NY Times Restaurant Critic Rips Tipping A New One

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells usually saves his vitriol for eateries that don’t meet his standards, like his infamous 2012 review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar. But Wells’ latest target is the even more controversial institution of tipping restaurant servers.

Wells maintains that you can leave all the 20% tips you want, but since your server doesn’t see the extra cash until after your meal is finished, it’s pretty much pointless.

“[I]t is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory,” he writes. “The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

While a handful of eateries have tried to do away with tipping by either raising menu prices or adding a fixed service surcharge, most of these restaurants are extremely upscale and may be continued to be viewed as anomalies rather than game-changers.

Wells suggests that the recent growth of an anti-tipping sentiment, from both within and without the industry, may have a lot to do with the now-standard use of paying for meals with plastic.

For the longest time, tips were mostly provided in cash. Servers made out well because they were paid immediately (and maybe, just maybe they weren’t reporting all that tip income to the IRS?). Yes, credit cards make it easier for the customer to provide a decent tip — and saves the diner from the embarrassment of being caught short on funds at the end of a meal — but it also means more of an accounting headache for both the restaurant and the server.

Wells points to another issue that many diners might not be aware of — the fact that most kitchen employees never share in the tips provided to servers, sometimes resulting in a huge disparity between those who make your meal and those who serve it to you.

“Neither one is more important than the other,” Daniel Patterson, chef/owner of Coi in San Francisco tells Wells. “So it doesn’t make sense to me that servers would make three to four times as much as cooks.”

That’s why Coi, rather than requesting tips from customers, now charges an 18% service charge that is shared by the entire restaurant staff.

However, some lawyers say that calling such a fee a “service charge” may be against the law in some states, as the money goes to people who are, arguably, not directly providing service to the customer. The safer legal route is to just increase menu prices and to forbid tipping altogether like NYC’s Sushi Yasada did earlier this year.

The concern there, aside from possibly driving away customers who are turned off by the higher menu prices, is that some restaurant owners may still take advantage of servers by paying them as little as possible and using the additional revenue for other restaurant expenses. But given that most of the world manages to operate restaurants and pay wait staff without depending on tips, it seems inevitable that there will be a sea change in the industry in the years to come.