Just the Tip

A primer on a shifting wage landscape.

July 2, 2015 ● 3 min read

The ghost of William Scott, author of 1916's The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America, is probably having a hell of a time in the wispy literary salons of the underworld. 

If he seems a little braggy to all the other dead luminaries, it’s because his book has suddenly become a favorite—nigh a century after publication—for those of us trying to tease out exactly what is wrong with the busted pay scale in this industry. We still haven’t figured out how we feel about this damn thing, but Scott has always known: tipping is un-American, the foe of democracy, and something which logically must be uprooted like the ill-advised trend of “African slavery.” Opinions aside, this foreword is everything: 


Pleased to correspond! In other words, COME AT ME, BRO.

The tipping debate of today’s industry has less to do with the democratic liberties of a man’s soul as Scott fervently believes, and more to do with the value of an hour’s work, specifically within a restaurant. The whole notion, as nearly everyone likes to point out, is something we swore up and down we’d never do. Tipping was a form of aristocratic condescension, and until the government took our booze away, we simply weren’t having it. Prohibition turned a snobby hand-out into an under-the-table way to help those backroom bartenders make ends meet, and it stuck. Paying the kitchen one wage, and the servers another—though lower on paper, but higher in, you know, the other paper—has always been pretty bullshit. Now that the paltry $2 an hour front of house wage is creeping up, with no change in the tip take-home structure, cooks are rightly calling foul.

“The wage for an average line cook in this city is between two to three times more than the hourly credited wage of a server, but about a third (total) of what a waiter can make in a shift,” Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker recently told Grub Street, after New York State raised the minimum wage from $5.00 an hour, to $7.50. “The cook works seven to nine hours, and the server works four to six hours. When you decide to become a cook, as I did 35 years ago, that is something that is understood — but it does not make it fair.”

He’s right, it isn’t. It creates an uncomfortable divide with unspoken rules; if you’re front of house, don’t talk about money around the kitchen. If you’re back of house, don’t even ask what they’re taking home—you don’t want to know.

In areas where the minimum wage has been raised to more respectable heights (by 2018, both Seattle and California will be paying its servers $15/hour before tips), service charges have become the de facto addition on guest checks in an effort to balance the scales. There are solid arguments on both ends of the service charge stick, but the main hang-up seems to be the onus it would place on the one person who has the power to enact it: the restaurateur. Human juggernaut and industry Dalai Lama Danny Meyer declined to comment for this piece, but said this in support of the charge at last year’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen: “I’ve been studying this and advocating for it internally for at least 15 to 20 years...tipping almost never correlates to the actual experience. 20% tippers are 20% tippers, 17% tippers are 17% tippers. If I could wave a magic wand, it would be one price, and it would be the restaurateur’s responsibility to determine who deserves what in the restaurant.”

There are three main reasons he sees this being particularly hard to swallow: Americans love tipping (which I’m sure somebody's got an argument against), waiters like being tipped, and restaurateurs, without the crutch of the ways of the ol’ tipping system of yore, will be solely responsible for determining the worth of their employees. Yeesh. Unless the entire industry does it at once, which is unlikely, he adds, it will be harder to be a pioneer. By “[evening] out what hard work of any stripe earns in your restaurant,” how can you still expect to get the best talent to want to work for you?

The current state of things hinges on two different relationships. Primarily, the disparate one between back of house—without whom there would be no restaurant—and front of house, who create the atmosphere and connection between the kitchen and the dining room. The second is a little more depressing: the one between the service industry as a whole and everyone else, the tips of the latter making up the income of the former. It’s a new kind of condescension; rather than tipping to show someone their place, not tipping has evolved as a commentary on their status as a lesser citizen.

“The philosophy that those we see as beneath us (including service workers) deserve their misery — because if they didn't deserve it they wouldn't be suffering it — is exactly the reason tipping culture exists, and why so many people so ardently resist the idea of fair pay for fair work,” writes Kitchenette’s C.A. Pinkham. “Ultimately, tipping hasn't changed because people can't bring themselves to care about those they see as beneath them.”

Sends a shiver down your spine, don’t it?

By Cassandra Landry.