Thursday Jun 01, 2023

Tired of tipping? These restaurants have ditched the practice

Tired of tipping? These restaurants have ditched the practice

In addition to the creamy risotto with charred gai lan and plump prawn and ricotta dumplings, there’s another line getting attention in the menu of Parkdale’s new Then and Now restuarant. It reads: “We provide a living wage to all team members, so tips are optional but not required.”

Refreshing to many customers at a time when they’re bombarded with gratuity requests on every purchase they make.

“We had a guest who, when we asked how their experience at the restaurant was, said the main draw was the non-tipping option,” said Then and Now proprietor Eric Y. Wang. “I think they liked the system because of tipping fatigue.

“Tipping should be the cherry on top of the ice cream,” he added, “not the ice cream. And the staff is more grateful when they do see a tip, it’s a nice surprise.”

Tipping point hits customers

Then and Now is the newest restaurant of a handful in the city, such as Barque, Beast Pizza, Richmond Station and Emma’s Country Kitchen, that don’t ask for tips and that bumped up employee’s wages since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. While the concept of non-tipping restaurants isn’t new, the idea is gaining more momentum as “tipping fatigue” is on the rise. In addition to providing a respite for diners, the staff say it’s also creating a better workplace.

Server and bartender Austin Somerton has been working in the hospitality industry for six years and said he applied to work at Then and Now for its “fairly unique concept”: a living wage that means his income won’t depend on tips.

“As a server, it’s an absolute rarity to have a salary,” he said. “I’m making a decent living wage I can live off of. I have great work-life balance. There’s job security and I don’t have to worry about not getting enough shifts or whether I’m getting enough tables (to wait on). That pressure is alleviated and all I have to worry about at work is having diners leave the restaurant happy.”

Wang started working as a dishwasher at 16 before enrolling in culinary management school and worked at various downtown spots before opening Then and Now in February. From the onset he wanted to open a restaurant in which staff can survive on a salary rather than tips.

“There are people who still treat (going to a restaurant) as a master and servant situation, and I’m tired of people saying that serving or cooking isn’t a real job,” said Wang. “To have a sustainable salary, to be able to move up in the ranks, it will help change perceptions.”

More Toronto restaurants ditch the tip

Other restaurateurs who made the change also said it improves the dynamic between diners and staff, resulting in better service and well-being of workers.

St. Clair West brunch spot Emma’s Country Kitchen started offering employees benefits in 2017 and, around two years ago, offered starting wages at $22 per hour, which was the minimum required to cover living expenses in Toronto at the time. Diners still have the option to leave a tip if they insist, but it is not expected. Heather Mee said when she and co-owner Rachel Pellett opened the restaurant a decade ago, they set out to not repeat what they didn’t like about the tipping system.

“(At other restuarants) I was the host, server, front of house manager, and I remember there being a huge divide between the front of house (servers) and back of house (cooks) due to tips, lots of us versus them mentality that didn’t serve anybody,” she said. “I remember my paycheque was a joke. You depended entirely on your tips.”

Downtown restaurant Richmond Station did away with tips in 2020, incorporating what the average guest would have tipped into the menu prices so that staff have a more consistent paycheque. Co-owner and chef Carl Heinrich said one of the major reasons for the all-in pricing is that it gets staff to report all of their earnings rather than just pocketing cash tips.

“What we’re trying to do is turn our business into any other profession in any other sector,” he said. “When you get a mortgage, they look at your paycheque. The ability to go on maternity or paternity leave, to get EI benefits, if your earnings are in cash you don’t get these benefits.”

Westward in Roncesvalles, David Neinstein, owner of Barque Smokehouse, said he made the change a year ago to pay staff a living wage and not ask for tips (though like the other restaurants, they’re accepted if the diner insists). “You go to the dentist or the accountant and it’s like you can say, ‘I’ll hold 15 per cent of their payment back.’ I just don’t think this is fair when it comes to someone’s livlihood,” Neinstein said.

Giving restaurant staff a living wage

At Barque, wages go from $22 to $25 an hour, including benefits such as paid time off and access to services such as therapy. “The staff has to buy into the change because you have to change all of their work contracts,” he said. “It took a long time to figure out menu costing, HR, communications. It’s a giant shift in the company’s practices.”

The aim to make a better workplace has paid off for these restaurants at a time when Help Wanted signs seem to be plastered on every restaurant window.

Neinsten from Barque, Mee from Emma’s and Heinrich of Richmond Station said they didn’t have issues with staffing.

“I think it made a huge difference when people feel supported and secure so they can focus on their jobs,” said Mee.

Fiona Calvert, who’s been a server at Emma’s for about six years, remembers crying from happiness when it was announced that her wages would go up.

“It helped my mental health because I could foresee what I could afford in Toronto. It also makes me far better at my job because I’m appreciated and my work is recognized,” she said. “You’re not going to have servers downtown if they can’t afford to live there.”

Heinrich said the move also helped keep staff in the pipeline for management positions at Richmond Station. “Previously, our rate for promoting our best servers into management was maybe 10 per cent,” he said. “They’d decline because they knew they’d be taking on more responsibilities but won’t be making cash tips. Now we’re 12 for 12 in our staff taking a leadership role.”

“I see the pros in working in a non-tipping culture,” said Katarina Weltner, who started as a server at Richmond Station six years ago and now manages the dining room. “It helps grow more industry professionals and creates a safer space because there’s no opportunity for guests to take money hostage and eliminates the power dynamic that I have to play into.”

What do diners think?

As for responses from diners, the restaurant owners have had to occasionally explain to guests that tipping isn’t necessary, but people continue to eat there and they have attracted new clientele.

“Overwhelmingly the conversation has been positive and, at the end of the day, the price is the same as it would have been with tips,” said Heinrich. “What I am hearing is the exhaustion around tipping from guests. The tip creep is everywhere now and they’re just thankful they’re not faced with the dilemma of subsidizing our staff wages here. That’s not a fair position for them, that’s our job.”


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