studies have shown that the prospect of a gratuity can be wielded by diners to bullying, predatory or prejudiced effect, and several high-profile restaurants, identifying tips as an ongoing problem for staff, have introduced rules barring the practice altogether.
The results of these experiments have been decidedly mixed. Last week in New York City, the Union Square Hospitality Group announced that it would be re-introducing tipping across its restaurants, five years after fazing tipping out; for them, the idea was admirable in theory, but difficult to execute in practice.
But in light of changes due to COVID and widespread anti-racism initiatives, an era without tipping may be on the horizon once again.
The case against tipping rests on inequity. Although socially we are conditioned to tip between 15-20 per cent of the cost of the meal, some diners may elect to punish service they perceive to be lacking with a lower tip, and that latitude, consciously or unconsciously, can result in biased tipping.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, writing in the opinion pages of the Globe and Mail earlier this week, points out that tipping “promotes bias based on age, race, and gender,” and that it can make female servers in particular “more vulnerable to sexual harassment from customers,” who may feel entitled to a certain level of attention in exchange for the gratuity they have the power to give or not give.
“Tipping is a problematic practice,” says Ariel Coplan, the executive chef at Toronto’s Green Wood restaurant and one of the co-owners of Grand Cru Deli. “There is often a correlation between race and gender and tips earned.”
Coplan is also the co-founder of Not 9 To 5, a non-profit dedicated to helping restaurant workers deal with the pressures of the job. He sees the issue of tipping, principally, as one of wellness. “Any industry that relies on tipping as someone’s primary source of income has been shown to have a negative effect on mental health,” he explains. “If you don’t know how much money you’re making, how can you budget your life? That pressure can have a devastating impact.”
Before opening restaurants of his own, Coplan worked in kitchens around the world, including Australia, where tipping, he discovered, isn’t considered mandatory. “Everyone there is already paid fairly,” he says. “You tip your server if you really want, because you had outstanding service or something special was done, but there’s no pressure. If you leave the restaurant without tipping, no one will bat an eye.” This, he feels, is the best of both worlds: truly excellent service can still be rewarded, but servers aren’t desperate for tips to make rent or pay their bills.
Of course, what constitutes fair pay is also a matter of some contention. A t the end of the day, the servers working for a steady wage won’t be earning as much. “You’re going to find that people will be paid less,” Coplan concedes.
“You are simply never going to make as much money as a server without tips,” one restaurant manager in Toronto said, on condition of anonymity. “First of all, their new wages are taxable, and most servers don’t accurately report their tips: it’s cash in hand, and that’s the appeal. Secondly, they are guaranteed to work less.”
On a slow night, a server may go hours without a table, and thus see no tips. But higher wages on a slow night mean they’re likely to be sent home. “The incentive to send a server home when it’s slow increases ten-fold when the wages go up,” the manager says.
As for fairness, there are alternatives, as this managers sees it. “You will hear that tipping has baggage — racism, sexism, and so forth. That’s true,” he says. “But most restaurants I know pool the tips together at the end of each night and split them evenly among the servers. The whole point of a tip pool is to eliminate that bias and flatten everything out.”
Servers tend to prefer tip-pooling, as it accounts for variables such as unusually busy sections or the odd customers who underpay.
Coplan admits the no-tipping trend, while socially positive, is unlikely to be imposed on a large scale any time soon. “Tipping is one of those archaic principles we have been subjected to that no one wants to reconsider,” he says. The food-service industry is intensely competitive, and even the best-quality restaurants, in a bid to keep prices low, are usually working with razor-thin margins. Eliminating tipping and paying staff higher wages means raising menu prices all-around, and that can be a dangerous proposition.
“The market makes everyone hesitant to raise their prices for any reason,” he says. “No one wants to seem so expensive that diners go somewhere else.”
Whether the trend spreads remains to be seen. One restaurant owner said it cannot be attempted alone. “If you’re the only restaurant without tips, your servers will quit and get a job somewhere that has them,” he says. “I don’t think this can work until it’s mandated by the government.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020