New gratuity solutions may be recipe for inequity
The concept of “hospitality included,” a reorganization of restaurant economics that eliminates tipping, is gathering steam in cities across the country—and now it’s landed in at least one establishment here in Boston.
It’s all very promising—tips are a complicated way to make a living and, let’s be real, can be kind of an awkward transaction—but the way it’s being implemented here isn’t quite right. Some history…
Though the concept may not have totally originated with Danny Meyer in New York, last year his Union Square Hospitality Group was the first to fully embrace an end of tips (the restaurateur did, however, also try to do away with tips at one of his establishments 20 years ago, so maybe this whole thing did start with him).
Meyer, who opened and owns established Manhattan hotspots Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, has thus far implemented “hospitality included” at the Modern, Maialino, North End Grill, and Marta, a handful of his other ventures. The goal, Meyer says, is to ensure fairer wages for both front of house (servers and bartenders) and back of house (chefs, cooks, dishwashers, bussers) staff—because right now any tip that lands on a check goes either into that server’s (or that bar team’s) pocket or is pooled and divided between front of house workers.
Meanwhile, behind the line at most establishments, kitchen and support staff get zero percent of tips. This, as the New Republic so eloquently put it last year, is an “antiquated system that almost never does what diners think it does and neglects half the staff working equally hard to give you a good dinner.” This classic practice also has potential to pit bartenders and servers against one another, vying for high spenders, and hands unsavory managers a sword to hold over the heads of floor staff.
Last time I was in New York, I wandered into Huertas, a wine and tapas spot in the East Village, and was shocked when I saw “Hospitality Included” stamped on the top right corner of the menu.
“So it’s true,” I thought, as I calculated how this practice might affect my income. The bartender said they’ve been doing it for about nine months, and he’s been very happy with the outcome.
“How much I make is still tied to how busy we are,” he told me, “because we earn a percentage of sales.”
This is in line with Meyer’s system: slightly increase menu prices and pay employees a percentage of sales.
Which, to my bartender brain, makes perfect sense. I’ll hazard to say I’ve worked nights where I would have made significantly more money with the “hospitality included” model of Huertas and Meyer’s establishments, since I’d have been compensated according to sales rather than tips (and I would have been much less frustrated breaking my back on service bar knowing that endless trail of drink tickets translated into actual money instead of a fraction of each server’s tips at the end of the night).
So back home in Boston, when I recently got my check for two glasses of wine at a Back Bay restaurant and was told that gratuity is automatically included, I perked up.
For a second.
Because it turned out that 20 percent gratuity was added—not included. Which is another animal completely.
Me tipping $1 a drink or less than 20 percent of the tab is like Zoolander trying to make a left turn—it just doesn’t work. I would leave $5 on two glasses of wine regardless of the service because #bartender. But one of the underlying ideas of “hospitality included” is that the guest is not additionally charged, or expected to leave, money for a tip.
Adding a 20 percent tip to my tab for me is the opposite of “hospitality included”—it’s a glaring reminder that most restaurants stay afloat by paying front of house staff around $3 an hour, and servers’ and bartenders’ livelihoods depend on gratuity. And worse, this model does nothing to bolster the income of the men and women busting their asses in the back of the house—a breakdown of this establishment’s policy actually explicitly notes that the kitchen and support staff see zero percent of the tips that are automatically added to each bill.
Boston, you are smarter than this.
It may be time to adjust the way we approach tips, but this is not the way to do it.
Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.
Terms of Service is licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.