Mandatory tipping, Per Se

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.

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3 Responses to “Mandatory tipping, Per Se”

  1. Please, see James Surowiecki’s “Check, Please” in the New Yorker (

  2. An addendum, after reading the New Yorker article, as well as this piece from the Chicago Tribune:,1,409263.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

    The New Yorker article essentially asks “why tip?” and looks at the historical origins, but it does little to address the merits of the Per Se scheme. It asks a good question, but I don’t think that most Americans are looking for a reason to tip. That question has long been decided. If anything, we need a history of the service charge in Europe, or rather a history of the “service compris” tradition. Why has tipping disappeared in so much of Europe? And to a lesser extent, how do Europeans like the service and the tipping policy in the US when they come here?

    Secondarily, much of the press surrounding the Per Se policy focuses on the size of tips, and what variables affect tip percentage. Perhaps because it is less easily quantifiable than a %, less attention is being paid to the quality of the service.

    What bothers me most about this whole business is the fact that so little press attention is directed to the restaurant’s top line revenue as it figures into the equation. The Trib article points to the disparity in pay between the workers at the front of the house and the workers at the back of the house, but it makes no effort to explain why the back of the house is paid so poorly to begin with. $30K a year in New York — or anywhere — is indeed crap, but why are they so poorly paid in a restaurant as good as Keller’s? And why does the service charge have to cover their salary? Why not price the meal to cover the expenses as they are?

    This reminds me of airlines and their fuel surcharges, or hotels in California a few years ago with their “energy surcharges.” Basic costs of doing business were being passed on to consumers as a separate line item, without changing the base price. But these are industries that sell a (largely) commodified product, in which consumers are comparing Hilton vs Westin or American vs United on the basis of price. The surcharges, then, allow the companies to appear cheaper than they really are, for purposes of initial comparison in the search engines of the world. But restaurants are different: it’s not just about price. Is someone going to decide to go to Tru vs. Charlie Trotter’s because of a $5 difference in the prix fixe menu? Hardly. Keller should just raise the base price of the meal, or take a thinner profit for himself, if he wants to raise the wages of the kitchen staff.

  3. First let me say I don’t like tipping and I never have. When I was a kid delivering papers, some people tipped me, but most didn’t. In every case, I tried to put the paper where they wanted it, and I always felt uncomfortable accepting the tip. I also drove a cab for few months, and, unless someone threw up in my cab, I never liked tips there either. Sometimes, a little old lady would call for a cab to take her home after doing a weeks shopping. Even when they asked me to carry their groceries up to their third floor walk up, I felt it was my duty to a senior citizen on a fixed income to try and refuse their tip, which only seemed to make an uncomfortable situation worse.

    I have been living in Japan for over 10 years, where, as you may know, tipping is non-existant. Consequently, I have largely forgotten how to tip.

    Tipping is just an embarrassment. The stated price should reflect the value of the product, and the person delivering the service should take pride in doing the job well for the salary agreed upon.

    I detest tipping and service charges. Total cost should be stated in advance. That, and advertising, explain why restaurants post their menu outside the door.

    Surcharges are justifiable if there is a temporary increase in costs such as now in the current fuel shortage. If the shortage persists (and in this case, I think it will), prices should be adjusted upward as soon as it is clear the situation is not temporary.

    Best regards,
    BNJ Tokyo


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