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Eat and Drink

Why Tipping Is A Broken System For Restaurant Workers—and Owners

Restaurant Olivia’s Austin Carson speaks out on pay equity in the hospitality industry.

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The world needs actors and artists and students—those individuals who often find periodical work in the restaurant industry—just as it needs doctors and dentists, chefs and restaurateurs. Do you know what else the world needs? Heather Morrison, and those like her. Heather is a co-owner of Restaurant Olivia, ten-year-old girl Olivia’s mom, the best hospitality professional I’ve ever worked with, and my wife. In particular, the hospitality industry needs more people like Heather, who show up for work every day believing in the nobility and value of service as a career.

But the service industry is as imperfect as it is wonderfully diverse. I’ve met and befriended people from all walks of life over the two decades I’ve been in hospitality, and the conversations I’ve shared with my industry peers over family meal, shift drinks, and shared dining room experiences have defined my perspective and opinions on issues around equality. I’ve been thinking about those issues a lot lately. Heather, our partner Ty Leon, and I all have, reflecting on who we are and what we want to stand for in this business, and at this time. We’re struggling to reconcile the operational practices of yesterday, in pre-pandemic times, with our hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow.

Wage equity—or rather, inequity—has been a frequent talking point for our trio since before we opened our first restaurant, Bistro Georgette at Avanti Food & Beverage in LoHi. After all, we’ve lived and worked on both sides: Heather and I spent the majority of our first year in business there cooking alongside Ty in Bistro Georgette’s very busy kitchen, a fact we corroborate with our now distinctly back-of-house medical histories, including cuts and burns, torn ligaments, and assorted other physical and mental scars collected along the way. Before then, we’d seen the division between front-of-house and back-of-house wages wreck morale and push good people into other industries, but facing the daily realities of kitchen work reinforced the empathy Heather and I have for folks choosing that career path—which became an integral part of our decision as owners to even the playing field around wages, even if we didn’t then know just out how to do it.

Not only does the restaurant industry grapple with a wage gap between our front- and back-of-house employees, we also see inequity play out in the dining room through the tipping system. Post-slavery America embraced a form of indentured servitude and tipping that in many ways remains the foundation upon which our current restaurant system is built: Asian Americans, for example, are tipped less than their Caucasian counterparts; Latino and Native American workers are tipped even less; and African American employees earn the least in tips on average. Men are tipped at a higher percentage than women, “attractive” folks at a higher percentage than those deemed “unattractive,” and younger staff routinely make more than their elder contemporaries. We would, of course, never pay an employee more or less based upon any of the above factors and would feel complicit if the earning system we put in place in our businesses allowed other people’s biases to dictate our employees’ rates of pay.

It’s time for a change. We want to disassociate the idea of servitude with what it means to be a server in our restaurants. The messaging is subtle, but our employees don’t work for our patrons. Rather we work together to create meaningful experiences for our guests. We don’t believe the proper way to motivate or incentivize service staff is to allow for and support a power dynamic between them and the customer. Our service standards are very high—Heather would have it no other way—and the team members we attract are those people that view hospitality, and caring for others, through the lens of dignity and reverence that the vocation deserves.

Restaurant Olivia. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

So how does a high-end, 40-seat restaurant do our part to reverse decades of inequality and inspire a new generation of hospitality professionals while fighting to survive through our first year amid a global pandemic?

In January, when we opened Restaurant Olivia, we instituted a 3 percent livable wage surcharge on every check so that we could pay our kitchen staff a more equitable wage relative to what our front-of-house employees earn. The reactions from our guests were as varied as you might expect: Some applauded our efforts, others were curious and inquisitive but not forthcoming with their opinions. Many didn’t notice.  A few were incensed, asserting that we were lining our “already fattened pockets” while they subsidized the wages of our “underpaid” staff.

By June, the world had changed. As we struggled with the new reality of COVID-related closures, reduced seating capacities, supply chain issues, and consumer trepidation, we decided to go further, adopting a hospitality-included pricing model. That meant we would charge our customers whatever amount we needed in order to pay a fair wage to all of our staff—and the “tip” would be included in those prices. I expected the same mixed bag of feedback, from praise to hurtful accusations and everything in between. I was right.

The truth is that I don’t know if we can make a no-tipping system work in Denver. Every accountant, tax attorney, and restaurateur we’ve consulted has warned of inevitable failure; even famed New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer stepped back from a hospitality-included model in July, four years after notably abolishing tipping in his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.

Why do it then?

We don’t do it to make a statement, although that’s what this op-ed is. And in a world where everything seems to break along political lines, we certainly don’t intend to take up residence on either side of the aisle or hurl our opinions like grenades at any opposition. But we are young entrepreneurs and talk often about our desire to help define our generation in food and beverage. I hope we can. I hope to one day leave the industry that I’ve grown to love so much even better than I found it. And I hope that one day Heather’s Olivia, whether she chooses the path of hospitality or not, will see the honor and grace in her mother’s work. I suspect she already does.

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