How About a Nice Game of Chess? (A Post About Yelp)

Yelp and similar review sites are a lightning rod in the world of community-based small business owners — a world which includes almost all independent restaurants. Restaurants which, at least to the untrained eye, appear to be the bread-and-butter providers of review fodder for Yelp.

I don’t think you can find many small business owners that really like Yelp. From the perspective of most small businesses, the underlying business does all the real work, while Yelp runs a kind of high-tech “protection” racket.

Personally, my thoughts about Yelp and similar sites have evolved a little over the years. At first, I didn’t think these site would even catch on. Obviously, at least to a certain extent, I was mistaken about that. That said, I’m still convinced that Yelp reviews are far less important to any business than good word-of-mouth within a target market.

As these review sites become popular in my market, I experienced what I think every small business owner does — concern about the online reviewers who didn’t get what we were trying to do, fear that they might scare away people who would otherwise appreciate our work. This, I think, is where a lot of business owners stress out. It’s from this emotional place that we often make the mistake of engaging with the haters, in order to try to control the public discourse about our efforts.

I made that same mistake — engaging trolls and haters — not with Yelp, but in the comments section of our own blog in the first few years of the Linkery. Fortunately, however, that meant I didn’t really ever have the time to engage people on Yelp. I guess I figured that those conversations were stressful enough that I didn’t want to also help someone else make money off of them.

By 2008 I had pulled back a lot, and I had a much better understanding the ways in which Yelp and similar sites hurt both businesses and consumers. I saw that, whether an individual review is positive or negative, the real damage it does is in turning a community business into mere reviewable content. A product or service that could make a difference to the community becomes instead just grist for the review mill.

In a post on the Linkery blog, I wrote:

Some businesses are frustrated by what they read on Yelp, others are elated…. But in every case, the people are robbed of opportunities to build something better, as the mentality takes hold that it the business’ job to guess and deliver what the consumer wants, and the consumer’s job to evaluate the experience after the fact.

Over time, ignoring Yelp in particular became quite easy for me, as I saw that the vast majority of Yelpers in San Diego (where our businesses were located) weren’t interested in the kind of food we were interested in serving. Yelp San Diego came to establish itself as a platform for 1) sharing opinions about dirt cheap, late-night-style eats, 2) practicing clever/snarky writing, and 3) venting emotional/family/personal/whatever issues that have nothing to do with the business or its aims. For the last few years, Yelp has been a thing that I know exists, but doesn’t have any effect on my life.

Now that I’ve moved to San Francisco, however, I am periodically shaken alert to the presence of Yelp. I regularly meet normal, thoughtful, tasteful, persons who actually use the site to make decisions about where to eat, or who at least treat the site as relevant. It seems that Yelp has an actual presence here. Or maybe it’s just that a lot more business owners in the Bay believe it’s important to have good Yelp reviews. I’m not sure.

For years I’ve felt that the only important metric on Yelp for a business is the amount of reviews it has. The number of reviews is a marker of how many people are coming to your place; having a lot of guests is better than not having a lot of guests. But it’s really easy to find successful places with 3 starts and places that fold despite their 5 star rating. It’s also easy to find brilliant places with a bad rating, and horrible places with a great rating (particularly if they serve really cheap food). Any thoughtful person will see quickly that there’s a pretty weak correlation between reviews and quality or value.

Which means that, whatever Yelp is offering, it isn’t a consumer guide. I think to some extent Yelp is offering its users the sense of being in a community. Even more importantly, Yelp and other review sites offer their users the feeling of power over the businesses they patronize. The users think they are influencing the businesses, punishing them for their mistakes, and rewarding their quality — even though the businesses know that the reviews they get don’t correlate to service quality. In fact, the business owners see that reviews are more dependent on the reviewer than on any objective factor.

Sound like a familiar dynamic?

Billions of dollars of venture capital are spent in the tech industry, with the goal of turning community businesses into content that can be bookmarked, checked-in at, “liked”, and reviewed. This is a willful perversion of the basic principle of a business creating something of value, and selling it to a consumer. Instead there is now a parasitic third business that has stepped in, with the intent selling something else to the consumer — a powerful feeling of control over their real-life service providers. In this model, the parasitic tech business is totally agnostic about the “subject” (underlying) enterprise — restaurants and stores will come and go, but the rush of writing a one-star review after a bad experience can be repeated over and over again, forever.

The loser here, unknowingly, is the “user” — the guest or the customer. By engaging primarily with the online enterprise instead of with the in-person business, the “Yelper” perpetuates the social detachment of the very kind of enterprises — small, independent, flexible — that could easily partner with him to become an important part of his life. That local independent business, perhaps started by a neighbor with a passion for doing going work and making a difference in her community, instead is encouraged to pursue an unsustainable race to the bottom: ever-lower prices, ever-smaller margins, ever-decreasing quality. Eventually that business is no longer capable of responding to the needs of its patrons, and can only dish out the worst products at the bottomest prices.

So here’s the paradox: while good online reviews probably do help drive traffic to independent businesses, for these businesses to mature, over the years, into truly compelling entities, they have do more than just not read their reviews. They have to ignore the very framework of the review system itself.

Call it the WarGames truism: The only winning move is not to play.

Closing Thoughts on The Tipless Restaurant Series

This morning I declined an opportunity to appear on NBC’s The Today Show. It was probably the twentieth offer I’ve had in the last week to go on the air with a significant media program. I’ve declined them all, but it was particularly hard to turn down Today. Even I know that it’s a pretty big deal.

A few weeks ago, I would have thought it improbable that I would be fielding offers to appear on national television. But we’re seeing now that there’s just a lot of interest in the subject of tipping; and I’d say it’s clear that there’s a need for more discourse about it. An overwhelming number of people have been reading this blog and my pieces in Slate and Quartz about my experiences at the Linkery. I’m exceptionally grateful to all of you for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned on the subject.

I’m also humbled and touched by the many people who have emailed me about their personal experiences, as guests, as servers, as cooks and dishwashers, and as restauranteurs. And I’m quite excited for the restauranteurs who’ve told me they’re going to go down the same path we did — I trust and hope it will be as positive for you as it was for us. (Relatedly, Vinland sure looks like my cup of tea, I can’t wait to check it out when it opens.)

All that said, while I support reforming tipping culture, the point of this blog is not about tipping. Reforming tipping wasn’t the point of my time in restaurants, either. Yes, we did our best to develop an alternate system, one that preserved as much respect as possible for everyone in the building, from the guest to the server to the cook to the dishwasher. I’m proud of what we accomplished with that; as far as I know we were the first to prove the viability of such a system.

But the reason we implemented the new system wasn’t because we wanted to reform tipping. The reason for our system was to put everyone in the best position to contribute their gifts to an exceptional project. We hoped to bring some special food to our community, and to help build a special community around that food. To whatever extent we succeeded, that success had to be built on a foundation of non-exploitation, between us and our guests, between our front-of-house and back-of-house, between us and our farmers, between our farmers and their animals. In moving to a more straightforward system, we were doing our best to create a context in which good things could happen on every level.

And it’s true that nothing about what we did, or how we did it, was perfect. That would have been impossible — everything we did was the result of intentions and efforts by human beings, and humans don’t do perfect very well. But we learned over time to keep our eyes on the prize. The prize was not to change how people thought about tipping, instead it was to do our best to create an environment where all of us could best experience food, community and love.

That’s in the end what inspires me, and as tempting as it is to be on national TV, I can’t see becoming the media’s go-to “Tipping Guy” being a step in the right direction. But I do have a few things I’m itching to share, things I’ve learned or dreamed up, that some of you might find fun, or even occasionally helpful. That’s what this blog is for, and I hope you’ll keep checking in, if it suits you.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscipt 4: On Tipshaming

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

“Tipshaming” occurs when a service worker (usually a restaurant server) takes to social media to call out a public figure for tipping inadequately. Recently, Brendan O’Connor, a food truck employee in New York, was fired for calling out a Wall Street firm on Twitter, for not tipping on a to-go order.

I thought this was particularly interesting since tipping on to-go orders is not, as far as I can tell, a firmly established social norm. I infer from media stories about Mr. O’Connor, however, that tips make up an essential part of the income of this food truck crew. If that’s true, my question is, what else do we expect these people to do when they don’t get tipped?

In a normal workplace, if you work and don’t get paid your agreed-upon wages, you take your employer to the Labor Board or to court. But because tips are agreed-upon only in the sense of being a social norm, if someone violates the norm there’s really no recourse for the employee. Yes, the guest might get deliberately poorer service on a subsequent visit. But that still doesn’t help the employee who’s worked and not gotten paid.

By making the employer not responsible for paying the full wages of the worker, we introduce a lot of randomness into the compensation system. And the people who get randomly screwed over are left with no way to fix their plight. All they can do for satisfaction is retaliate against the person who seems to have caused the problem, by hassling them on the Internet. Nobody wins except the Daily News.

Click here to read some final thoughts on this series.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscript 3: Tips Mean That No One Is Listening

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

For a lot of folks, when they get bad service in a restaurant, they feel obliged to do something about it.

Now, if you get bad service from a sporting goods store clerk or the appliance service technician, and you want to take action, you’ll probably contact a manager. Maybe by email, maybe in person, maybe right then, maybe after the fact. You’ll let the manager know that there is a problem.

In a restaurant, however, the way we are taught to send that message, is by tipping less or not at all.

When you send a message via a low or nonexistent tip, one of three things happen:

1) The server thinks that you are cheap, and that’s the extent of it.

2) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was clearly someone else’s fault, they most likely will let that person know there was a problem. However, the server likely won’t tell a manager, because no one likes a tattletale. An exception to this is if one person is repeatedly making mistakes.

3) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was the server’s fault or if fault is unclear, the server won’t tell anyone about it. There no point in the server getting himself in trouble.

Basically, the end result of sending your message with a tip is that no one is listening to you.

As managers, one of the biggest benefits of our service charge policy was that because we were charging for a specific service, our guests were much more likely to let us know if there was a problem with it — just like customers do in other industries. Obviously, our goal was to not have problems at all, but given that mistakes do happen, we could fix them more quickly because we would hear about them more quickly.

Similarly, in a tipped restaurant if there’s a problem, and you say something to the server about it, their response is likely to be to worry about their tip. So the server will often give you something for free (which, depending on the restaurant’s system, might basically entail stealing it from the restaurant). In my observation this is much more about trying to create the obligation for payment in kind (with a tip) than it is about trying to solve the problem.

Sometimes comping an item is what will make a guest feel better about a bad situation. But it’s often ineffective. From my experience as a guest, what I want when there’s a problem is for a person (usually a manager) to listen to the issue, sympathize with my point of view, and take action to correct the problem. Free stuff isn’t really relevant.

In a no-tipping environment, when you the guest bring up a problem, the server is free to listen and address your problem.

At the Linkery, our policy was to remove the service charge if there was a significant problem with a guest’s experience. This happened rarely, and over the course of a pay period the financial effect wouldn’t be big, so the server didn’t really have to worry about the money. Instead, we asked the server to always bring a manager in to address any problem. The system wasn’t perfect, sometimes a server would be too slow to bring a manager in, but at least we didn’t have tip concerns getting in the way of a successful resolution. And we would know what we had to improve.

I’ve also noticed that people in general turn their ears off once the subject of tipping comes up.

My Rule #1 in life is “never read the comments”, but as this blog series has become popular I’ve read through a couple forum discussions about it. One thing that really strikes me is how many people are compelled to share their personal tipping policy. A key point of this blog series is that most people have their own policy, and the difference in tipping practices among individuals is so big that any given tip contains no information. But I think that the people who can’t wait to tell you how they tip, are missing that point. They’re not listening; and from what I can see, they’re also not being listened to.

That’s the thing about tipping: it embodies a lot of messages — and no one is listening to them.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 4.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscript 2: Auto-Grat

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

I have a couple, more involved, postscripts still to write, but it’s Friday afternoon so here’s an easy little nugget. Our former Director of Operations, who had read a couple online discussions about this series, messaged me to ask:

I’m curious why it seems that nobody has a problem with “parties of 5 or more will be subjected to a 20% service charge”, but, in the minds of some people, “parties of 1 or more will be subjected to an 18% service charge” is heresy?

In other words, it doesn’t seem like this can be a matter of principle, if the principle only kicks in with parties of four or fewer people.

I’d add that this is a particularly pointed question since the “auto-grat” for large parties is often not noticed by the guests — specifically, the server often doesn’t alert the guests — who may then tip another 20% on top of the automatic “gratuity”. On the other hand, the 18% service charge we charged all parties precluded any further tipping (there was no tip line on the credit card bill, and if you left extra cash it was donated to charity).

Also: catering. At least in these parts, it pretty much always comes with an 18-20% service fee, presumably to cover the waiters and bartenders.

Both the “auto-grat” and the service charge for catering and hotels are so standard that they’re specifically addressed in California sales tax law. Why would some people feel such an approach should be off-limits, applied to all guests in restaurants?

Click here to proceed to Postscript 3.

A Palate Cleanser

These days it’s all tipping, all the time up in here. It’s a subject I’m grateful to have the chance to write about, and I’m even more grateful there’s so much interest in it. But I reckon it’s good to remember food, and each other, too.

I thought I should link to something from The Linkery blog archives to break the gratuitous gratuity spell. Here’s a post from 2008 that I try to re-read every now and then, to remind me why I chose to work in local food. The core thought:

Beyond mere excellence lies meaning. By consistently engaging a single foodshed or small group of foodsheds — presumably one(s) near where we live — over time, we can start to understand the land we live on and the people we live with, and develop meaningful connections with both. It’s the idea of understanding, sharing and belonging…the idea of home.

You can read the whole post here. It’s long, like most of what I write for fun.

As a postscript to the piece, we ended up buying and serving some Wooly Pigs pork from Mr. Putnam, and it was amazing.

We’ll return to the tipping programming shortly.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurants, Postscript 1: Crime & Punishment

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

It was August of 2008 and we had a crisis.

Actually we had a lot of crises. Three months earlier, we had moved into a new location three times bigger than our previous location, and the expansion had been a rocky one. I had been totally unprepared for how much busier we would really be, and we hadn’t raised enough capital to properly hire and train a large staff. Our management team and I were working past our capacity, trying to make up for our lack of resources with effort.

In the kitchen, our experienced team was cooking great food despite the challenges, which was important as that was the core promise of our restaurant. But in the dining room we were bringing servers in on the fly, and throwing them onto the floor hoping they already knew what they needed. Some days were fine, some days were rough. Our best hope was that our guests would have realistic expectations of what we were capable of doing, and have a good attitude about it.

And one August day the local alt-weekly food writer published her review of the new Linkery. She had come anonymously, and the review that ran went mostly how I expected: medium star rating, food was good, unpolished service, and there had been some confusion about corkage, because we hadn’t trained the servers to waive corkage if the patrons bought ample subsequent bottles.

But there was thing about it, one thing I’d never seen in any other restaurant review.

In the middle of the piece, she addressed an admonishing paragraph directly to her server, belittling him for making a mistake with their table. The mistake had been subsequently caught by a manager, who comped them desserts, but that apparently had not satisfied the writer. She wrote to the server, in the review:

(…Right now, approximately a quarter of a million San Diegans are reading that you blew it. For about the last 300 years, we in the Western world — except for those individuals raised by wolves — have been eating our meals in courses, except when we go out to Korean restaurants. You can tell which course is which by the headings on the menu: The category called “Market Starters” means dishes to start with. “Mains” means main courses, to follow. Got it now?)

What blew my mind was that she called him out using his real name (which I’ve redacted here), even though she was writing from behind a shield of anonymity. It was, in my opinion, bad enough for the worker to have made a mistake at his job; even worse that he has to find out his mistake was to a reviewer; but now he’s been ridiculed by name in the paper, in an attempt to have his parents, siblings and friends all shame him, as well.

Of course, the server was a really great guy, a college student with minimal serving background, who we were trying to train on the job. He was doing his best, and whatever errors he made were my fault, for putting him a difficult position without giving him the tools for success. I knew that, and I expected that a professional reviewer would have, too.

I emailed the writer.

I wrote something along the lines of, hey, I get that you had a bad experience, but that was out of line to call the server out by his real name. You could have easily made the same point while using a different name for him.

She wrote back along the lines of, I write my experiences; just because you have good intentions I’m not going to hold back my criticism. It’s your fault for not having trained him properly.

I responded, I agree that the bad service is my fault. I’m saying you should have ripped on me and not him. I’ve apologized to him for putting him in that position, but it is still not right of you, writing under a pseudonym, to publicly embarrass him using his actual name.

And she came back with the clincher: Well, with your fixed service charge you didn’t give my any choice. I couldn’t give him a lower tip. How else could I punish him for his mistakes?

That made it all clear. She, like some other patrons, felt the burden of having to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Obviously, some people like that role, and some people don’t, but at the very least our culture has trained diners that it is their job. When you go to restaurants, you are responsible for rewarding and punishing your server.

This explained another bizarre phenomenon we had seen with our service charge — a small number of guests who got angry when we removed the charge from their bill.

We had a policy that if a guest brought a notable service problem to a manager’s attention, we removed the service charge from the bill. Our position was that we were professionals charging for service, and if we failed to meet our service goals, then we refused to take payment.

It would happen that a guest would bring a problem to our attention, often as a way to show that the lack of tipping had somehow “caused” the service mistake. Our floor manager would apologize, thank the guest for bringing the problem to our attention, and remove the service charge from the bill. And that, sometimes, would make the guest furious.

I suppose the idea was that the guest evaluated the server’s transgression as worth a small amount of the tip, but not the whole service charge. And now we were making the guest look bad because his bringing the gaffe up had led to a punishment which was overharsh for the crime, and that made him appear unreasonable.

This is where I really started to lose patience with the whole thing.

It had been demonstrated by research and our experience that this punishment message doesn’t get through to the offender — servers correctly don’t view their tips as reflecting the quality of their work. So the right to punish the server is solely for the benefit of the punisher, and no larger benefit is created.

We were trying to run a good restaurant. If a guest pointed out a mistake we made, the guest was doing us a favor. Our first reaction wasn’t going to be to punish the workers who made the mistake; it was going to be to make sure the server had the tools they needed to do the job right. No business in any industry builds a great team by looking for mistakes to punish. It just doesn’t work that way.

These people who were fighting to keep their punishment rights, were keeping us from getting better.

We came to the conclusion, though, that the fixed service charge — and our removing it when a problem was noticed — would drive these negative customers away. They would go to other restaurants where they could resume their role as arbiter of consequences. One of our managers emailed me around this time: “It would seem we’re on the right track. We’ll eventually weed out all the punishers…and then we can do our jobs.”

I think this is pretty much happened, within a few months of that review. People who come to restaurants to punish other people came to our place, discovered we didn’t offer that service, and moved on. It’s an open question whether we would have made more revenue if we had not lost these customers. I tend to think not, because their absence really did let us focus on doing our jobs better. But maybe there are just so many people like this, that they make up a huge market for restaurants, that we lost out on. I can’t say I know. I know we didn’t miss them.

We liked our jobs a lot better with the punishers gone, and having a job you like is a great joy in life. Our service charge policy, even though we adopted it for technical financial reasons, proved to be a gift in many suprising ways.

I think we were making guests’s lives better, too. Sitting in judgement of your neighbor, and punishing him, is the highway to unhappiness. Plus, as we’ve established, whatever message you’re sending isn’t getting through. Which means the guest who is asked to serve as a judge, is being made miserable for nothing.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 2.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 6: Why Tipping Should (And May) Be Made Illegal

This is part 6 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

In some American restaurants, the code word used to describe black customers is “Canadian”. As in:

“I don’t want that table,” my colleague said to me. “They’re Canadians. You can take them if you want.”
           – Courtney Swain, FUSION magazine

People say that tips motivate servers to do better work. The reality is that tips motivate servers to discriminate against their customers.

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, researchers have shown that we diners don’t vary our tips much based on service quality, even though we think we do.

However, their same research shows that we do vary our tips quite a bit based on who we are. In other words, each individual person has an amount they pretty much always tip, and that amount varies a lot from person to person.

It’s like you have an invisible sign written on you that says how much you tip. Servers can count on you to tip about that much, no matter how good or bad the service is. Maybe you’ve got a “20%” on you, and the guy next to you has a “30%” on his sign, and the next two people are “12%” and “18%”.

Servers often have some control over who they get as customers, as in the excerpt above where one server passes the “Canadians” off to another server. Plus, servers always have some control over which customers they attend most to. And since servers are paid principally by customers, not by their employer, servers are motivated to identify the better tippers so they can focus their work on those guests.

People being people, you can imagine how respectful and open-minded this process of identifying high and low tippers is. And so we have a restaurant industry where African-Americans are demeaned as “Canadians”, in reference to another group which is considered by US servers to be low tippers.

Here’s a excerpt from Michael Lynn’s paper, Tipping and Its Alternatives: Business Considerations and Directions for Research (PDF link):

…[M]any servers dislike waiting on black parties and deliver inferior service to those black customers they must serve (Lynn and Thomas- Haysbert, 2003). Other groups likely to receive reduced attention from U.S. servers under a tipping system include foreigners, women, teenagers, the elderly, and anyone bearing coupons (Caudill, 2004; Harris, 1995; Lynn, 2004b).

Based on discussions with people in the restaurant industry, I’d add to this list people who are dining with their children, people who don’t order alcoholic drinks, and people of Asian descent (who are perceived as less likely to order alcoholic drinks).

I don’t see how anyone can defend a method of compensation that has as a primary function ensuring poorer treatment for every person who isn’t a adult white male. But apparently it’s important to us as a culture, that every time a nonwhite person, or a woman, or a teenager or an old person, goes into a restaurant, they be reminded that they just don’t matter as much as white men. Perhaps it’s because we’ve outlawed overt racism in our daily life, that we love the way tipping puts its boot on the neck of the outsider and reminds her who’s still in charge.

From my perspective, it just makes me sad. We believe in treating all people with equal respect; we should be advocating the abolition of a compensation system that blatantly encourages daily discrimination by skin color, gender, age, and accent. It saddens me to think that my future elderly self, future daughters, future darker-skinned grandkids would all be denied the full joy of restaurants, because from the minute they walk in the door they will all be labeled as “low tipper — do not bother with.”

None of these issues crossed my mind when we got rid of tipping and replaced it with a service charge. I wasn’t thoughtful enough to see them; we were just trying to improve our business. And once we primarily worked in a no-tipping environment, these issues didn’t apply to our business, so I still didn’t become aware of them.

These externalities of tipping were invisible to me until we were visited by a couple Canadians — Canadians from Canada, in this case — Bruce McAdams (see his TedX talk on tipping here) and Mike von Massow, from the University of Guelph. They were researching tipping and potential alternative methods of compensation and asked us to share what we had learned with them.

In our interviews, I explained the reasons we believed the service charge was a better system — the same reasons I’ve outlined in the first four parts of this series. I also shared how I’d come to believe there was a deep anti-woman component to the tipping system, as I discussed in Part 5 of this series.

At which point they blew my mind, explaining the research that showed tipping perpetuates racial discrimination. And then they even hinted that Canada, with its strong commitment to social justice, might be open to legislation or court rulings that replaced tipping with a more standard method of compensation.

As you can imagine, my American sensibilities had a hard time finding that plausible. It was one thing for our independent restaurant to eliminate tipping from our business with the goal of improving service quality; but to actually make tipping illegal was obviously something no one would stand for.

No one, it occurred to me as I thought more about it, except for all the people who are getting screwed over.

Yes, it’s disorienting at first when you perceive something as ubiquitous as tipping to be an actual civil rights issue; but then again I imagine most civil rights issues at some point were so ubiquitous they seemed normal. If we can verify with research that compensation by tips causes non-whites and women to be systematically treated worse in places of public accommodation, do we need much more reason to declare tipping a failed experiment and move on to a more proven method of compensation such as wages or salaries?

These thoughts were just settling in when I went to Toronto to participate in a forum arranged by Bruce and Mike. At this forum, Lydia Dobson, a researcher from Carleton University in Ottawa, presented a whole new (to me) perspective on tips-as-discrimination. Tips, she pointed out, are a revenue stream which is legally not controlled by the employer. Because the employer is not considered the source of tips, the employer can use the tipping revenue stream to treat his employees in ways that would be illegal in other industries.

A couple examples I remember:

* A female server who gained weight was moved to low-revenue shifts as punishment until she became skinny again, in a jurisdiction where weight discrimination was illegal; and

* A female server who spurned the sexual advances of her manager was moved to low-revenue shifts as punishment.

This is from an industry which generates five times as many sexual harassment claims per employee as other industries.

Furthermore, discrimination and retaliation from employers is just part of the dark side of tipping. There’s also the fact that tipping lets the mass of consumers anonymously do our dirty work.

You’ll instinctively know once you picture it, without me having to cite the research, that an African-American server will get paid less than his white counterpart for providing the same quality of service, at the same restaurant. Because of course one of those servers is making less than the other, and it’s probably not going to be the white one. Here’s a research paper on the subject, albeit from only one restaurant, which found that both black and white patrons tipped white servers more.

Similarly, research shows that female servers make more when they are more attractive. But you probably knew that, too, without really needing to have it scientifically proven.

I could go on.

The point is this — we know that tipping rewards employees for being white and for being attractive females, and punishes them for being otherwise. We know that compensation by tipping lets employers speciously punish employees by assigning them to low revenue shifts, while still maintaining the legal fiction that the employee is making a full wage.

Additionally, compensation by tips ensures that customers who are non-white, who are female, or old people, or young people, or foreigners all get a lower quality of service than medium-aged white men, in establishments that claim to welcome all peoples equally.

With these features, if tipping didn’t already exist as a compensation system, it’s hard to imagine that, proposed from scratch, it would be considered a legal alternative to wages or salaries. And given that a new system like this would likely not be made legal in our current culture, it’s believable that, as an existing system, it could be made illegal.

In a legal context where compensation by tips can be shown to function primarily as a way to circumvent laws forbidding discrimination in either employment or accommodation, or to circumvent laws protecting employees from capricious retribution, it would be plausible for a court to simply declare the system in violation of these laws. Similarly, a legislature could make such a change by statute.

As for the mechanics of such a change, I picture that the abolition of tips could happen in one (or more) of three ways.

1) It could be made illegal for a business or its employees to collect more on a bill than has been charged;

2) Tips could be made the property of the employer, which would probably eliminate tipping but leaves open the possibility of unintended consequences;

3) Minimum wage could be raised to an amount high enough that it effectively had to include what is now tip money. (I think this would happen at around $15-20/hr.) This would force restaurants to incorporate the cost of table service into their prices, this would increase menu prices enough that customers, knowing the waiters were already being paid from the menu charges, would stop tipping (again subject to laws of unintended consequences).

All three methods would move to eliminate tipping as the primary compensation for servers. While personally I’d like to see the minimum wage be a living wage, as far as abolishing the tipping system goes I think the cleanest method would be option (1) — simply making it illegal.

However, it looks to me that a more likely scenario is that a court or legislature just declares tips to be the property of the employer, making it clear to the guest that any tips are not going to the server at all. Recent rulings from the Ninth Circuit are flirting with this idea – they can be read to say that a restaurant can distribute tip money among its staff in any way the employer wishes. I think perhaps these rulings are cracks in the foundation that props up the system, and the tipping system might be closer to falling than we know.

If so, then we’ll all end up winners.

Click here to read the first Postscript to the series.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Click here to read Part 5.

Pigs For Sale

In the process of closing the Linkery, I forgot that our Central Coast pig farmer Jim Neville had three pigs for us, almost ready for market. I’d like to help him find a buyer; so consider this a bat-signal to all you California farm-to-table folks out there.

These are 100% Berkshire pigs, and excellent quality pork — it was from Jim’s pigs that we made the country ham that won a 2013 Good Food Award for Charcuterie.

Jim writes that the pigs:

…will be ready for harvest within the next month or two. I raised them outside on a ½ acre pasture, that I planted with beets and carrots in the fall. Once they figured out that they could root the vegetables, they went for it for 2 to 3 weeks. The average weight for a full carcass is usually around 215lbs… Let me know your interest and I can make arrangements to deliver.

You can see photos of Jim’s ranch on the old Linkery blog here, and photos of the loins and bellies here.

If you’re interested in buying these pigs, please email me at jay (at) jayporter (dot) com and I’ll connect you.