Danny Meyer, the man behind the Shake Shack empire and Union Square Hospitality Group, shocked the food world last month when he announced his plans to eliminate tipping at his 13 full-service restaurants in NYC by the end of 2016. Even for someone considered a visionary in his field, his plan requires a big leap of faith from both customers and employees in the industry.
Meyer will pay all workers, including servers, bartenders, and BOH staff, a “living wage” (or a higher, fixed, hourly wage that will reflect factors like experience and seniority). Nowhere on the bill will there be a line reserved for gratuity.
If you believe his idea to be merely idealistic, think again: Other restaurants have already started to follow Meyer’s lead. Joe’s Crab Shack has just begun testing a no-tipping model, and many high-profile restaurant owners—including Tom Colicchio—have similarly done away with tipping entirely.
While these changes have primarily been discussed in terms of servers and kitchen staff, we’ve yet to look into how they might impact the lives of bartenders. Now that 20% tip is industry standard for taking care of your barkeep, they too are in a position to directly feel the effects—but in ways that differ. Since bars don’t usually have FOH and BOH positions, there’s a tendency for these drink slingers to feel more proprietary about their roles, and to take more responsibility for the experience at hand.
To get a better sense of their outlook, we asked bartenders to share their thoughts on this monumental shift, and what kinds of costs and benefits it might present for them in the future.
ERIC “ET” TECOSKY
Bar Manager at Jones Hollywood; Jack Daniel’s Brand Ambassador
Tecosky says: “My gut reaction is that I am not a fan. I feel that less stellar employees will do just enough to not get fired and not enough to give great service.” (Photo: Yelp/Jones Hollywood)
Bar Manager at Ava Genes and unofficial President of Negroni
Derrick says: “If Danny Meyer is on board, so am I. That guy has never steered me wrong before. Also, as an aspiring restaurateur, I would want to be on the front of that curve too. Change is hard, but I believe it will be for the better. The restaurateurs are the ones that are going to hurt from it, and the hardworking guys in the kitchen will prosper.” (Photo: Instagram/Ava Gene’s)
Bar manager at Ataula
Teta says: “Personally, one of the reasons why I love being behind the bar is the feeling that my service directly affects my wallet at the end the night. Regulars are a huge part of my business, and they come to see me because I care about their experience and remember the small things that really matter. With an incorporated cost into the menu, I feel like this goes away, and maybe those regulars might feel pressure to even tip on top of that, spending more money when they don’t need to. This model may work better for fast casual, but in a smaller, privately owned bar, it doesn’t seem like the best idea, for customers and workers alike.” (Photos: ataulapdx.com)
ESTANISLADO “TANIS” ORONA
Bartender at Raven & Rose
Orona says: “Honestly, I am completely against this idea. What is the true benefit of integrating tipping? Some say it’s to create monetary equality between the back of house and the front of house. Others say it’s to create a consistent level of income. I’ve never had a problem with this. Granted, sometimes you get ‘stiffed,’ but it always seems to balance with the good tippers. I just see this concept as problematic—a wormhole—and it presents the corrupt business owner the opportunity to skim off the top.
I would not have been in this industry as long as I have if it did not present the opportunity to make a healthy living. No one has ever placed a corporate hour/salary cap on the amount of income I can generate for myself and my team. Very few of us enter this line of work because we absolutely know that this is what we want to do as a career—we initially do it for the money. We then find a fascination with the craft, and it becomes a creative outlet. We delve deeper, learn more, study, and we are rewarded financially. I feel that if we change this system, we may lose out on future talent in our field. I know that if I didn’t see the ability to live well in this field, I would have stayed in advertising and stuck with that as my creative outlet.” (Photo: Facebook/Raven & Rose)
Bartender at Hardwater
Kwon says: “The industry is growing and changing so rapidly, and I think we are now in a place to start questioning old models of business. Huge sections of the country are still paying servers and bartenders less than minimum wage. Those servers and bartenders are obviously making additional income from tips, but back of the house positions are still making substantially less overall. The conversation around abolishing tipping begs the question of sustainability for these models, and we need new, holistic approaches to the food and beverage business.” (Photo: Facebook/Bit House Saloon)
Bar Manager at the Multnomah Whiskey Library
Felix says: “I’m not against it. People are often weirded out, aloof, inebriated, or in a hurry when the check is presented to them. It’s often the end of the experience for the guest where they are asked to value the service/experience that they just had. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that feeling personally. However, my nine years combined experience here in the United States (I grew up in Australia) has led me to believe that most people really don’t like doing it. I think this is a great conversation to have. Danny Meyer has already come under scrutiny for his new push. But I honestly think some of his reasons why make absolute sense—especially in New York, when so many tourists visit and are unaware of the tipping expectation and the socioeconomic circumstances that servers and bartenders find themselves in. However, the cost of service needs to be integrated fairly into the menu and also reflect a significant wage increase for the staff. That is the tricky part and is fraught with pitfalls and miscommunication if not properly designed.” (Photo: Yelp/Chris L.)
Bar Manager at the Rum Club
Mistell: “This is a touchy subject for everyone. I am lucky enough that I have an amazing boss who takes great care of me and my employees, and I know that it wouldn’t be that crazy of a transition at my bar. But I worry about the level of service going down at places where employees aren’t being taken care of. I think it’s going to be a long road ahead for the non-tipping thing. Prices will raise everywhere and it will take the option away from the guest having control of how they felt about their service. I’m still on the fence about how I feel about it.” (Photo: Facebook/Rum Club)
Mixologist, founder of Crafthouse Cocktails
Joly says: “I’d have to know more about the way it would work in a specific venue. As an operator that has run venues that utilize both systems, there are pros and cons to each. Not that there aren’t plenty of mediocre service experiences to be had in the U.S., but we are known for having a relatively high caliber of speed and attention here. This can be partially attributed to our culture of tipping. Ideally, the harder you work, the more you can make.
The other argument is that a well-trained staff will know exactly how much they are going to make and can just focus on the guests and service. This looks great on paper, but will obviously not work in every environment. Another question would be: Does the staff make a consistently higher living wage/hour because of the service charge? Does the house collect the charge and use it to pay this rate year round? Or is the service charge then redistributed as some sort of bonus? Devil is in the details.
I like tipping culture personally. Even with a service charge, I’m probably going to tip on top. What happens when you get bunk service? At the end of the year, does the staff end up doing better or worse financially? One of the nice things about tipping culture is that you can earn a very good living in a blue-collar position. If you are fortunate to work in a busy venue, you hustle and provide good service, you are rewarded for it.” (Photo: Crafthouse Cocktails)