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Essay: Tipping May Well Be A City In China

pixonomy, flickr

Earlier this month a potential seismic shift occurred in the restaurant world. American restauranteur Danny Meyer announced he was eliminating tipping in all thirteen of his restaurants.

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek wonders if this heralds the end of the world as we know it:

Danny Meyer is quite possibly the most recognized restaurateur in America. His Union Square Hospitality Group helms eleven restaurants in New York and one in Chicago, ranging from burgers to barbecue to better.  Separately, his expansive Shake Shack empire took a bite out McDonald’s and all other of its ilk when it went public last summer, now trading at around $40 a share.  That’s twelve restaurants in two of America’s most expensive cities and sixty-three Shake Shacks with a market capitalization of $3.42 billion.  Despite all this capitalism, however, Danny Meyer is apparently a bit of  a socialist too. 

On October 14th, Danny Meyer announced that his New York restaurants are eliminating tipping. Instead, a line will appear at the bottom of the bill with an “hospitality” inclusion in the cost of the dining experience. “Tipping is not a city in China”--the glib jab at cheapos often handwritten on a scrap of paper and displayed behind the kind of bar where the lighting is dark, the beer is cold, and the pickled eggs ain't free--may well be disproved if Danny Meyer has anything to say about it. With this swipe at long-held server remuneration, at least for Meyer, the pun stops here. 

Meyer is bringing a unique brand of payment not just to his dining rooms and kitchens of New York, but perhaps to the city as a whole. The old showbiz adage about Sinatra--”when Frank  sneezes, two hundred people catch a cold”--works for Meyer in the restaurant world as well. 

Meyer, a youthful fifty-seven years old in appearance and actions, was a major force in the casualization of New York dining in the 1980’s. He made à la carte and prix fixe menus sexy, all while smiting and smoting stuffiness in fine dining wherever he could.  His commitment to service and the ability to sense the right thing at the right time in an industry that is as capricious as it is exhausting is unparalleled.  He is prescient and self possessed cool.  The young turk, offal-tattoo-covered, bro chefs dig him, and folks that mind their P’s, Q’s, and quarterly returns do too. His talk cum Sermon-on-the-Mount titled “The Irrelevance of Being Right” at this year’s hospitality conference hosted by the New York Times was concluded with the emphatic statement: ‘Being right is f%^@-ing irrelevant.’ That Ted-style talk was shared, forwarded and linked for days by nearly every chef, GM, sommelier, and restaurateur I know.  Meyer sneezed and everybody caught the fever.

Punitive and medieval, tipping on meals is absent in most other parts of the world and certainly in most other first world countries. As Americans we decry the slow, grumpy European server; the impression being that “gratuity included” is apparently some time warp device that slows the service down and erases smiles.  Libertarians love to cry that “gratuity included” denies the server the option of monetary meritocracy through a job well done and creates a dining room welfare state. 

With the elimination of tipping, Meyer is after something more taciturn and upliftingly insidious for the restaurant world.  Meyer’s restaurants operate in one of the most competitive food environments ever.  It is not enough to go all Kennedy and hire “the best and the brightest.”  You’ve got to pay them too, and keep them, somehow, in a city where moving beween kitchens to learn from the greats that helm them is nearly a past-time for aspiring chefs.   

Speaking to the New York Times, Meyer said “If cooks’ wages do not keep pace with the cost of living, it’s not going to be sustainable to attract the culinary talent that the city needs to keep its edge. Kitchen income has gone up no more than 25 percent” he told the Times, “while dining room pay has gone up 200.”  So his solution is to pay the people that work for him at a scale that may entice them to stay, and shift the money around, making it more level within the enterprise.  Socialist income distribution or just asset allocation within your portfolio?  Indeed.

Danny Meyer really likes his customers.  So much so he has risked his fortunes from time to time to give them something new, delicious of quality, and even impeccable.  Though the world isn’t fair, and he would be the first to say so, I think he loves the people enough that come along with him on his quest for more to give them a fair shake. From the maitre d’ to the dishwasher.

Kyle Cherek is host of television’s Wisconsin Foodie, and our regular food contributor.

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Kyle Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.