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A Restaurant Server Explains Why We Shouldn't Abolish Tipping

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"For all the saltiness I get from the whole scheme of tipping, I still wouldn't give it up."

The argument against tipping in restaurants — with many high-profile chefs announcing they'll ban tipping in favor of offering servers a "living wage" — is growing louder. But not all servers are on board. "Redacted" has worked in the hospitality industry for 10 years, at both fine-dining and casual establishments all over the West Coast. He currently works as the lead server at a moderately priced restaurant and bar — the kind of establishment Eater would cover — in Seattle, Washington, a state where tipped employees make a $9.47 minimum wage (without tip credit). Redacted also acknowledges he's "lucky" to work for a business that offers "great" health-care coverage, and that voluntarily pays more than the mandated minimum wage. Here is his story:

Hello, my name is Redacted and I will be your server tonight. But before I get to our specials and those new craft beers we just got on tap, I think we should have a little talk. There's been a lot of conversation lately about a cultural institution we Americans have followed for the past 100 years, one that is entirely ingrained into the food service business: tipping. Whether you give 20 percent (you rock), 15 percent (come on), 10 percent (I swear it was the kitchen's fault), or nothing at all (I know you didn't forget, asshole), you've spent your whole life dancing this little dance with us. It's a cruel institution created by greedy Depression-era restaurateurs, one that neither customer nor employee comes away from feeling great most of the time. I guarantee that half of the conversations I will have with other servers tonight will be about that jerk-off at table three that just left me $2.50 on $62.37. But for all the saltiness I get from the whole scheme of tipping, I still wouldn't give it up.

In the spirit of transparency, I am going to do something we in the industry absolutely hate to do: I'll tell you how much I'm taking home tonight. If tonight happens to be somewhat busy, I can count on making around $250 in tips. Here's how that breaks down. I consistently sell between $1,200 and $1,400 — which is average for my servers over the course of eight hours on the floor — and am pretty close to the 18 to 20 percent tip range. (Whether or not quality of service has an influence on tipping is a valid question, but I have a fragile ego, so please don't take this from me.)

"Including my wages of $12/hr, $2.53 more than the state minimum, I can count on pulling about $1,000 for the week."

So I guess I'll just walk right out the door with my $250 and call it a day — except for tip-outs. At my place of employment, we don't have a mandatory cut to give out, and because most employers are iffy on the legality of enforced tip-outs, they make "suggestions." But I like my tables bussed and food to come out as quickly as possible, so 10 percent goes to the back-bar, five percent to the host, and 10 percent to the kitchen. This puts me at $187 for the shift, or $32.78 per hour. Not shabby at all — but it's in return for exhausting shifts, managing the personalities of servers, hosts, and customers, and it's what I earn after 10 years in the industry. I work about 32 hours per week, mostly weekends, but I have a couple of slow shifts. Including my wages of $12 per hour, $2.53 more than the state minimum, I can count on pulling about $1,000 for the week. Last year I made $42,000, but I was promoted into better shifts over the summer, so $48,000 is my estimated yearly income after taking into consideration slow seasons and time off. Random tidbit: This is about $10K less than the median income in my neighborhood.

There have been a slew of alternatives proposed that would abolish tipping. Bar Marco in Pittsburgh is now offering its servers a salary of $35,000 per year with benefits and time off, but no tips. Plenty of other restaurateurs have gone down this same path, but I'm not sure what the draw is. I would literally be taking a 27-percent pay cut if I were to take that offer. I don't know what kind of money servers make in Pittsburgh, so this could be an honest and fair deal, but I suspect it would be less than they make now. [Editor's note: Minimum wage for tipped employees in Pennsylvania is $2.83 per hour.] I also understand the push to get a higher percentage of the money paid to our friends in the back of house: the cooks, dishwashers, and other support. That is the whole reason I am tipping them out in the first place, and with their higher base wage, my cooks are getting close to $22 per hour on busy nights. So these restaurateurs want servers to give up a quarter of our income so they can pay our support a better rate (how about $22 per hour?), all so we can have "security." Hmm, I am going to have to check the math on that one.

Let's imagine that tipping is outlawed tomorrow, and all bars and restaurants offered salaries that would be comparable to $20-$25 per hour. How would you, as a consumer, notice the change in the coming weeks? Restaurateurs know they'll have to raise prices by 18 to 20 percent to account for the increased wages in place of tips, which means they are going to likely take a hit in sales in the short term. And that awesome bartender down the street and your favorite waitress at the busy barbecue place? They jumped ship. Actually, you notice a lot of new faces in food service, and they all seem to be pretty green. The fact of the matter is that most of us in the industry are not career servers or bartenders. I've worked with doctors and nurses, teachers and students, artists, screenwriters, dancers, lawyers, video game designers, IT guys, and a slew of actors. Seriously, so many actors (I am one of them — though I edit, direct, and produce video content as well). This is important, because in my experience, very few people who work front-of-house are looking to make a career of it. Most of us work these jobs because it affords us the time off to pursue our own dreams.

The day tipping is abolished and I'm making a guaranteed $20-$25 per hour — effectively taking a pay-cut — I am going to pick the career path that has room for growth and doesn't require me to run my ass off for eight-hour shifts. And I imagine many in the industry would agree, which would lead to a talent drain across the field. So you'll not only be paying 15 to 20 percent more for your meal (it just won't be an optional tip), but you'll also be getting worse service during it. I'm not suggesting I am irreplaceable; other servers would eventually rise to the challenge and some talent would remain. But there would be a noticeable hit.

"You'll not only be paying 15 to 20 percent more for your meal, you'll also be getting worse service during it."

I would be ecstatic if there was a scenario where tipping can be abolished without crippling our industry; a world where I could make comparable money to what I make now and no longer have to see each customer and table as a commodity (and instead, approach each as a person). In the end, though, it just comes down to economics. The guaranteed non-tipping salary is almost certainly going to be less than servers take home with tipping. And if you're working full-time, it's already legally mandated that your employer offer health coverage (in past jobs I used the extra tip income to offset health insurance costs). The most damning argument, though, is that to change the system would risk a huge talent drain in food service. Why work for $20 per hour with no tips in food service when I can jump careers to a path I'd prefer to work in, where I would make a similar wage? In an ideal world, tipping wouldn't be an institution of necessity, but rather a way to go above and beyond in showing gratitude for service. But until customers are okay paying 15 to 20 percent more for dinner and restaurateurs are willing to pay servers a comparable wage to what we make now, the conversation doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

For a counterpoint argument in the tipping debate, watch this video: