"It didn't feel very human to treat people as vending machines you just slide money into at the end, hoping that they give you a good experience," says chef Daniel Hadida of the tipping culture in North America. When he opened the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette in 2017, Hadida was adamant about not using gratuities to subsidize the income of his staff.
Now, Toronto restaurants Richmond Station, Ten, Burdock Brewery and others are following suit, getting rid of the traditional tipping structure. This move comes with the intent to create a better, more stable work environment for restaurant staff.
While it may have come to light during the COVID-19 lockdown, the problem with tipping is nothing new. I made $7 an hour at my first serving job.
It was 2012 and I worked for a popular chain of diners that's since gone defunct in Toronto. During a shift, the only staff were myself and a cook, which meant that I waited tables, made desserts, tended bar and cleaned the toilets, all for that measly $7.
It was expected that tips would bump me up to a liveable wage. They didn't.
By 2015, I had worked my way to a higher-end restaurant where learning the ins and outs of cocktail making and wine garnered me a whopping wage increase to $8.50 an hour.
A career server (rather than someone using it as a stepping stone like myself) took me under her wing, teaching me which customers were known for tipping well and who to avoid. She told me, a Black woman, that I should steer clear of serving Black people as, she claimed, they didn't tip well.
Each server had a strategy for going home with the most tips. We fought over the way tables were divvied up into sections for each server. When customers walked through the door, it was an all-out brawl to see who could snag those perceived to be big spenders.
It was a toxic and discriminatory environment created by the fact that simply working hard and being good at our jobs wasn't enough to guarantee we would be able to earn a living.
This isn't a situation unique to that restaurant, or that time. Currently in Ontario, the server minimum wage is $12.45 an hour. In November 2019, the Ontario Living Wage Network calculated that in order to afford the basic cost of living in Toronto, people need to earn a minimum of $22.08 per hour. That leaves almost $10 an hour to be made up in tips – just to make a livable salary.
With the tipping system we use in North America, restaurants are able to underpay their employees, leaving it up to the customer to decide whether a server or bartender will make enough money to survive.
"It shouldn't be up to the guests to decide how much my staff makes," says Julian Bentivegna, chef and owner of Ten restaurant.
"There's this disconnect sometimes where people don't understand how much going out to eat actually costs, and how the people who are serving you deserve a living wage, and even more than that."
The restaurant, which offers a plant-forward multi-course tasting menu experience, was forced to close during the lockdown. But since reopening in August, Bentivegna has introduced an 18 per cent gratuity charge on every bill.
"This is the cost of coming out to eat here and we wanted to be as upfront about it with our guests as possible, instead of playing this funny cat and mouse game with customers," says Bentivegna.
The amount is based on the average tip out from the previous year, and it still goes directly to the staff – split evenly between the front and back of house.
The new change allows Bentivegna's staff to reliably predict what their income will be every week, rather than having to worry about how much customers will tip. While there's nothing stopping guests from tipping on top of that 18 per cent, there's now no option to tip below it.
"You shouldn't be able to punish people for you not liking a restaurant"
"Not everybody is enthusiastic about being told what to tip," says Bentivegna. "But if you come into my restaurant and you eat the whole meal, you had the whole experience and you really don't feel like that was worth that 18 per cent, then talk to me. You shouldn't be able to punish people for you not liking a restaurant."
Over at Richmond Station, chef and co-owner Carl Heinrich is also opposed to the idea of guests being able to punish his staff.
"If your food is hot, or your food is cold, or your service was fast, or your service was slow for you – maybe you wanted it faster, maybe you wanted it slower. Maybe the table beside you thought something different."
"Maybe it was too cold in the dining room. Maybe it was too hot in the dining room. The list goes on. Why should my staff be penalized for that? Or bonused? These things are the responsibility of the restaurant – it's not one person's job."
The restaurant industry in North America is one of, if not the only space where the customer is able to hold one person responsible for their experience – and then dock that individual's pay because of it.
"If you're taking a flight and you've got a connection, and your first flight was delayed and you miss your connecting flight, and now you've got to stay in a hotel next to the airport, and who knows where your baggage is, do you get to pay your pilot less?" says Heinrich.
Upon reopening, Richmond Station also eschewed the tipping traditions of the past, but they've switched to a "Hospitality Included" model. Here, there's no tipping, and you won't find a gratuity charge or service fee on your bill either.
Instead, the cost of paying the front and back of house staff a living wage has already been built into the pricing of each menu item.
"We have a responsibility as an employer to make sure that our team receives the living minimum wage," says Heinrich. And before tipping, before hospitality included, that wasn't possible. The only way for a cook to make enough to pay their rent was to work an obscene amount of hours."
During the lockdown, when restaurants were shuttered, staff lost that ability to just work more hours – showing just how little security tipped workers have.
"We're allowed to pay a server less than minimum wage. Why is that? It's because they get tips. Now, therefore, tips are wages. Why is that not on their paycheck? That should be on their paycheck," says Heinrich.
And because servers usually receive the majority of their income in cash, their on-paper salary is a lot lower than their actual take-home pay.
This means that when they apply for government benefits, they could end up qualifying for a lot less than someone making the same amount of money in documented, taxable income.
The Hospitality Included model at Richmond Station accounts for this. Rather than receiving a cash tip out, the staff are paid appropriately in taxable income, right on their paycheck – just like any other career.
"It's a career and you are entitled to benefits," says Heinrich. "But if you're receiving all of this in cash, what's going to happen when you want to retire and you have very little CPP to show for it? What's going to happen when you want to get a mortgage or buy a car? What's going to happen when you need to take maternity leave or paternity leave? What's going to happen when you get sick and you can't come to work? What's going to happen when, like we have right now, you get fired, because of no fault of your own. You're not covered. That's not professional, that's not a career."
For marginalized people in the restaurant industry, the instability, pay inequality and lack of security are just the tip of a big old iceberg when it comes to the problems associated with tipping culture.
"I can show you as my living example how the tipping economy fails marginalized folks the most," says Arianne Persaud, a long-time restaurant worker, the founder of the Toronto Restaurant Workers' Relief Fund and the creator of the #ChangeHospitality social media movement.
"And the people who are screaming that we should not do away with tipping are the ones who have benefited within that model or are afraid of reflecting on their privilege."
Persaud started #ChangeHospitality in reaction to the George Floyd protests in the United States and as a response to the #SaveHospitality movement – which primarily centres on white, male restaurant owners.
#ChangeHospitality is meant to address the issues that specifically BIPOC and non-cishet people face in the restaurant industry. Persaud has since used their platform to speak out against tipping culture.
"Tipping enables predatory behaviour and predators to thrive"
"One of the biggest things it does is create opportunities for predatory behaviour and for predators to thrive," says Persaud of the tipping system.
"I can recount many scenarios that myself and colleagues working in the front of house have been in where we're like 'Oh shit, such and such is coming in to eat.' And you don't want to serve them but you also know they're a good tipper. So you're like, I will mortgage this amount of myself for the guarantee of making a hundred dollars off of this one person."
The tipping system allows guests to give servers a monetary reward for flirting or tolerating inappropriate behaviour. And an environment where you can make more money by sacrificing your dignity is rife with opportunities for abuse.
However, removing tipping isn't a magic wand that will fix all of this industry's issues.
"Tipping is one symptom of the larger problem, which is power inequity and pay inequity and racial inequity and gender inequity and all of that," says Persaud. "The restaurant just happens to be the most ready example for what are the larger effects of capitalism." A lot of work needs to be done to truly #ChangeHospitality, but moving away from tip culture is one place to start.
It may seem a lofty idea to get rid of tipping altogether, but while Richmond Station, Ten and other Toronto spots like Burdock Brewery are just moving into a no-tipping model, out in Niagara, The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette has already been doing it for years – and proving that it can work.
"We just pay people a reasonable wage for the work that they do, and then we charge the customer for the amount that it costs to run the business and make a little bit of profit – as pretty much every single business in the world runs except for restaurants in North America," says chef Daniel Hadida.
The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette, Richmond Station and Ten are each doing things a little differently when it comes to moving away from gratuities, proving there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to the tipping culture conundrum. It's up to restaurateurs and employers to figure out a way forward that will allow their staff to feel safe, respected and compensated for their work.
"What I see more established restaurants doing and what we're doing ourselves is just making sure that these become really healthy jobs," says Bentivegna. "There shouldn't be this massive turnover all the time. There shouldn't be these massive problems with addiction and alcoholism. It should be a job, which is just going into work, enjoying yourself doing something that you love and being paid appropriately for it."