The Tipping Point: the arbitrary social convention that’s due for debate in 2014

The Tipping Point: the arbitrary social convention that’s due for debate in 2014

(Image: Carissa Rogers)

Here’s the thing about tipping: it’s messed up. It’s an inconsistent and unreliable source of income for servers, and it’s vulnerable to trickery, theft and mood swings. Perhaps this is why half the countries in the world avoid it, including Japan, Singapore, Australia and most of Europe.

Here in Canada, we tip—at least for now. 2013 brought reams of writing about abandoning it (or, at the very least, reforming it) in favour of a fairer system for all involved. Many managers, servers, diners and commentators are on board, but will 2014 be the year of change? Probably not.

Problems with the current tipping system make frequent headlines in Toronto. There’s the issue of owners taking tips from staff. There’s the issue of restaurants trying to nudge up the expected tip percentage. On top of that, nobody can seem to agree on how to tip properly.

In a recent TEDx talk, Toronto industry vet Bruce McAdams, formerly of the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant empire, systematically explains his theory that tipping is a disaster. It promotes discrimination (attractive servers make more) and causes workplace inequality (cooks rarely get a share of tips). It’s not even an incentive to provide better service, he argues, since studies show that most people tip according to habit.

Anti-tipping lobbyists like McAdams prefer the European model. There, many restaurants charge a service fee on the bill, which helps fund higher salaries for staff. In Ontario, a server’s wage is a measly $8.90 an hour, well below standard minimum wage, and the rest is compensated by tipping—an arbitrary social convention.

Not everyone thinks so. Jen Agg, owner of The Black Hoof on Dundas West, loves the freedom of going out to restaurants and being able to tip for a great night out. “The free market approach leads to better service,” she says. Other methods of compensating staff would come “at the expense of raising prices considerably.”

In the States, backlash against the practice appears to be on the rise. New York Times food critic Pete Wells recently condemned it, and certain restaurants are doing away with it altogether.

The Linkery, a now-closed restaurant from San Diego, ran without tips for years. In an article for Slate, The Linkery’s founder claimed that eliminating tips and instead adding an 18 per cent service charge to each bill—similar to what many European restaurants do—resulted in dramatic improvements to the service and the food. The restaurant was able to distribute money more fairly, which reportedly promoted staff unity.

New York’s Sushi Yasuda also ditched tips in favour of a service charge, as did some other high-end U.S. restaurants, like Per Se and Alinea. Many notable chefs, including Momofuku’s David Chang, have toyed with the idea.

No Toronto restaurants have outright abolished the practice, although some are coming close. Chris Klugman, owner of Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park, isn’t a fan of the standard North American tipping system, so he’s experimenting with a different model. At his restaurant, all staff members are paid a minimum of $11 an hour, and all tips are pooled and shared between waitstaff and the kitchen crew. The results have been mixed.

“We have a very loyal staff,” he says. “It helps bridge the gap between the front and back of house.”

Still, Klugman has some kinks to work out. He finds it difficult to attract experienced servers because they’re so used to raking in huge tips. And since the tips at Paintbox are shared according to hours worked, there’s less incentive for employees to finish their work quickly. Ideally, he’d like to emulate the European model, but including a service fee would make it impossible for his restaurant to maintain competitive prices.

He admits that it’s a challenge trying to adopt a different system when everyone else uses the standard model.

“It would be great if there was a universal change,” he says.

We’re not holding our breath.

[poll id=”129″]