Tipping extra is more important than ever, but many operators are looking towards an even bigger picture.

By Oset Babür
July 09, 2020
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Across the hospitality industry, few issues are as much of a hot-button topic as tipping. Five years ago, when restaurateur Danny Meyer decided to do away with the practice altogether at Union Square Hospitality Group, some applauded his decision as a way to protect servers' incomes and balance out pay scales for restaurant staff, while others feared that it would dissuade customers from leaving tips for extraordinary service. Now, as restaurants struggle to pay rent, compensate employees, and inch back towards profitability against truly staggering odds during the pandemic, tips matter more than ever—but should they?

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“My hope is that now, we can finally restructure tipping,” says Ivy Mix, owner of Brooklyn’s beloved cocktail bar, Leyenda, and the author of newly released Spirits of Latin America. “It’s fundamentally a structure that came around because of slavery," she says, referring to the practice's troubled history. After the Civil War, many employers used tipping as a way to avoid actually paying wages to formerly enslaved hospitality workers. Mix says that in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, when Leyenda was open for takeout cocktails only, patrons were tipping exorbitantly, and even calling to order and pay for drinks—and tips—for staffers to enjoy in their stead. But as COVID-19 continues, gratuities have decreased. “Now, tips have declined for sure," she says.

With takeout in particular, Mix suspects that many patrons feel that because they aren’t sitting down and spending time in an establishment, their interaction with their servers is more transactional and less of an actual relationship, which is critical to the tipping construct. “You should be realizing that you’re basically tipping an employee who hasn't gotten paid in many months. Some people couldn’t file for unemployment—the hospitality industry is full of people from all walks of life,” she says.

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Mix says that a 20% tip on every order—whether it’s a single frozen margarita or a full meal, enjoyed outdoors, in your living room, or on your walk home—is still absolutely necessary to support hospitality employers who have taken a major financial hit during the last few months of restaurant closures. Beyond that minimum, it’s up to customers to do the math and be as generous as they’re able. “Remember that each business is doing 50% or less business than normal, so that employee is earning 50% less tips,” she says.

As opposed to relying on customer generosity alone to make up for lost wages, Mix says she would strongly prefer to add a fixed fee to every bill, to be split amongst back-of-house and front-of-house employees. Unfortunately, New York City restaurants are currently forbidden from doing so, a pre-COVID restriction that organizations like the Independent Restaurant Coalition are working to change. Meanwhile, at Bar Mezzana in Boston’s South End neighborhood, Colin and Heather Lynch have been adding a 20% COVID recovery fee on every takeout and dine-in check. “We’re giving some of it to the kitchen, and some of it is elevated wages. Our front-of-house staff gets $27 an hour right now,” says Heather Lynch. “We got PPP loans, but we wanted people to come back to work in a way that they could plan what they make. We’re also trying to prioritize staff that couldn’t collect unemployment.” Even on top of the 20% fee, the Lynches say they’ve found many patrons, especially regulars, are happily tipping 30 or 40 percent. 

“It’s a conversation we’d love to have, doing away with tipping,” Lynch says. Doing so means grappling with a number of challenges, like explaining increased menu costs to guests. In this time of flux, moving beyond the practice of gratuities in favor of a more equitable model has new urgency. “The way we can change it is to get together as an industry, because we’re all saying the same things. That’s sort of been the small silver lining of COVID—you’re seeing independent restaurant forums and communities really starting to form. I feel like if all the independent restaurants could get together, we could start talking about what works for us as a community.”