Seek­ing tips on fu­ture of tip­ping

Res­tau­ra­teurs con­sider go­ing all-in­clu­sive or hav­ing ser­vice charges, which have is­sues.

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By Russ Par­sons russ.par­sons@la­times.com

Restau­rant tip­ping is at a tip­ping point, and in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia it may be Los An­ge­les’ min­i­mum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2020 that pushes it over the edge. The big ques­tion seems to be this: What comes next?

The al­ter­na­tives ap­pear to be limited, and each has its own prob­lems, says Mike Lynn, a pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity’s School of Ho­tel Man­age­ment who has stud­ied U.S. tip­ping cus­toms.

“There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of op­tions: You ei­ther pay peo­ple a wage, pay them a com­mis­sion or you just keep pay­ing them a tip,” he says.

The prob­lem with the cur­rent prac­tice of vol­un­tary tip­ping, as crit­ics see it, is that, be­cause tips can’t legally be shared with kitchen work­ers, it cre­ates a pay dis­par­ity be­tween servers and cooks. At the fine dining level, where cus­tomers may be pay­ing $100 or more per per­son for din­ner, that can re­sult in the work­ers who bring you your food mak­ing three or even four times as much money as the work­ers who cook it.

This is con­tro­ver­sial, par­tic­u­larly now when most restau­rants are iden­ti­fied by the chef and many res­tau­ra­teurs have come from the kitchen rather than the wait staff, as had his­tor­i­cally been the case. But iden­ti­fy­ing a prob­lem and solv­ing it so far have been two dif­fer­ent things.

While many restau­rant own­ers say they’re look­ing at the all-in­clu­sive model, they’re hes­i­tant be­cause it re­quires adding as much as 20% to menu prices to off­set the lack of tips.

When Ludo and Kris­tine Le­feb­vre and Jon Shook and Vinny Do­tolo opened Trois Mec, they didn’t have a prob­lem with us­ing a sweep­stakes method for reser­va­tions or for charg­ing peo­ple for din­ner as if they were buy­ing tick­ets to a play, but go­ing all-in­clu­sive was one jump too many.

“We talked about it at one point,” says Kris­tine Le­feb­vre. “I think the ed­u­ca­tion gap may have been just a lit­tle too much. We went to tick­ets, and I don’t know if that many mes­sages all at once was some­thing every­body was ready for.”

In­stead of the all-in­clu­sive plan, the Trois Mec team opted for a flat 18% ser­vice charge.

Quinn and Karen Hat­field also con­sid­ered go­ing all-in­clu­sive when they opened Odys & Pene­lope this spring, but they also ended up opt­ing for a ser­vice charge.

“Ul­ti­mately, like ev­ery­one who has thought about it, we passed,” says Karen Hat­field. “Cus­tomers even at fine dining are very price-sen­si­tive. They know a $35 en­tree is very ex­pen­sive, and adding on to that is hard. The dif­fer­ence be­tween a $9 and an $11 dessert is huge.”

There’s also a prac­ti­cal busi­ness con­sid­er­a­tion. Many restau­rant leases are cal­cu­lated based in part on to­tal sales. Tips and ser­vice charges don’t count to­ward that, but in­creased menu prices would.

Not that the ser­vice charge has been trou­ble-free ei­ther. In the first place, the L.A. City Coun­cil is still en­ter­tain­ing a mo­tion to limit how it can be used. Some cus­tomers aren’t crazy about it ei­ther, com­plain­ing that, while a tip is at least in the­ory vol­un­tary, a ser­vice charge is oblig­a­tory.

“It’s just the mat­ter of their sense of con­trol be­ing taken away,” Karen Hat­field says. “It’s only been a small per­cent­age of our cus­tomers, and I un­der­stand that. Change is hard.”

The ser­vice charge sys­tem is also un­pop­u­lar with some servers, who could see their in­come cut.

“We have had some peo­ple who weren’t in­ter­ested in work­ing un­der that struc­ture be­cause they wanted the op­por­tu­nity to make $700 in a night if one of their ta­bles is feel­ing su­per-gen­er­ous,” says Kris­tine Le­feb­vre.

There have been a cou­ple of out­side­the-box al­ter­na­tives tried. When Gary Menes opened his 10-seat haute farmto-ta­ble restau­rant Le Comp­toir, one side ben­e­fit of the sushi bar ap­proach was that all of his staff can share tips since there are no pure servers — the cooks hand you the food.

“Ev­ery sin­gle per­son in the restau­rant has skin in the game,” says Menes. “So if they want to get paid more than their min­i­mum wage, let’s make sure we all have a great ser­vice.”

Zach Pol­lack went even fur­ther when he opened Ali­mento a year ago. He added an op­tional tip line specif­i­cally for his kitchen work­ers. He says about half of his cus­tomers use it.

“It’s hardly a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem,” Pol­lack says. “I al­ways thought of it more as a Band-Aid that sort of tem­po­rar­ily bal­ances out a bro­ken sit­u­a­tion un­til a more en­dur­ing so­lu­tion is found.”

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

QUINN AND KAREN HAT­FIELD

opted for a ser­vice charge when they opened Odys & Pene­lope in L.A.

Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

ALI­MENTO in Sil­ver Lake has re­ceipts that of­fer an ad­di­tional line for tip­ping the kitchen staff.

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