Nosh Pit

Is tipless merely a trend, or dining-out’s future?

Nick Dedier, co-owner of Aji Japanese Bistro, briefs servers Hillary Jennings, left and Mandy Lee one night last year. He says tips can be incentive for servers to up their game.
Nick Dedier, co-owner of Aji Japanese Bistro, briefs servers Hillary Jennings, left and Mandy Lee one night last year. He says tips can be incentive for servers to up their game.

The rant from Mr. Pink in the 1992 flick “Reservoir Dogs” was delivered like a salvo against the service industry:

“... This tipping automatically, it’s for the birds,” said Mr. Pink (played by Steve Buscemi) before paying a breakfast tab with his gangster crew. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.”

Back then, Pink’s words seemed like a penny-pincher’s rationale. But fast-forward two decades, and a tipless restaurant world that Mr. Pink craved looks closer to becoming a reality.

A movement around Northern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area in particular, is shifting away from the time-honored practice of tipping servers to simply adding a service charge to the bill. Gratuity has long been included in the bill at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Yountville’s The French Laundry, and recently become the norm at such Bay Area restaurants as Comal and Trou Normand. In Sacramento, The Kitchen has traditionally tacked on a service charge in lieu of tipping.

And now, the seasoned restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle has added his 2 cents on the matter. In a Feb. 17 editorial for the Chronicle, Michael Bauer opined that surcharges and service fees should become the new normal.

“Restaurants are at the forefront of coming up with a new paradigm,” wrote Bauer. “Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.”

The move toward tipless restaurants is fueled by increasing minimum wages in California, as well as an attempt to level the playing field of earnings between front-of-house service staff and kitchen workers, and other economic factors. But eliminating tipping remains a tricky issue, complicated by tax burdens that can be created when restaurants use mandatory gratuities, not to mention customer habits and preferences.

Gilbert Lagunas has mixed feelings on this tipping point. He worked as a waiter for more than 30 years, serving tables in such cities as Sacramento, Napa and New York City. Lagunas now runs a consulting and training service, First Class Service, which schools restaurant staff in the finer points of waiter decorum.

Lagunas also knows the disparity between what servers can take home and what line cooks earn back in the kitchen, working for minimum wage or not much more. Lagunas says he’s pocketed upward of $1,000 a day because of tips, but believes gratuities should always be earned, not expected. He believes a good server will thrive no matter what system is used.

For him, it all comes down to training, and ultimately, the service that’s offered.

“Some waiters see someone coming through the door and think, ‘I’ve got 20 percent coming my way,’” Lagunas said. “There’s a lot of people getting into the job thinking anyone can do it.”

But if Nick Dedier had his way, he’d keep the current system in place and the tips on the table.

Before opening Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills, Dedier had worked restaurants ranging from Applebee’s to Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, where all tips were pooled. He says those gratuities were not just the benefits of handling the grind of a dinner rush, but incentive to keep elevating his game as a server.

“I think people go above and beyond (as a server) because of that carrot on the stick,” Dedier said. “That’s the initial draw to get people working in restaurants and be able to support their families. They see the more hospitable and service-oriented they are, the happier their guests and work environment are.”

Dedier can sense a change coming in tipping policies and wonders how restaurants will adjust. Some no-tip restaurants have raised menu prices to pay employees a higher hourly wage. But any changes can mean alienating customers.

“It’s scary,” Dedier said. “It’s a new frontier, and it will change the labor pool, for better or for worse.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.