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May 27, 2021

Editor’s Dish: Tipping is a big problem

While it benefits waitstaff at high-end restaurants, tipping creates other issues

Over the last week, I’ve gotten many questions about my thoughts on a post in a NoDa neighborhood Facebook page written by a former server at The Goodyear House. The post claimed that The Goodyear House was taking too much out of servers’ tips for redistribution to bar staff and bussers in a practice called tip pooling, and when made aware of the issue, the restaurant didn’t pay back the money allegedly owed.

In a response to a story on the post written by QC Nerve, a lawyer for The Goodyear House stated that the percentage calculated in the post did not include cash tips, only those on credit cards; cash tips remain with servers. If cash tips were included, the statement says, the percentage would have been legal, and as a result, The Goodyear House changed their tip pooling policy to now include both card and cash tips. You can read the QC Nerve story here and The Goodyear House’s response in a Facebook thread here.

This kind of reporting can get into a he said, she said situation quickly — one that is hard to avoid unless a reporter has access to cash tip records, restaurant financials, or legal documents in a court case, which we do not. One thing that is certain, however, is that the United States has a tipping problem, and we’re so far in, it’s going to be hard to change.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that very few people understand the complicated laws behind it, certainly not your average diner. In North Carolina, the minimum wage to tipped employees is only $2.13 an hour, as long as the employees’ tips bring their wage up to the state-wide minimum wage of $7.25.

I often think of a story my husband Jon shares about how his grandfather would leave a tip of spare change when they’d go out for pizza, thinking that was a good tip. And to someone who grew up during his era, it may have been.

This is what often brings such a gap in tips — it isn’t the quality of service, rather the life experiences and beliefs of the tipper. The variety of tips received by a single server in a single evening cannot be attributed to how hard they’re working, an argument I often hear about eliminating tips. What incentive does a server have to provide good service, I’m asked, if there are no tips? To me, that’s a silly question — most restaurant employees, like everyone else, take pride in their work. In every job, there are underachievers and overachievers. We don’t expect chefs to cook poorly because they are not tipped.

There are countless problems, too, and the fact that many servers don’t claim cash tips — not that we blame them — caused issues for those forced to go on unemployment after being laid off at the start of the pandemic. Without cash tips included, a large chunk of income is missing from the records used to calculate unemployment. Another issue is the wage disparity between kitchen staff and front-of-house staff — we’ve heard stories of servers at high end restaurants counting out wads of cash in front of cooks who make $15 an hour, bringing tension to the business model. The harassment that servers must endure to ensure a good tip is well documented, as well.

That’s a lot of downsides, but tipping is so entrenched in not only our culture, but our laws, and it will take a significant push to change it. Several restaurants have switched to a service fee on their bills, which allows them to provide for their staff more equally. We’re in the midst of a restaurant revolution, where big shifts are taking place in the industry as the pandemic revealed restaurants’ weak points in stark clarity. I hope this is one of them. What diners who are calling for restaurants like The Goodyear House to pay their staff more must recognize is this: restaurants will need our support in charging more to do so.

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