Via Reddit, here’s a story of a “Good Guy Restaurant CEO” who has a no-tipping policy and instead pays his staff something above the minimum wage. And here’s the important question CNBC’s story omitted: Has anybody in the history of dining ever thought they were expected to tip at Noodles & Company?*
The article goes on to a discussion of President Obama’s support for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10, as well as recent efforts by fast food industry workers to lobby for a hike in the minimum that would bring it to an absurd $15. Hospitality industry workers are often the exception to the rule in minimum wage battles, because the tips waiters and bartenders generally comprise the bulk of their earnings, which is why in many states, their hourly rate is still as low as $2.13 an hour.
So then, why is CNBC quoting a fast-casual restaurateur whose business doesn’t actually hire waiters as a representative for food service workers? I can think of a few reasons, not least among them “The editors are stupid” or “the editors have never actually eaten at Noodles & Company,” or even “an editor owes a favor to somebody on the Noodles PR team.” Regardless, skimming the comments section and the Reddit thread reveals that, for a lot of Americans, tipping is a confusing, controversial topic that, for some unbeknownst reason, is apparently still open to debate.
Common gripes include: “Why should I pay extra, shouldn’t good service be expected?” “Why doesn’t the restaurant make its prices cover the cost of its own workers?” “Bartenders shouldn’t be tipped as highly as servers because they don’t have to run around as much.” “Tipped servers earn more than other service jobs and usually don’t pay taxes on their cash tips.” And so on.
Here’s an easy guide: Tipping is part of the deal when you go to a full-service restaurant. If you’re required to hand over cash or run your credit card immediately after ordering (like at a McDonalds or Noodles & Company), tipping is optional and generally not expected. If your server opens a tab for you, leave a damn tip.
The idea that federal minimum wage should apply to tipped industries is absurd. I’ll concede that, per most servers’ anecdotes, customers are all over the place when it comes to tipping – some leave nothing, some leave a few dollars, some graciously leave 25% or more. I’ll also grant that sometimes servers can be a little too entitled and indignant over poor tippers, whom, along with the great tippers, are just part of the business of serving.
Regardless, having worked in the hospitality industry myself, I’d bet that few servers or bartenders would want to give up their Friday and Saturday nights – generally restaurants’ most lucrative hours – for $10 – $15 an hour. Missing out on your social life to spend 9 hours on your feet is not worth the measly $90-$135 (taxable) wages you’d earn.
Moving away from tipping would carry risks for businesses, too. Dive bars and inexpensive casual-dining spots would be faced with raising prices on their already price-sensitive clientele. Meanwhile, higher-end restaurants would be hurt as the most competent and sociable servers flee for more gainful employment, leaving customers to question why they would pay four-star prices for McService.
I can’t say whether food service employees deserve $X or $Y wages, though I’d caution that at some wage, installing a burrito box will be cheaper to Taco Bell than training a human being. In the meantime, I’m happy to tell my bartenders and wait staff exactly what they’re worth to me through tipping.
*For the unfamiliar, Noodles & Company is a fast-casual chain, similar to Chipotle, Panera Bread, Cosi or Roti. You pay at the counter and then never speak to the “wait staff” again.