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Is It Time To Write Off Restaurant Tipping?


American restaurants have been talking about getting rid of tipping for years. Only if a few have taken the leap. Now a major New York City restaurant group has announced a no-tip policy. WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf says the debate is starting to boil.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: When Danny Meyer talks, people listen. He's been right before. When he banned smoking at Union Square Cafe, he was told he'd go out of business. Business improved. Ten years later, smoking in restaurants was against the law. Starting in November, tipping will be phased out at his 13 restaurants, the first major restaurant group to do this. It's been all over the news and everyone has an opinion. Long overdue, some say. Un-American, others counter.

Tipping is demeaning and discriminatory, or motivating and lucrative. What's clear from all the nattering is that the gratuity is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are questions of pay equity, labor law and rising costs. Tipping was imported from Europe more than a century ago and has been pretty much abolished there. But here, it's an entrenched American cultural practice.

It may be hard for us to give it up. We like to think that tipping brings better service, but Michael Lynn, a Cornell professor who has written more than 50 papers on the subject and was interviewed by just about everyone last week says we're wrong. He finds only a weak correlation. In fact, race and gender of both customer and server may be better predictors of how people tip. An attractive white woman in her 30s might be more likely to garner a big tip than an African-American of any age.

Plus, many servers pool tips so your reward is shared. Restaurant servers are paid a tipped minimum wage, as low as $2.13 an hour. Tips provide the bulk of their income. But that money can't legally be shared with the un-tipped but sometimes low-paid kitchen staff - the line cooks, busboys and dishwashers. Hence, conflict between the front and back of the house.

Add to that a move to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to more than some restaurant staff make, no wonder there's a growing labor shortage in restaurant kitchens. Meyer says abolishing tips and raising wages can lead to a more professional workforce and better quality of life. Others fear good waitstaff will leave and higher menu prices will drive away diners. Meyer apparently tried to abolish tipping 20 years ago, but the waiters balked. Is the time right now? The dining world will listen and watch.

MARTIN: That is Washington, D.C.-based food writer, Bonny Wolf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.