Better Models: Tipping Culture


By Amy Bostock

TORONTO and NEW YORK CITY — During this year’s Terroir Symposium, held across two weeks (Nov. 8 to 10 and 15 to 17), Amanda Cohen and Jeanie Chunn discussed tipping culture in restaurants and what steps need to be taken to level the playing field for front- and back-of-house staff.

Cohen, a James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Dirt Candy — the award-winning vegetable-focused restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side — has long advocated on behalf of the 500,000 independent restaurants and 11 million restaurant workers in the U.S. through her work with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is working to get Congress to pass the $120-billion Independent Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Jeanie Chunn is the director, National Engagement for High Road Restaurants, a national network of restaurant owners committed to racial and gender justice, including how operators compensate employees, define their culture, staff their restaurants and serve their guests. High Road Restaurants advocate for fair wages and increased racial and gender equity through hiring, training, and promotional practices. 

According to Chunn, tipping in America is “worse than a 30-year-old problem, it’s hundreds of years old. After the emancipation of slavery, this newfangled idea was brought over from Europe of an extra or a bonus on top for serfs or vassals. Its intention wasn’t to replace a wage, but just as an extra bonus for a job well done.”

Unfortunately, she said, the intention became skewed and over the years, became a way to pay restaurant staff less than a living wage, making them “dependent on the kindness and the generosity of the patrons in the form of a tip. Since then, in many states, the tip wage has increased to a whopping $2.13 — there are only seven states in our country that don’t allow for that sub-standard wage for our workforce. Sadly, there hasn’t been any changes in a very long time.”

Cohen then went on to recount her specific experience with tipping — she got rid of it about seven years ago at Dirt Candy “for many different reasons, but one of them was really the disparity between the front- and back-of-house,” she explained. “At the time, my back of house was earning about $120 per shift. And I had one server earning about $600 per shift. And the laws in New York City, which are very archaic, say the front of house cannot share its wages or its tips with the back of house. Because of that, my server was able to pay off her college loans within a year while my back of house was still struggling. And I really wanted to sort of get rid of that disparity.”

All of a sudden, Cohen realized that she wasn’t paying her front-of-house staff but “had basically outsourced it to my customers, and that they were becoming the HR department for my servers. And I didn’t want any part of that. Also, I didn’t want to be a part of a system where my customers felt like they could take advantage of my staff, and I didn’t want my staff to ever feel uncomfortable, because their livelihood was dependent on these people they were serving. And so, we got rid of tipping.”

The two went on to discuss alternative methods of leveling the wage playing field. Currently, New York State and Massachusetts are the only two states that don’t allow for tip sharing with the front and back of the house. “Like Amanda said, there’s a huge pay disparity in restaurants. where the front-of-house is making a lot of money and the back-of-house is not and that couldn’t be shared. [In every other state] that law got changed in 2018, and the Fair Labor Standards Act said as long as you pay everyone a full minimum wage, you can share tips with the front and back of the house. And as the owner, you can determine how you want to share those wages.

The other model Chunn touched on involves moving to a service charge automatically added to guest checks.

“The last model is the one that Amanda is on, which she doesn’t have a choice about because she wants to compensate her employees in a way that makes sense,” said Chunn. “She has to increase her menu prices to a place where she can pay livable wages to her staff.”

“At Dirt Candy, we raised our prices 30 per cent since we re-opened after the pandemic,” confirmed Cohen. “We’re paying our employees a lot more and we’re a lot busier than we’ve ever been. So, with all the fear that’s out there, there is a way to push through it — you just have to keep educating your customers.”

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