Is the U.S. finally ready to treat restaurant servers like career employees? Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group took a major step in that direction this month. The force behind some of New York’s most acclaimed restaurants and bars, USHG announced that it will begin to eliminate tips at all of its 13 full-service venues, starting in November. Rather than tipping, guests will be subjected to across-the-board price increases to compensate the entire staff. Other white restaurants have eliminated tipping already, but this is probably the first time zero gratuities will become the policy for such an important restaurant group.
Not all of Meyer’s restaurants are fine dining. Barbecue joints and his first cocktail spot, Porchlight, will also be included, over time. Meyer has long set the pace for quality service in New York. The engaged hospitality for which his restaurants are known make them a benchmark in a city where indifferent service once was standard.
Meyer isn’t alone in this move. Less remarked upon was the move by his former partner, Tom Colicchio, who barred tipping this fall during lunch at his Craft restaurant in New York. But Meyer’s step in this direction can’t be understated. When the Modern, his most expensive restaurant (adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan), implements the new policy, frequent guests will notice some changes. Beginning in late November, there will be 2 notable changes to the menu: an increase in prices in general and a statement explaining the Hospitality Included policy. On the checks there will be no space for a tip. Guests who insist on tipping will be discouraged from doing so.
USHG is taking this step to make more equitable the disparity between tipped and untipped staff, partially in response to the growing difficulty in finding cooks who can afford to work for him and still live in NY, but also to find a way to make income more steady for all. It’s too early to tell how staff will respond, although most who work for Meyer can always get hired elsewhere.
The important point is that with pressure on urban centers to raise pay for workers, restaurants will need to find ways to compensate them better. Tipping has made it easier to retain servers, but also in essence has created an environment in which they basically act as subcontractors, focusing on making their nightly nut as much as rules and regulations set up by the establishment. In one act like this, that relationship is ended, at least in Meyer’s operations. A lot of restaurateurs struggling with balancing this and other disparities will be watching this experiment closely.