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Why should no-tipping work in NYC when it didn’t in SF?

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New York restaurateur Danny Meyer certainly made headlines yesterday when he announced that he’s eliminating tipping at all 13 of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.

The move caught the restaurant world by storm. Eater said it “would forever change how diners dine.” Slate blogger Jordan Weissman cracked that it “could be a tipping point.” Tim Zagat, of the Guide, quoted in the Daily News, said, “It means a lot…Danny Meyer knows what he’s doing [and] you better take him seriously.”

Well, of course, if someone in New York does something, it must be groundbreaking, right? New York is after all The Big Apple and as the Big Apple goes, so goes the nation.

Except…California did it first. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry have long included the tip in the price of the meal, but you could argue that those are exceptions because they’re not normal “restaurants,” they’re dining Disneylands. But earlier this year a flurry of other Bay Area restaurants followed suit: Trou Normand (love their charcuterie), Toast and Camino (both here in Oakland), the celebrated Atelier Crenn, Homestead and Bar Agricole, in the red-hot Mission District, and others.

But guess what? As I write these words, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, broke the news that Thad Vogler, owner of both Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, “is ending his experiment and returning to the conventional model” of tipping.

Vogler’s reasons? “Staff retention.” He had assumed that other restaurants in San Francisco would follow his lead, but they didn’t. That meant his servers could make more money working elsewhere, so they quit. “[O]ur staff wasn’t happy,” Vogler said, adding, “[I]t felt like we were forcing an ideological decision” down their throats.

(I asked a friend of mine who works at Bar Agricole along with her husband, neither of whom is currently wait staff, how they felt about it, and she said they’re both in favor of ending the no-tipping policy.)

How do I feel about it? Well, last February, when the no-tipping trend really started getting reported about in the Bay Area, I blogged that “I’m in favor.” I had been getting most of my 9-1-1 on the topic from Bauer’s writings, and Bauer had eagerly embraced no tipping: Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit,” he wrote. But in retrospect, I didn’t really think things through carefully enough. And neither, apparently, did Bauer: in his post today, Bauer seems to be moving slightly away from his earlier embrace, remarking that “Not everybody is ready” to go to a no-tipping policy: restaurateurs, employees or consumers.

I can see that the move away from tipping is an attempt at modernizing a very old, and perhaps anachronistic, tradition that dates to at least the early 18th century. But I do wonder why the no-tipping policy should work for Danny Meyer in New York when it didn’t for Thad Vogler in San Francisco. Good servers, of the sort who work at Bar Agricole or Meyer’s Union Square Café, are at least as hard to find, and retain, in New York as they are in San Francisco. I wonder if, a year from now or less, we’ll hear Danny Meyer confess that, like Thad Vogler, he’s ending his noble experiment, and for the same reason.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    I don’t know if the NY experiment will work or not. I personally love the lack of tipping when I travel to France. Often I’ll look at the price of a dish or a menu and I’ll think “that’s a little high.” Then I realize that the price includes service and taxes, and suddenly it looks like a bargain. And another thing that also hasn’t really caught on in the US is prixe fixe; the price of a prixe fixe menu is always significantly less than the sum of the components would be.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Bibliography on the subject of restaurant tipping . . .

    Cornell study on tipping:

    Link: http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/wml3/pdf/megatips.pdf

    From The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (August 9-10, 2014, Page A2):

    “Tips Don’t Add Up for Most Waiters and Waitresses;
    Some Live in Poverty, While Median Income Falls Below Average”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/articles/tips-dont-add-up-for-most-waiters-and-waitresses-1407520147

    By Jo Craven McGinty
    “The Numbers” Column

    — AND SEE RELATED ARTICLE —

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (August 8, 2014):

    “Tips for More Tips:
    Waitresses Who Draw Smiley Faces Make More Money”

    Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/numbers/tips-for-more-tips-waitresses-who-draw-smiley-faces-make-more-money-1686/

    By Jo Craven McGinty
    “The Numbers” Column

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (October 23, 2008, Page D4):

    “Tipping Point:
    What It Takes To Make Your Waiter Like You”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122471487660660237.html

    By Neal Templin
    “Cheap Skate” Column

    — AND SEE FOLLOW-UP ARTICLE —

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (November 6, 2008, Page D9):

    “When Is a Gratuity Gratuitous?;
    We Give Big Tips to Some, Stiff Others”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122592541430502789.html

    By Neal Templin
    “Cheap Skate” Column

    From the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (August 13, 2008, Page E10):

    “It’s Spicy and Bitter But Never Quite Filling”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/13/entertainment/et-book13

    Book review by Erika Schickel

    “Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter”
    By The Waiter [anonymous]
    (Ecco Press, 302 pp., $24.95)

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (November 16, 2007, Page F7):

    “Tipping Points — A diner’s guide to wine-service etiquette”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Tipping-points-A-diner-s-guide-to-wine-service-3300931.php

    By Marisa D’Vari
    Special to The Chronicle

    From Los Angeles Times “Travel” Section
    (April 18, 2004, Page L3):

    “Grin Big, Predict Sun and Tuck a Flower Behind Each Ear;
    Tips don’t really have anything to do with service,
    says the author of a guide on how to get greater gratuities”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/apr/18/travel/tr-insider18

    By Jane Engle
    Times Staff Writer

  3. anonymous says:

    Now there is a thesis level lit review on tipping. I have heard rumors of servers here in sonoma county at a particular brewery establishment making much more than brewers. So much money in fact that they have purchased multiple homes here and rent them out. It all depends on where you work apparently.

  4. I posted something similar on drvino.com, but this seems like it’ll really hurt wine sales. (On a side note, the timing of this seems a bit late given that we’ll all be paying with app soon enough and any discomfort associated with tipping will be buried in app defaults).

    But here’s the concern:
    Let’s assume you can buy a wine at retail for $60 and a comparable wine currently sells at the restaurant for $150. Also assume that corkage is $35 and you’re a good citizen and tip on the value of the wine, not your cost.

    In today’s world, that’s $60 cost of wine + $35 corkage + $30 tip (20% of $150 list value) = $125. Compared to the $150 on list, that $25 probably isn’t worth it, so you just buy from the list.

    In no-tip land, the $150 wine is now $188 (150 * 1.25). Your cost is $60 wine + $35 corkage + $0 tip = $95. Compared to the $188, the difference is now $93. That is close to a no-brainer as possible. I will no longer buy wine from restaurant lists if I can bring my own for half as much.

    To stay whole in this case, the restaurant would have to raise corkage from $35 to $92. That is basically a FU that drives customers to more friendly BYOB restaurants.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    “To stay whole in this case, the restaurant would have to raise corkage from $35 to $92. That is basically a FU that drives customers to more friendly BYOB restaurants.”

    Michael, does FU stand for “Full [Fool] Upsell” . . . or am I a little behind in my understanding of contemporary restaurant jargon acronyms?

  6. Rhymes with Duck Stew.

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