Tipping culture is evolving, but slowly

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

American tipping culture is very slowly evolving, and that’s a good thing.

You tip your server, your bartender and other service industry employees like valet, but you typically don’t tip others who offer valuable services like auto mechanic, dry cleaner or hygienist. The salary for the latter is paid by the employer, who is paid by the customer. A large part of a server’s salary is paid directly by customer.

Some restaurants are trying out tip-sharing among the front- and back-of-house staff. Others are implementing an automatic service fee that may replace or complement a tip.

Among the service industry folks I talk to regularly, this is a highly controversial, complex topic. No one I asked about it had a short, simple opinion on the matter. Some thought tip-sharing diminished the extra work they put into cultivating a relationship with regulars. Others looked it as a way to give the sous chef sweating in the kitchen deserved compensation for his long hours. Several implied that the current system creates animosity between those in the dining room and workers behind the scenes.

I like to tip (and tip extra when the service is above average), however, I think diners should be prepared to roll with these variances while the industry tries things out.

Last week the Mulefoot Gastropub in Imlay City announced on social media that starting Wednesday of this week they would be asking guests not to tip, and instead would charge a 20 percent service fee on all checks. That percentage will be “distributed to staff members in the form of wages and commissions.”

The social media announcement garnered reaction from hundreds of diners in support and in disagreement with the policy (one even went so far as to compare it to communism).

I understand people not wanting to be told what to tip, but look at the automatic service fee as a middle step between the current gratuity culture and raising the menu prices to numbers that may be even more irksome than an automatic fee or tip.

The folks at Mulefoot say at the end of the day the cost of service should be built into menu price (as they are in most countries), but if they did that today they would be priced out quickly.

“Service is something that has to be paid for,” said Allison Romine, general manager of Mulefoot Gastropub. “This industry has been built over the years and went from a tip literally being like ‘a little bit extra’ to consisting of the entire server’s wage, which just isn’t right.”

“People in the United States believe that for some really messed up reason that we should be able to go to a restaurant and it should cost the same amount as eating at home,” said Mulefoot chef Mike Romine.

“What I would like people to understand is we’re making this decision for our employees, it’s 100 percent for them. All of the money (from the 20 percent service fee) is for them and it’s to create a sustainable, consistent, professional career for them. We have people that would ask our cooks and our servers to be professional, but then at the end of the day also think it’s okay to pay them $9 an hour and it’s not.”

The owners of Mulefoot hope this stabilizes the “feast or famine” nature of the service industry. With higher, more steady hourly pay, their employees can get loans and plan better financially.

Some diners argue that if your server isn’t working for a variable tip, they may not work as hard. The rebuttal to that is that the service fee makes a restaurant and its employees beholden to the diner to offer good service since they are charging a fee for said service.

With six restaurants across Michigan, including one in downtown Detroit, Maru Sushi has been charging a 10 percent service fee since November. This is split among not just the servers, but also back-of-house staff. The servers usually receive an additional gratuity on top of the 10 percent, often an additional 8-12 percent, that they keep.

“At the end of the day the restaurant business is a team sport and at the same time what we’re trying to do is share your generosity,” said Maru owner Robert Song. “You give us gratuity and we want to make sure that part of it is being shared by the people that typically don’t see your generosity: bartenders, cooks and chefs and even dishwashers .. they do an equal part to contribute to the overall experience.”

Song, who has 500 employees throughout his Michigan restaurants, says this system isn’t for every restaurant.

“You got to really observe your operation and if you’re the operator they will know the benefits that it would perhaps bring or they could be just fine doing what they’re doing,” he said, adding that there are lot of factors like menu price, the volume of sales, how many people work in back versus work in front.

“It’s a culture, not a mandate,” said Song. “I can go into any restaurant, not tip and walk out and not get arrested for it. This tipping system is very specific to our country and it’s very strange.”

Maru’s operations manager, John O’Meara, adds that he thinks the 10 percent service fee has worked very well and has earned “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from guests.

“I think it’s inevitable that eventually tipping culture will change in America,” he said. “How long that will take, I’m not sure.”

It will likely be a slow change. As it evolves, we as diners should pay attention and be open to new ways of paying for the pleasure of dining.


(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens