After Batali Bust, Arguments for and Against Tipping Out

This week, a court ordered Mario Batali and a partner to pay $5.25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by employees who accused the celebrity chef’s restaurants of systematically withholding tips to cover expenses. As the New York Times reported, the lawsuit said that restaurants owned by Batali and partner Joseph Bastianich deducted 4 to 5 percent of total wine sales nightly from the tip pool.

The judge in the case said employees were told that "the money was to cover expenses related to wine research and to cover broken glassware." Huh? Isn't wine markup is supposed to cover those costs?

What makes this story interesting, apart from the schadenfreude Batali’s critics must feel, is how it dredges up the controversy over waiters "tipping out" other service staff. After all, restaurants use tips to augment the salaries of bussers and bartenders all the time. How is deducting a percentage from the pool essentially different from creating an environment where tipping out, while technically voluntary, is mandatory in practice?

While enforced tip pooling is a violation of the law in some states, it's still customary in plenty of establishments. That's especially true in places where the law is murky (in California, for instance, there's a lot of confusion over the legality of the practice). Where it does happen, it boils down to this: Do servers own their tips, or should they share them with the entire staff of a restaurant? Diners tip the waiter directly, it’s true, but are they really rewarding just one worker’s performance, or the broader experience of an entire meal? It’s a controversial subject—even here at CHOW.com, where the subject sparked a point-counterpoint debate.

POINT: Don’t tip out! by Joyce Slaton

I worked as a waiter through high school and college, in both diners and white-tablecloth joints. It was a terrific job for one reason alone: It paid a lot. And it paid a lot for one reason: tips.

I know that tipping out is a tradition, but it verges on fraud. You are taking money a diner left for a specific purpose, and distributing it without that diner's knowledge or consent. I will concede that it's unfair that waiters are tipped and other types of servers are not. At one restaurant where I worked, the bar staff delivered drinks to the tables and billed diners separately so they were tipped. I'm not sure diners liked having to pay an extra check, but at least it seemed fair to workers.

Bussers and kitchen staff are among the many, many types of service people who don't get tips. It's not fair, but it's tradition. Believe me, I know they work hard, but so does my dry cleaner. So do grocery checkers, and the guy who runs the convenience store near my house. Should we just tip everybody we see in a retail business?

And anyway, customers are a huge pain in the ass. Waiters have to put up with customers’ irrational demands, their leering and insults, while line cooks are safely insulated in the kitchen. Being a server deserves bonus pay!

COUNTERPOINT: It’s about fairness! by John Birdsall

I cooked in restaurant and catering kitchens for 15 years, busting my ass for a wage not much above minimum. These were small, indie places, for the most part, where the owners worked in the kitchen or on the floor, and probably weren’t making much more than us line cooks. I always felt like we were part of a complex group endeavor: no divas, no slackers—everybody had to show up and get it done, every day.

And yet, the income inequality between cooks and waiters was stunning. In my best gig, the owners made it clear that servers were expected to tip out: bussers, line cooks, even the dishwasher. It was a way of enforcing teamwork, of snuffing out the sense that some workers were worth more than others. It was democracy—forced, to be sure, but if having to read Lord of the Flies in high school taught you anything, it should have been that, left to ourselves, we’d all be kneecapping each other in some desperate race to be Donald Trump.

When diners tip, they're not just tipping the service. A well-paced meal has plenty to do with a waiter's skill, but it can’t happen without a well-run kitchen. When line cooks are firing as they should, the server looks good. Same with bussers who clear and pour water, dishwashers who bust ass to make sure there isn't a lag with clean glasses. Tipping out is an acknowledgment of the truth of food service, which is that, from top to bottom, a restaurant staff is a team. Paying some players Kobe wages while the rest get league minimum—that’s a crime. Until we adopt a European system, where gratuities are automatic and distributed to staff, I say waiters have an ethical obligation to tip out!

See our followup post, We Get It: Tip Skimming is Different Than Tip Sharing

Image source: Flickr member cafemama under Creative Commons