Thomas Keller’s luxury restaurant at the Time Warner Center, Per Se, will impose a mandatory gratuity of 20% on all checks. Jon at amuse-bouche was on this story early, then the NYTimes, and now the story has gotten national exposure with CNN and USA Today picking up on it.
Although I am coming to the discussion late, I asked Mark Ashley, our Senior Tipping Correspondent, if American waitstaff really respond to the power of the tip:
My feelings on this are mixed. (Putting social scientist hat on.) I don’t think that mandatory tips — or even the size of the set tip percentage — have a direct correlation to service quality. Other variables are important, including the perceived status of the restaurant, the quality of the food ,the price paid, the service tradition of the region, the behavior of the customer, and others, I’m sure. I would also expect difference service levels at different types of restaurants. At top fine dining locations, in Europe or in the US, I would expect top service, whether or not tips are included. And generally, this has been the case. After all, if the service stunk, they’d be out of business. The market would take care of that… But at “family style” places, the service imperative would be weaker, so the voluntary tip might help in improving service. So by this token, a Per Se or its ilk could do a fixed service charge and the service shouldn’t perceptively change. In a Bennigan’s-esque place, or a downscale family restaurant in Europe, it might.
(Taking social scientist hat off, putting consumer hat on.) As a diner, I like choice. I like options on the menu, I like the option of giving a 17% tip or a 20% tip or whatever. Having a 20% tip be mandated for me offends me a little. It especially offends me when the justification for the change is the desire to pay the kitchen staff more. They want to take money out of the pockets of waitstaff and put it into the kitchen staff, by imposing mandatory tips? Why not just pay the kitchen staff better to begin with ? Thomas Keller must be doing fairly well, why not sacrifice some of his net margins for higher wages?
In this instance, since an overt reason for doing this is to reduce waitstaff pay, we MIGHT actually see a reduction in service… This is ham-fisted work by Keller.