Tipping culture has been the subject of many a hot take in recent years. It’s oppressive and too variable, some say. We make way more money with this system, argue others. Every restaurant operates differently, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the enduring question of how to structure pay. But one thing is clear, especially in pandemic times: If you haven’t already, you need to ask—and answer—the following questions. Why do you structure wages the way you do? Is it benefiting or harming your staff? Who should provide input on your operations? What other options exist? Is there a way to create more stability in the industry, for your employees and your business?
“The tipping system is so backwards,” says Bryan Dayton, founder of Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality. “There is no other business that runs off of tipping in the world.” His team has tested various models, from shared tip pools to a service fee, at its restaurants (Oak at Fourteenth and Corrida in Boulder, Brider and the pandemic-shuttered Acorn in Denver). There is currently no tipping at the Boulder venues, where guests see a 24 percent service fee on checks and all staffers are paid by the hour. “About 65 percent of all of our employees got a raise [with this model]…and the top 15 percent of servers took a pay decrease,” Dayton says. “There has been some give on that. We’re trying to change the way things are.”
The tipping system is so backwards. There is no other business that runs off of tipping in the world.Bryan Dayton, Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality
It’s not just a question of fairness and unequal power dynamics between front and back of house, either (though that’s a key part of this conversation). Women doing tipped service work are more likely to report depression than women in non-service work, and unstable wages generally increase levels of stress and anxiety. “It’s not just how much money [you make], but how good you feel about yourself as a person—what you’re worth,” adds Hosea Rosenberg, chef-owner of Blackbelly and Santo in Boulder. He switched his restaurants to a pooled house and service fee model when they reopened after the COVID-19 closures in March.
Certainly, this is a source of worry for employers, too. “Being able to pay everybody enough and create a good lifestyle is set up for failure in restaurants,” says Kade Gianinetti, Carbondale-based partner in the Way Back and Method Coffee Roasters. “That causes me a ton of stress and anxiety. Am I doing my best to support these people?”
To call it complicated would be an understatement. Even Danny Meyer, who led the way in eliminating tipping five years ago, reversed course when his restaurants began to reopen for indoor dining in July, though the restaurateur says he’s still committed to eradicating the unequal pay system. But just because compensation is complicated and challenging doesn’t justify maintaining the status quo if it’s not serving your staff.
Take a look at related stories “Break Down,” which explores restaurant owners’ responsibility when it comes to employees’ mental health; “Act Now,” which provides concrete steps to implement; and “Follow the Leader,” on how to keep leading during a crisis. Then email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to email@example.com.