The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry in Chicago and across the country for over a year. According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. figures, the state lost 216,500 hospitality jobs between January 2020 and January 2021.
During this economic uncertainty, restaurateurs re-evaluated their business models, while workers demanded change. Fueled by the energy of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, workers have begun to raise their voices on workplace issues. Among those concerns in Chicago, the upheaval has reignited a hotly debated issue in the restaurant world: tipping.
A recent Grandstand story has fueled debate online, as the topic sparks a variety of opinions within the service industry. Last year, the owners of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a counter-service restaurant that eliminated the practice years ago, posted a well-meaning Instagram post about the racist and sexist origins of tipping. But given the tensions caused by the pandemic, a wave of negative discussions and reactions have emerged on the Internet. Some doubted the sincerity of owners Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski. Others have falsely claimed that eliminating tipping allows unscrupulous owners to funnel newly created service charge money into their own pockets, a myth perpetuated by restaurant lobbyists.
The restaurant industry in the United States has long relied on a tip credit system that allows owners to use tips from servers to bridge the gap between a worker’s base salary (often referred to as sub-minimum wage) and the standard wage, as required by law. Many restaurateurs argued that changing this system would be too costly, forcing them to raise prices to an extent that diners would find unacceptable. Some also fear that without the incentive offered by tipping, the quality of service will decline.
Local restaurant owners who made the switch, however, say none of those scenarios happened. Chef Paul Fehribach is part of a growing group of local restaurateurs who have eliminated tipping. Fehribach runs Big Jones in Andersonville, a nationally known Southern restaurant that stopped tipping in June 2020. He added a 10% surcharge for online takeout and 20% for in-restaurant dining. This allows him to pay servers between $18 and $25. While he’s driven by the ability to pay his staff a living wage, the tipping debate for Fehribach comes down to power.
“I think the biggest issue with tipping for me is the power it gives a customer over one of my employees,” Fehribach says. “It’s a power that’s not appropriated in any other company. Why this is appropriate in the restaurant industry, I don’t know.
This dynamic creates an environment ripe for abuse by employers and customers, Fehribach said, citing the recent example of Tank Noodle, an Uptown Vietnamese restaurant that allegedly stole wages and illegally took shares of workers’ tips. . He thinks American restaurant culture promotes a submissive form of service that allows customers to treat employees as less worthy than themselves, with tips being both a promise and a threat.
Fehribach has tracked his servers’ tips, along with other metrics, since 2015 and says these numbers often don’t reflect an employee’s performance in the dining room — especially when that server is a woman, a person. Black or Indigenous of colour, or is perceived to be LGBTQ.
The dynamic is different for traditional table-service restaurants, like Big Jones, and casual counters like Honey Butter and Bungalow by Middle Brow in Logan Square. Middle Brow co-owner Pete Ternes slowly turned his restaurant into a tip-free model for several years.
“Tipping allows you to rely on customers to effectively pay for your labor costs,” says Ternes. “It’s a bit backward: like every other industry in the fucking world, we should build labor costs into our product. If everyone did that, we would have to design a business plan around that.
Ternes had originally planned to open Middle Brow, a pizzeria and brewery, without tipping, but changed his mind at the last minute over concern for the backlash from customers and workers. Middle Brow has since added a service charge of 20% for takeout orders, 15% for locally made items and 10% for grocery items. Despite his initial concerns about the blowback, Ternes was pleased to find virtually no negative feedback from customers or employees. Instead, its staff can now focus on working as a team instead of worrying about whether the system is fair or not.
An operator’s mindset always comes from the customer’s perspective, says Ty Fujimura. Fujimura has a few restaurants with different service models, some with table service, others with counter: Arami, the sushi bar in West Town, the small bar in Logan Square and the Michelin-starred restaurant Entente.
He supports raising the minimum wage and includes an optional 2% supplement to cover employee health insurance, but he says he will never impose tips in the form of a service charge. He also says he has not observed a discrepancy in tipping based on race or ethnicity at his restaurants.
“[Tipping] is one of those customs that we know is flawed, but is kind of part of the experience, to some degree,” he says.
He adds, “I don’t think tipping is becoming a perfect science.”
- Critics call tipping unfair and archaic. Pandemic emboldens Chicago restaurants trying to end practice [Tribune]
- Tip (always) not included [Eater]
- The Case Against Tipping in America [Eater]
- The racist history of tipping [Politico]
- These Chicago chefs support raising prices if the minimum wage goes up [ECHI]