One of the restaurant industry’s most hotly-contested topics in recent years as been tipping. More and more places have begun removing tip lines from their final checks, instead offering percentage service fees (as many restaurants do) or a flat-rate menu structure, wherein diners know that the price of a dish reflected on the bill of fare already includes the cost of any proposed tip. Pre-event tickets for prix fixe meals are also popular, but some restaurateurs are finding that their dreams of a tipless society don’t quite match up with the economic realities around them.
Eater Young Gun winner Andrea Borgen recently wrote a lengthy, heartfelt post over on Medium about just this topic, titled “Why I Haven’t Given Up on No-Tipping (Yet)”. She argues that the perception of higher menu prices at her Downtown restaurant Barcito is a killer for business, even after confronting diners with basic math on the cost of food, labor, and rent. She’s been tweaking her service model and hours and continues to fight for every dollar through the door as a no-tipping idealist, but feels her path has been harder than traditional restaurants with a tip line. She says:
Not a day has gone by in the past three months that I haven’t considered closing, cutting my losses, buying a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires and starting a new life.
Ultimately, Borgen says, she believes in the idea of equitable wages and price transparency, even if it means a larger struggle to stay afloat.
Chef David Wilcox of Journeymen agrees. His early restaurant plan was to run his Atwater Village restaurant like a Spanish tapas spot, where diners would interact with chefs, be handed prepared food from the bar (it all ultimately gets tallied up on a dim sum-style piece of paper), and at the end receive a bill that already included not only tip, but also tax. The idea, at least, was clean and simple.
There’s been a learning curve to the process, Wilcox admits, which kept his team from implementing the model from day one. But as of next week the restaurant will no longer be taking reservations and is switching to the seat-yourself, conversational model he always envisioned — but without the tax side of the final bill included in the menu prices. It’s a balance Wilcox felt he needed to strike; show a lower (non-tax) cost on the menu so when people find themselves ordering at the counter they aren’t so shell-shocked at the price of each dish, especially when those same diners realize there are no traditional servers coming to refill their water or take in follow-up menu questions.
Will the hybrid service model, where cooks and runners are all cross-trained to work nearly any station in a given night, and diners are asked to be a more engaged participant in their own meal, actually work? It’s something the folks at Scratch Bar in Encino have been toying with for years now, so there’s hope. The real benchmark for success, it seems, is just sticking around.