The best part of every bartender or server's shift is the end. You would think it's due to the overwhelming joy of another hard night's work, giving your tables a transportive dining experience. But it's not... It's getting your tips.
It's delightful getting paid (in cash!) after every shift. In addition to the (below minimum wage) hourly pay, tips are the most lucrative part of working on the floor of a restaurant or bar. It makes it easy to mosey on over to the local watering hole and put back a few before crashing and doing it all over again in the morning (1:45pm). And it would be ‘difficult’ (borderline impossible) to live on a restaurant wage without tips from the customer.
Have you ever wondered why? Why do you, the customer, have to (but don't always...) pay an additional fee for eating in a restaurant? When did we start doing this? Who thought of it in the first place?
There are several reasonable accounts as to the origin of tipping, but generally speaking, everyone agrees it started in Europe. Masters would tip their Serfs for working diligently. It's important to remember that Serfs were paid, so the tip was in addition to their wages. This custom was witnessed by wealthy Americans and brought back to the States, where the population initially refused. This is the reason why most European countries don't operate their service industry on tips: the customer thought it was ludicrous to pay again for something they already paid for.
However, where Europe zigged, America zagged. After the American Civil War, it was unfathomably difficult for a Black man to get a decent job, especially in the South. Many wound up as waiters, barbers, and railroad porters. Employers decided they didn't need to pay their Black employees, so long as they were making tips. There is a myth that the word tip is actually an acronym: To Insure Promptness.
As we move closer to present day, we can see through the way that tipping was legislated that onus to pay tipped workers is on the customer, not the employee. In 1938, the US passed federal law stating employers were only required to pay tipped workers a wage that would add up to the federal minimum wage when combined with tips. In the 1970s, laws were passed to offer supposedly fairer wages for restaurant workers. Today, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 USD. (The main federal minimum wage is $7.25 USD.)
Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She lays it out when she says, “It’s the legacy of slavery that turned the tip in the United States from a bonus or extra on top of a wage to a wage itself.” Check out the rest of her insightful Washington Post interview here.
So, here is a half-baked attempt at fixing this!
Tip sare gone. Servers, Bartenders, Bussers, Hosts all make somewhere between $20 -$40 an hour. Restaurants increase the price of everything on their menu by 15%-25%. Customers no longer have to tip, and the price of your meal stays exactly the same. Unless you're in the one group of people that are getting screwed over by this: the Non-Tipper. Now all of a sudden the non-tipper is forced to "tip", so maybe we're making even more money than we were before! Maybe there's also a deal cut with the government so restaurants can save a little on some tax, because now:
1) The Front of House staff actually make enough money to pay taxes.
2) They don't make 40%-70% of their income in cash.
3) They can no longer evade paying taxes by stashing their cash tips in an old Columbian cigar box in their closet. (But I never did that…)
I don't know very much about taxes or restaurant finances, but if you have any thoughts about what you just read, I'd love to hear from you! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what you think of this crazy little plan!
Honestly, it feels a little silly to write about this. Right now at least. There are so many terrible (and stupid) things happening in the world, and if anything we should be excited about restaurants coming back. But we have an opportunity. A chance to look back, learn, look forward, and grow. A new paradigm, a chance to reset.
If not now, then when?