Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is a professor and the senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
In North America, our tipping culture has always been a source of pride, giving customers the last word when human interaction is involved. Good service deserves a good tip, while an unsatisfactory experience results in no reward for the server.
In some European and Asian countries, the tip is already included in the price at the restaurant, but not here. The problem is this though: defining what good service looks like is a purely subjective process. Most importantly, some in the service industry see tipping as a lever for discrimination against certain employees.
Last week, a Toronto restaurant stopped accepting tips in a move that the owners say is part of an effort to pay its staff more equitably. Richmond Station, a restaurant located near the corner of Yonge Street and Richmond Street in downtown Toronto, has moved to what it calls a “hospitality included” model, meaning that all tips for staff are already included in the prices on the menu, which have been increased by an average of 18 per cent.
Embedding tips can solve some problems. First off, tipping clearly contributes to pay disparities among restaurant staff. Waiters often earn double what cooks earn, and hiring for back-of-house positions has been problematic for many restaurateurs. Studies have shown that tipping also promotes bias based on age, race, and gender, and that tips make servers more vulnerable to sexual harassment from customers. This is the dark side of tipping that customers often do not see.
The concept of subjective tipping has always been a little odd. No other profession would accept that pure strangers can determine the salary of employees. Methods to evaluate performance will vary from customer to customer. What is incredibly subjective can also potentially be biased and inequitable. It is human nature.
This is certainly not the first time a restaurateur has tried to eliminate tipping. In both the U.S. and Canada, some restaurants have even run their own experiments on the matter. A study on tipping released a few years ago found that the quality of service declined by eliminating tips directly from customers, and another study, still on tipping, concluded that the restaurateur’s revenues decreased as prices on the menu increased. Most abandoned these initiatives as their operations became less competitive. The markets were also not ready for these changes.
But COVID-19 has disrupted many things. First, since the reopening of restaurants in June and July across the country, many have noticed that restaurant prices have not decreased. On the contrary, prices have increased, mainly because food is more expensive, but also because prices are set to make operations profitable despite new public-health standards and physical-distancing measures. Most would hardly notice if tips were suddenly included in menu prices.
Second, since the beginning of the pandemic, the desire to offer a decent wage to employees who must constantly interact with customers is palpable. The current situation has made us realize that many of these positions are filled by people who earn very little. They take risks, several times a day, simply by working. The people who hold these positions are often women and/or minorities who are often discriminated against – another important challenge that communities are currently facing.
Ending tipping will not be easy. Tipping grants power to customers and many of us are addicted to it. However, with decades of high staff turnover, ongoing staff shortages, stories of harassment and questionable employment practices, the hospitality industry has shown that it has been unable to follow standards that make the sector an attractive option for job seekers. A recent Canada-wide survey conducted by Dalhousie University suggests that most Canadians (56 per cent of respondents) are now in favour of including tips in menu prices. It’s a surprising change – for years, Canadians felt differently.
If the sector wants to value its employees and become a decent option for people who want to work, a conversation about the future of tipping is long overdue.
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