One night years ago in Amsterdam, some friends and I had an epic dinner -- creative food and excellent wine, served by a smart, enthusiastic woman. When the bill came, we knew tipping wasn't the norm in the Netherlands, but we felt compelled to leave something, to show our appreciation. When our server saw the extra cash, she looked irritated, even hurt. "What is this?" she said, throwing it back on the table.
"We're American," stammered my friend.
"That's the only way we have of showing you we like you," I added.
Which is sad, when you think about it. I've worked in restaurants and bars in the U.S. and abroad, but I've never loved the transactional nature of American tipping. Nor do I like how it empowers jerks to use it as a punitive measure. I tip like crazy, but I also feel obliged to be nice to waiters and waitresses. It's a joint effort — isn't dinner better when everyone is happy to be there, well-paid and well-fed?
Beyond these touchy-feely concerns, tipping is part of a larger problem of price transparency in America. We're encouraged to consume based on price alone, disregarding labor and other costs. Yet the price we see is rarely the price we pay: sales tax, tips, that sneaky .99 price ending. Even our paychecks are lower than we expect, after withholding. (In the Netherlands, people quote salaries after taxes — mind-blowing, right?)
Danny Meyers's proposal to eliminate tipping at his restaurants is a small step toward easing Americans' chronic sticker shock. More important, he'll be paying servers a respectable wage and raising menu prices to reflect that. The only problem is I'll have to find another way to tell waiters how great they are.
Zora O'Neill writes about travel and food for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
Andre Spicer: The worst part of dining experience
For a European, eating in an American restaurant is akin to attending a high school reunion.
The prospect is always really exciting but in actuality it's all right.
First, you have to deal with waiters who insist on becoming your new best friend. They want to tell you their name, their opinions on the entire menu and even their life story. Next, you have to choose from a menu with so many options that it would make a math professor's head spin.
When the dish arrives, you are faced with so much food that it could easily feed a medium-sized family. After working your way through this food mountain, you are faced with the worst part of the whole experience -- tipping.
Your average European sees tipping as an utter anathema. Why not just include it in the bill to start with? Tipping is even more awful because it draws attention to money. Paying for something is like going to the bathroom -- best done quickly and discreetly.
However, tipping turns the whole process into a drawn-out ordeal where money is at the center stage. There are so many opportunities for embarrassment. What if you don't give them enough, or too much, or don't say the right thing?
In some places you know tipping is preferred in cash. I had always wondered why Americans insist on using dollar bills when small notes had been long abandoned in most other advanced countries. One day it occurred to me -- dollar bills mean people can feel their pockets are stuffed with cash.
Andre Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London.
John Winterman: Tipping culture won't go away
Being in an industry with high rents, high cost of goods, and slim profit margins, I am a firm believer in the current tipping culture in America.
Almost everyone in the restaurant business would like to pay their staff more, whether through benefits, bonuses, profit-sharing, stock options or real wages. The reality can be very different. Seemingly small decisions on a daily basis hit hard and fast when multiplied out over X number of employees with X number of shifts and X shifts per year.
Some people say if restaurants in Europe don't tip why do we do it? I don't want to compare apples with oranges. Our system is different. You would really have to compare factors such as payroll, labor costs, rents, taxes, costs of goods, hours of operations, holidays, employee benefits, even preferred habits and dining times.
Unfortunately, some people think restaurants are just sitting on large pools of money. In reality, most of the revenue that comes in is already spent. Investors want money back. Suddenly there is a crisis in the lime or avocado markets. Or fuel costs go up. As British celebrity chef Marco Pierre White says -- we are not magicians. We don't pull a rabbit out of a hat.
To change a system you can't just cut a branch, you have to cut the tree -- down to the root. Then you have to dig the root up and replant. Otherwise, there will be no real change.
If there is a better business model, I'll be intrigued to see how the new math works out and how a business can thrive. Until someone can show a truly better way to manage our industry's economics, I don't anticipate a seismic shift in how restaurants are run.
John Winterman is managing partner at Bâtard, a fine-dining restaurant in Tribeca, New York.
Kat Kinsman: Servers deserve fair wage
Whenever I write about tipping, I find that there are always people who argue they didn't believe that they should have to subsidize a server's life or a restaurant's bottom line by giving a tip at the end of a meal.
My argument has always been: Well, why should these people have to subsidize your night out, often to the detriment of their own family's welfare, health and emotional well-being?
Danny Meyer is doing the right thing by eliminating tipping. Eating out costs what it costs and workers aren't some sort of alien species who have infiltrated our culture. They're hardworking humans who deserve the stability of a wage and not have to be subjected to the whims, prejudices and sobriety levels of their customers. It may take a while to catch on, but we'll get there and it'll become the norm.
And since Pete Wells, dining critic of the New York Times is with me at a food-related event, he adds that while tipping subsidizes restaurants, one side benefit may be that small restaurant owners are getting a chance to make a go of it. But ideally, we should have a system where higher restaurant prices result in a fair and competitive wage for workers.
Kat Kinsman, formerly managing editor of CNN's Eatocracy, is editor at large at Tasting Table.
Mel Robbins: Danny Meyer's 'tipping point'
I applaud Danny Meyer's bravery to shake up the restaurant industry. If anyone can make this work, it's Meyer. Winning an unprecedented 26 James Beard awards, he is revered as a visionary.
Disparity between the front and the back of the house has always been an issue. I can attest to this as far back as the late 1980s when I worked my way from being a busser to a hostess to a waitress and finally a bartender during college. Restaurant compensation models haven't changed much since then. Front of the house might display the finesse with the customer, but without the line cooks who bring technical skills to the team, there would be no food to serve.
The new model could work in Meyer's restaurants because he draws a particular type of clientele who are there for a high-end experience. And he clearly trusts his employees and his customers and wants to take care of them both. If his clientele pays $40 for a steak now, they can probably absorb a $50 price tag. The real question is how it would affect the industry.
But the fact is that the math is not that simple. If restauranteurs charge more for meals, they'll pay higher in taxes. As restaurants move to higher wages, the benefit costs will be higher, too. As transportation and food costs rise, so does the cost of doing business, which are normally reflected in higher costs on the menu. I'm sure Meyer's latest move will be a winner, let's just hope isn't a recipe for disaster for smaller restaurants.
Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards.
Edward Frame: Unequal power dynamics
I earned almost six figures waiting tables at a three Michelin star restaurant in 2012 — more than 80% of the American population
that year. But even at what was considered the 10th-best restaurant in the world, guests would sometimes ask a question that almost anyone who works for tips has been asked before: "So, what do you really want to do?" People simply assumed that my job was transient and unskilled.
Tipping normalizes this assumption. It encourages people to think of service like a perk — something extra — and not a career for millions of individuals, many of whom are compensated far less handsomely than I was. It establishes an unequal power dynamic between guests and waiters, blurring the distinction between service and servitude.
Danny Meyer's decision to phase out tipping at his restaurants will help clarify this distinction in the popular imagination. Waiting tables is hard, stressful work; sometimes it can be incredibly rewarding. For many servers, however, the job isn't what some guests imagine it to be: a part-time gig for folks who can't do anything better.
Edward Frame, a writer living in New York, works at The New School.
Cicely Simpson: Let restaurants decide
America's restaurants are feeding our nation's economy and providing real pathways to success for over 14 million Americans. We celebrate the men and women who own and operate our nation's restaurants and our workforce that keeps the industry thriving.
We've found that the practice of tipping has traditionally attracted millions of employees to our industry. The current tipped model still has strong support from American diners and they are more than happy to promote a spirit of hospitality by rewarding good service. One national survey indicates that 65% of consumers asked said they would keep with the current tipping system.
It is unfortunate that the tipped model is often misunderstood. No one in the restaurant industry makes a "subminimum wage." If an employee's tips plus their cash wages don't add up to at least the minimum wage, their employer is responsible for bringing the employee up to the required minimum.
With over 1 million restaurants nationwide, the restaurant industry is filled with unique business models, ownerships and varying concepts. It is vital that restaurants continue to have the freedom to choose what works best for their business and their employees.
Cicely Simpson is executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association.