DINER: Canadian Restaurant Icon Explains Why Our Tipping Model Is Seriously Fucked

Toronto restaurant industry veteran Bruce McAdams recently presented his “Rethink Tipping” talk at TEDxGuelph. In it, he expertly explained why Canada’s $6 billion a year (!) restaurant tipping model is racist, sexist, ageist, unjust, and otherwise so thoroughly messed up as to be completely nonsensical.

PS. The video is 20 minutes long and worth it (and no, the Glowbal Group isn’t mentioned…not even once).

  • Michael Riley

    It’s true that tipping drives the restaurant economy in North America to the point that many operations couldn’t survive without it. Tipping subsidizes wages as restaurants are squeezed by other high costs of doing business, and the human element is lost in the equation. Wages for cooks and chefs have consistently fallen in real dollars in BC and most of Canada, even before factoring in the rising cost of living. Many cooks entering the workforce may not be able to afford to work in thier chosen vocation if there isn’t a correction in this. Conflict between the percieved value to wages of the kitchen and the floor staff has always been common. It’s encouraging to hear of restaurants that are trying to work outside the usual model of compensation sharing. Maybe we’ve reached the tipping point. Thank you for your insights, Mr. McAdam

  • slytom

    I think only two points hold. a) servers who may be less value-grounded than others may partake in discriminatory behavior towards customers, and b) tipping on the value of the meal is illogical. The rest is sooo much up for debate. What does McAdam define as a ‘cook’? The guy that preps the carrots and processes the meat? or the guy that builds the menu…? there is a large scope of practice behind the scenes, and a hell of a lot of personalities that ever restaurant owner has the right to put value on. And guess what? Not all customers are as kind and leveled as McAdam, which means servers get a shit-ear full on a regular – something ‘cooks’ don’t ever need to worry about. A cook with balls (and grace) for that should become a chef, and then, god willing they earn the money that they deserve from the proprietor.

  • nadine

    Wow! men tip better than women, bs. Restaurants are a microcosm of our current global imperialistic system. Restaurants can afford to pay cooks more, especially companies like the Oliver/Bonacini group.

  • Megan Kwan

    If restaurants are a microcosm of our current global imperialistic system, then why is tipping only an issue in North America?

  • Maria

    He forgot to tell that a TIP stands for To Insure Promptness. Therefore, tipping used to be done before, not after the meal. I’ve been a server for a long time and I don’t see why as a guest I have to supplement the waiters wages. Can the restaurant not pay them properly? They pay the cooks, and they can afford to pay the cooks more. Makes no sense.

  • Lindsay

    My my…my blood has not been this boiled in a long time.
    Bruce McAdams and especially Scout Magazine for sharing his dribble– wow.
    First off Bruce, you are not a qualified Ted x`re – you gave a rant. Also, shame on my alma mater (boasting a Commerce school of hospitality) for letting him slither in.
    I have not been a server in 13 years, but I have also been a cook and I can tell you that I felt a lot better as a cook then I ever did as a server. As a cook you have some level of respect. As a server, no matter if you work in low end or high end, people love to mistreat you and you always have to grin and bear it – the whole ‘customer is right’ mentality – there is a lot of demoralizing shit you have to deal with. Plus if you can survive the often volatile and dodgy management, or the crazy hours, spilt shifts, working holidays, and never feeling like an equal – you might be OK.
    Bruce you said you served for 2 years….that’s it eh? And you feel you can speak from their perspective?
    Really …you feel as though as a business man- owning restaurants, that you are suffering ….honestly I think that the truth is you think that you should be making more money as too much (3 billion as you say) easily falls into the hands of the `under-qualified`, or ‘mercenary’ server as you call them? That Your customers feel the pinch to pay tips (15%) on the overall bill and perhaps this affects their total purchasing power? It’s screwing with your ability to pay cooks and keep your business fair? Perhaps you should just run your businesses better? Hire smart. Don’t be so bitter. Keep on top of this constantly changing environment. Great Servers Are Memorable. People come back to your restaurants to see that familiar face, someone who knows their tastes and styles. Personality goes a long way and CAN make YOU a lot of money as an owner. Sometimes the best servers are the `mercenaries`, the ones who are in and out and you can just ride the wave of sales as an owner. Some of the servers, who are lifers, have customers who come back to the restaurant JUST because of them. Ride that wave of success, again – HIRE WELL. Then also treat your staff well, pay them decent wages, be cleverer with your food costs and marketing, don’t hide behind the servers as the downfall of the restaurant industry. Cooks are also not well paid, but they are paid more per hour and often get tip outs, plus they do not have to deal with the front of the house, and that can be a shit show of its own.
    Hell, if you are paying $100 for a bottle of wine and cannot afford the $15 tip, stay at home.
    Agh, my rant is over.

  • HC

    The average mandatory tip out in a restaurant is 7% of the servers sales. Most customers tip between 10-15%. If a customer tips 10% on a $100 bill, the server keeps $3 and gives away $7. The average server works short shifts that are 4 or 5 hours and usually works between 2 and 4 shifts a week and doesn’t take a break. The average cook works 8 hour shifts, gets a free meal each shift with a break to sit and eat, and will typically work 5 days a week. If a cook has gone to school(so many have not) and decided to invest their future in this industry and chosen this as their career path, one would hope they are intelligent enough to be aware of the wages they will make once they have entered the workforce, there shouldn’t be a surprise there. The average server is a current student, probably choosing a different industry for their career path, and is using their small pay cheques and tips to pay for their education. Cooks do respect servers, servers do respect cooks. The back of house does something for the customer the front can’t do and the front does something the back can’t do as well. It is FAR from a perfect industry, but no one is forced to be there. Maybe some people there are making more money then others, but everyone there enters into that work place knowing that. Life is not fair we are all not going to make the same amount of money. It is a hard, cold, transient industry. Tip your server because that person DOES tip out everyone else. If you don’t want to tip 15 dollars on a $100 bottle of wine, then don’t just keep in mind more you spend the more that gets tipped out and the more the more everyone will benefit cooks, dishwashers, hostesses and servers alike.

  • Winestein

    I hate servers. Maybe I’m just saying this because I just woke up from a work nightmare where one of the senior servers decided to turn my two wine fridges into his mise-en-place – the panic of trying to find where he had put all the wine and get it chilled in time for service…and then I woke up. Sweating.
    Money is the root of all evil and that notion is best illustrated in this industry. It turns people into total shits. Servers get a taste for it and they just don’t want to give it up. Can you blame them? Depending on the style of restaurant, there is some serious cash to be made.
    My perfect restaurant will hire only cooks and everyone on staff will rotate through front and back of house. I already went to culinary school and learned that being a cook is pretty much shitty. Long hours, high stress, hot, sweaty, hungry, tired, poor – what have you. So maybe I won’t take a shift in the kitchen. I’ll maintain my current distinction – sommelier – and train my cooks on wine service as they rotate through the schedule.
    The tip structure doesn’t have to change. Chances are, the front-of-house shift will be buying drinks for the kitchen shift that week, but at least everyone gets a taste. I think it’s important for everyone to experience the cash-incentive of a performance-based work environment.
    It might all sound a little bit too idealistic but if I’m going to continue in this industry as a restaurant owner I will NOT have ‘servers’ working at my restaurant. Seriously, ‘professional server’? Maybe in some restaurants the ‘professional’ part is more about knowing the food, the wine, the chef, the integrity behind every component of every dish… Sadly, in most restaurants the ‘professional’ part is more about how to lay it on thick. Candy-coat it so those guests think they are the most important people in the restaurant – for what? – for an extra $5, maybe $10. A server shouldn’t have to ‘kill them with kindness’. If a guest isn’t going to appreciate the experience, they’re not worth the coddling. Besides, for those of us who just want to go out and have a nice relaxing dinner, an overzealous server that sounds more like a used car salesman is just about the worst thing ever. I still tip 30% though. What can I say? I’m a sucker.
    Also – good job Yasser.
    And finally – you think $100 on a bottle of wine is a “splurge”? Oh wow.

  • Jen

    I’ve worked front of house, and as a recent culinary school grad, have started in the kitchen too. Both sides of service are working their butts off. Servers have to deal with the general public, 10% of which are a nightmare. Cooks are working in hot confined quarters, on their feet, for long hours. The average shift I worked as a server was 4-6 hours. I’ve learned that many of the nicer restaurants in town have their cooks working 12+ hour shifts. The worst thing was that the cooks were on “salary”, meaning they were paid for only the first 8 hours of each day. Talk about taking advantage! Pay your young eager prep cook or line cook a $25,000 salary, the equivalent of $8 an hour.

  • Jacob Galbraith

    To those who vehemently disagree:

    6 billion dollars, as per his figures, is a ton of income to be reported to the tax man using exclusively the honour system. The idea that most tipping occurs as a social norm was worth considering, as was his anecdote about the two tables with $50/$100 bottles of wine, respectively. I’m a cook, and have been for the past decade, and I’ve long believed the system to be broken. I too have considered opening my own place and staffing it entirely with cooks to work the fromt and back, but I think ultimately I’ll work out a concept that doesn’t require a proper front of house and do away with tipping in my establishment. As a potential future business owner, the concept of having untraceable revenue is terrifying. I think the best solution is to include the costs of properly compensating staff in the prices, taxes too for that matter, and ask customers to simply come back if they really enjoyed their experience. A returning customer is more valuable to a business than a 10-15% gratuity that benefits an individual, perhaps one of those mercenaries he mentioned.

    I suspect that the people who object to this man’s ideas are people who benefit from the system in place, and that’s fine. It’s a complicated matter that won’t be solved by one man or Internet bickering, but it is an inequitable arrangement, and such things do need fixing.

    Cheers to critical thought.

  • Antonio

    I have never worked a serving job where the average shift was less than 8 hours… and not everyone can eat shit the way we servers do.

    It is that simple… eat shit and get paid for it. Charade over.

  • http://kemilahypnosis.com Kemila

    Tipping is a psychological game. As a consumer, “that I’m supposed to tip” ruins the true spirit of tipping.

  • Hungry Foodie

    I am one of those 15% tippers, with little variation wether service is great or only soso. Being a hungry foodie I tend to frequent restaurants more then I should and I don’t feel comfortable stiffing a server with a lousy tip as I know I will run into him/her again either at the same place or another joint. I always wondered why the industry as a whole couldn’t raise prices across the board 12% and pay the staff better and elimanate tips. It would need to be done industry wide to avoid restaurants being uncompetive.
    It is an eye opener trying to leave a tip in Europe and having the servers feel offended and belittled. Certainly seems like a fairer system there.

  • Julia

    As a customer I have had many issues of poor service. In particular at one of the higher level ‘chain’ restaurants. We had been regulars – so regular that many of the staff could remember what we typically ordered. Two women that would sit and gossip for awhile, eat and drink and tip well – at least 20% on the entire bill. Gradually we were getting poorer and poorer service. It seemed that since we were so easy going and regular that they forgot about us. We would have to remind them that we needed things. Had to go find our own water, etc. It got pretty bad. The very last time we went to the restaurant the ‘#1 requested server’ was waiting on us and he totally forgot us. We did not leave a tip and we haven’t been back either.

  • Organmorgan

    Winestein can afford to tip 30% and thinks nothing of dropping $100 on a bottle of wine. Winestein IS THE MAN!!

  • anon

    Gotta love Australia’s no tipping required system, this way, you truly have unbiased people, that are highly educated and well paid in your dining atmosphere!!

  • Stanley

    He brings up a lot of issues, but no solutions. Let’s all stop tipping and in ten years we’ll have the same service level as Tim Horton’s, and most likely not understand the language of the person serving us.

  • Moi

    Australia: Servers make $15 an hour (no tipping) except from tourists

    Perhaps raise the wage. Restaurant owners take a cut and do nothing.
    Toronto is VERY corrupt for this.
    IF you tip. TIP IN CASH. then you know the Server gets it!
    Thanks

  • jordan

    in response to lindsays comment, i had bruce as one of my professors “let him slither in”? you dont know what you’re talking about he has a vast knowledge of the industry and an excellent professor so dont speak without knowing anything about the guy. Next you say you have some level of respect as a cook? are u kidding me? who is this respect coming from, I am a cook and I dont see any of this respect coming my way. Also you say you have to deal with unbearable customers, what percentage would you say are unbearable? maybe 10% if that? and what do you do when you deal with these customers, you go to the kitchen and yell at the cooks so dont try and tell me we dont deal with it too. Next you comment on how you have to deal with long hours, holidays, etc. You think cooks don’t deal with that? Actually it is much worse for the cooks, the average shift for a server is 5 hours, talk to me when you work for 12+ hours straight barely getting a break. Next you think its just that easy for restaurant owners to simply run there business better? why do you think most restaurants are bankrupt within the first 5 years, because its not that easy, they operate on a very small percentage of profit with a lot of high costs, the number one being employee wages. I agree that personality makes a different and hiring smart servers are important, but unless you have exceptionally high quality service or excptionally low quality service, you wont remember your server at all. What you will remember is the quality of the food which is the reason your their in the first place, so wouldnt it be important to hire high quality cooks and pay them a decent wage? I gotta say i love this comment ” be cleverer with your food costs and marketing” is this a joke? the only way to really lower your food cost is by buying lower quality food in which case your food suffers and customer wont return, or buy unprepared food and prepare it in-house and whos going to be doing this prep? thats right the cooks. Almost at the end now, you say cooks get paid more per hour, actually i believe bruce touched on this point and when you factor in tips they get paid significantly less an hour, and when there is tip sharing involved they get a small portion that really doesnt affect their hourly wage too much. As i mentioned before we DO have to deal with the FOH, not directly of course and yes servers get the worst of it, but the cooks get the worst of your bad mood caused by difficult customers. And last but not least ” if you are paying $100 for a bottle of wine and cannot afford the $15 tip, stay at home” its not that they cant afford the tip, but its ridiculous that you just made more then a cook would in an hour by taking 5 minutes to open a bottle of wine. Thats all i have to say about that

  • Lindsay

    Jordan,
    That’s hilarious – he’s a Professor! I didn’t realize! The fact that he teaches kind of worries me….
    Actually I believe that your comments are true as well. Both of us present different points of view and both scenarios are possible based on the owner, the cooks, the servers etc.
    Cooks can be treated like crap, servers can be jerks and so can cooks, cooks do overall get paid less, cook shifts can suck and I know from personal experience, some restaurant owners do their best, people come back for the food not necessarily service, and food costs can be high no matter what you do – it’s a tough balancing act.

    My rant, was a response to Prof Bruce’s use of the Ted forum to give a very biased rant – simply a presentation from one perspective. It was unfair to the good servers out there– many of whom have worked for him I am sure.

    Knowing that there are truly great servers out there, who treat their cooks well, share tips fairly, take their work seriously, and work hard… my response was fueled by their side.

    - Lindsay

  • JSydneyH

    One of the funniest things I have learned over the years is that salesmen always make more than the production staff. And obviously the restaurant industry is no different. The sales staff (the servers) make more than the producers (the cooks) – why am I not surprised? And I’m not sure it should change.

    The industry holds the servers responsible if a customer stiffs the restaurant by ‘dine and dash’ or undertipping – yet that isn’t presented in Bruce’s analysis of the model. Maybe when the entire industry – cooks, servers, management, owners – shares equally in the risks, they should share equally in the tips.

    The government and courts also hold the servers responsible and accountable for over serving alcohol – yet this isn’t presented in the analysis of the tipping model either. Perhaps this is a case of sharing the liability across the board – servers, cooks, management and owners – because all want to share in the tips.

    Maybe the tipping system is broken; maybe it’s not. As a consumer, I value good service and good food. It all has to go hand in hand. Some of the other commentators suggested they would hire cooks to work the front or even do away with the front. They tried that in the 50′s with the Blue Plate Diners, and that model failed because the costs of providing that level of service was leveled when MacDonalds started doing their thing.

    I’m not sure there is a better model – I respect places that instil a feeling of camaraderie into their staff and insist that the server share a portion of their tips at the end of their shift.