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Some restaurants are ditching tipping in favor of higher wages for their staff

Owner Devinder Chaudhary and server Robert Lamieux at the Aiana Restaurant Collective in Ottawa on May 30.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Chris Locke was surprised when given the opportunity to tip on a recent purchase at a cannabis store. As executive chef of Marben, a mainstay in downtown Toronto, tipping had been at the forefront of Mr. Locke’s mind for years – the restaurant had experimented with various models of tip collection and distribution among the staff, and had recently decided to get rid of tipping. absolutely.

“I thought to myself, this is just a way for employers to try to compensate their workers better without having any liability for that compensation,” Mr. Locke said of his experience in weed shops. “It’s like…we’re not going to take care of you, but we’re going to ask our clients to contribute to your salary.”

Tipping can be contentious.

From the customer’s perspective, there is often an unspoken internal conflict between rewarding a worker for good service and incurring additional expense for substandard service, all because of an ingrained cultural norm. With inflation in the mix and rising tipping rates, that unease may have increased.

For servers and other front-line workers such as baristas and budtenders, tipping is a way to boost wages — and rightly so — and can often mean the difference in a worker’s ability to pay rent and monthly bills. But for kitchen staff and marginalized groups working as servers, tipping can spark a sense of injustice and unfairness: why should a person be arbitrarily rewarded based on their appearance, race, gender? , his sexuality or his role in a restaurant?

“The more I think about tipping, the more I conclude that it’s a deep-seated and very intractable irrational quirk,” said Marc Mentzer, a professor at the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan, who has spent decades analyzing tipping in North America. Culture. “This is particularly egregious at a time when we are concerned about how factors like race, gender and age affect workers’ compensation.”

Anecdotally, tip rates and the range of services for which customers should tip appear to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to a new empathy that much The public has developed towards frontline workers, who have been off work due to closures or had to take the risk of preparing and delivering food and other goods.

“People felt like they wanted to keep the restaurants and they wanted to help the workers. As a result, we’ve seen an expansion of the tipping norm,” said University of Guelph professor Michael von Massow, whose research focuses on how people think about food and prices.

There is hard evidence to illustrate this trend.

Data provided to The Globe and Mail by Square, the San Francisco-based payment processor, found that Canadians tipped more generously during the pandemic – on average, customers tipped 17.9% on in-person shopping, up from 16.6% pre-pandemic. In the first three months of 2022, this percentage has remained stable.

During the 2021 holiday season, according to Square, the average tip size at restaurants, bars, health and beauty businesses was 18.2%. Before the pandemic, this figure was 16.8%.

It’s a phenomenon that researchers like Dr. von Massow and Dr. Mentzer call “tip creep,” in which the expected tip percentage gradually increases, especially with the use of smart card readers. “The client is faced with a keyboard and pre-determined percentages, which often start at 17%. It creates an awkward situation where you really don’t have much choice but to donate that amount or more,” Dr. Mentzer said.

He argues that the financial pressure on restaurants was immense, even before the pandemic. “Using smart card readers to encourage tipping on takeout orders is a subtle way to bring more money to the establishment.”

The tipping culture in North America is unique. In Europe, Britain and Australia, for example, tips are not expected, even for bar service. In some restaurants and bars, a service charge is built into finalized bills, often 10-15%, and the proceeds are split among staff.

The origin of modern American tipping is tied, in part, to the legacy of slavery. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many jobs available to former slaves were waiters and railroad porters. Employers chose not to actually pay these workers, but to rely on guests to tip them, according to a study by Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ms. Jayaraman’s work underscores the fact that restaurateurs keenly capitalized on the idea that they could pass the cost of paying their workers onto customers, so much so that tipping became the dominant form of waiter compensation. .

Rashid Mohiddin, a longtime server and bartender in Toronto, is torn about tips. He understands that it’s fundamentally unfair, but he’d rather the tipping system exist than get rid of it, as it would mean a significant difference in his weekly income.

“Part of the appeal of working in restaurants is the tipping culture,” Mr. Mohiddin said. “If you work in a good place, your hourly wage can be between $30 and $40. Would an employer at another restaurant be willing to pay me that much? »

He also said he understands how expensive it can be for owners of small restaurants — a low-margin business — to pay their employees more given sky-high rents in cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

But as a racialized man, Mr Mohiddin fell victim to the injustice of the tipping system. “Do racialized people get worse tips? Of course they do. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of microaggressions I’ve faced from white male customers doubting my abilities as a bartender,” he told The Globe.

“And at the end of the day, regardless of the behavior of the customer, you expect that tip. You have to say sorry, you have to be nice.

This inherently unequal dynamic is exactly why restaurant veterans such as Mr Locke, of Marben, decided to abolish tipping altogether, in favor of paying their staff higher wages, even if it meant higher menu prices that could scare away customers.

In August 2020, Marben moved to a no-tip policy. It was a natural progression from the lockdown, where all tips from takeout orders were evenly distributed among all staff. But when restaurants reopened in the summer of 2021, this system was rejected by servers, who felt it was unfair that tips intended for them were given to backroom staff.

“There was a lot of politics and negativity in tipping. So much emotional effort from all sides,” Mr. Locke said, adding that he found it hypocritical that Marben publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, while continuing the tipping system. is also why we canned it,” he said.

In Ottawa, restaurateur Devinder Chaudhary set up his fine dining establishment, Aiana, on a no-tip model. Mr. Chaudhary pays his 24 employees at least a living wage and charges customers a service charge on their bill. He calls tipping a “sneaky way to guilt a customer into subsidizing your workers’ wages.”

He admits his costs would be lower if he introduced a tipping model and paid each worker less, but he also believes it is his obligation as an employer to pay workers a fair wage. “These people are professionals. I can’t do what they do. They must therefore be treated as such.

One of Mr Chaudhary’s employees, Robert Lamieux, who has worked in the restaurant industry for more than two decades, said it was his first job without tips and that he preferred a no-tip model. tip because all the money he brings home is pensionable. and it would actually contribute more to unemployment insurance.

“So if I’m laid off, I can claim more,” Lamieux said. “I think it’s very beneficial for employees to be paid under this salary model, compared to unequal income based on tips.”

Tipping also breeds abuse by customers of workers, according to veteran freelance food writer and journalist Corey Mintz, an outspoken critic of tipping. “On the one hand, they may walk away with a pocket full of money, but on the other hand, they are put in a position where they face physical, verbal and sexual harassment from customers and managers.”

In an interview with The Globe, Mr Mintz expressed some exhaustion over the tipping debate. “It feels like we’ve talked about it in cycles and the needle hasn’t moved much.”

The one thing Mintz has noticed in the pandemic, however, is that restaurant owners who have abolished tipping and offered their employees salaries with appropriate benefits, such as mental health coverage, have retained more staff.

“Those who challenged industry orthodoxy about tipping told me they didn’t lose people, they had a stack of resumes,” he said.

According to Dr. von Massow, a growing awareness of the destruction of tipping culture, coupled with the rising cost of restaurant meals, could lead customers to think differently about tipping. “I think we’re past the point where people believe tipping equals good service,” he said.

Dr. Mentzer, however, is less convinced that North Americans will soon adopt a no-tip model. For him, an ideal system is one in which tipping does not exist and where employers pay workers a fair wage.

“Tipping subsidizes low wages, and I think it’s so deeply embedded in Canadian and American society that it would be unrealistic to expect it to suddenly be abolished. There would be an uproar on all sides.

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