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Should Chicago Restaurants Get Rid Of Tips? We Asked Top Chefs And Owners

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 15, 2015 4:30PM

Photo via Shutterstock

Yesterday, news broke that Union Square Hospitality Group, the Danny Meyer-owned empire that runs everything from Gramercy Tavern to Shake Shack, was getting rid of tipping entirely. They'll be increasing prices of menu items, a move that Meyer is afraid could confuse or alienate customers. The group will pay servers a higher flat wage and increase wages for cooks, in an attempt to eliminate the disparity between front-of-the house and back-of-the-house workers.

It's a pretty dramatic move by one of the most prominent restauranteurs in the business, but one that many advocates have been demanding for years. Traditional tipping offers the potential for big paydays for servers, but it also puts service staff (at the bottom of the business) at the mercy of the a restaurant's success on a day-to-day basis and at the mercy of every individual customer. If tips don't come in, servers don't get paid much—the tipped minimum wage in Illinois is only $4.95 an hour.

We reached out to some of Chicago's most prominent chefs and restaurant owners to see how they thought this move would play in Chicago, and whether or not tipping was the way of the future. Some think that tipping is a terrible idea, some a great idea, while others are waiting to see what happens to the marketplace.

Nick Kokonas, owner of Alinea, Next and The Aviary

Kokonas is an interesting person to ask about these issues, as he is the proponent of ticketing systems that make dining a single-fee proposition. He's concerned that the public doesn't really know how tipping actually works right now— especially those people who say that eliminating tipping will hurt quality of service.

"Most high-end places already pool tips and share them based on experience / points system. So an individual who tips well for great service... that tip is split up 20 ways," he explains. "Service employees benefit from being treated like the professionals they are. These restaurants are not part-time type places like TGIFridays. Predictable incomes, benefits, savings plans etc. are all about trying to give employees the same treatment as other professions."

Despite his strong advocacy of a tip-free system, he worries that the necessary price increases on menu items will confuse guests, who won't do the math necessary to realize that the final price is the same. "Customers are terrible at doing basic math to understand that a $36 entree at USHG will be the same as a $30 entree elsewhere. So it could put them at a competitive disadvantage." He suggests a flat service charge might be a way to avoid this problem.

Josh Kulp, executive chef and managing partner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken

Kulp and his business partner Christine Cikowski have been huge advocates for fair restaurant wages since they opened their business. They even went to Washington to lobby on behalf of restaurant workers.

"Providing good paying jobs and basic benefits like health insurance, paid time off, and sick pay should become the norm, not the exception," says Kulp. "We have for too long enjoyed undervalued food on the backs of restaurant workers. Just as we have worked to improve the quality and sourcing of our food, we must push to create workplaces that are fulfilling and fair. At Honey Butter Fried Chicken, we strive to serve our community and that community includes the people who are working for us. This service extends beyond simply paying better wages and offering benefits. We want our company to be a place where our staff can grow, have input, and feel empowered in their careers."

Alpana Singh, owner of The Boarding House and Seven Lions

Singh has years and years of experience in the food industry in lots of different jobs. She's also an owner, who is concerned about competitive pressure. She says, "Danny Meyer's decision to eliminate tipping is understandable given the pressures and challenges restaurants are facing with increased minimum wage, paid sick leave, rising operating costs, disparity in pay between front and back of the house workers and new federal mandates. Restaurateurs want to do the right thing and take care of their people while balancing what is financially pragmatic and prudent for the health of the business."

But, she says, there's some risk: "It's also important to remain sensitive to the needs of the customer in terms of remaining competitively priced in the market."

She notes that their restaurant group is keeping a very close eye on the situation and waiting to see if there's a "critical mass" of restaurants switching.

Ina Pinkney, former owner of Ina's and columnist for the Tribune

Ina points out that in Europe serving is a profession and has always been salaried. She also points out that tipping, especially cash tipping, is always rife with fraud. "You can track the credit card sales easily, but cash is another issue. Not sure how many owners track it by making sure all cash get placed in a secure location and divided later, which is tough when people start shifts at different times."

She's concerned that servers won't like the shift, since it eliminates the instant payday. But she's optimistic that things are changing: "Danny Meyers is the smartest man in the business when it comes to customer service and innovation so I'm banking on him to change the culture."

Bruce Finkelman, partner at Dusek's, Punch House, Promontory

Finkelman is a bit wary of the change, based on his experiences in places where servers are salaried: "It's the format used in Europe, and I've got to say, my experience hasn't always been the most positive. It doesn't always translate to the best experience."

Instead of switching to a salaried system, he's interested in finding other ways to increase employees' quality of life. "At our company, we're very conscious of making sure we retain good employees, and although this brings up interesting points, I'm not sure that this is the right way to achieve that," he says. "One of the biggest things that we’re doing with our employees is to raise their quality of life. We’re sitting down and talking about their longterm goals five years down the line, and how we can reach them together as a company."

Ferdia Doherty, co-owner of Farmhouse and the upcoming Farm Bar

Unlike some who complain that American service isn't like Europe, Doherty thinks tipping is special. "The tipping culture in America is longstanding and an ingrained part of the fabric of this nation," he says.

He also doesn't think that service comes only from great tips. "We believe that the level of service is not directly related to the level of tipping, and that great service comes from great hospitality people, a great work environment and exceptional training. We are firm believers in a good wage and benefits for all of our employees."

Will Farmhouse switch over? "[W]e will wait and see how this plays out. Chicago already has already implemented this policy with The Radler, Alinea and Grace but will others follow? I think some will try and see how it goes!”