Many servers say they wait tables because of the tips.
Many servers say they wait tables because of the tips. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

On April 1, when Seattle’s new minimum wage law went into effect, the city’s restaurateurs responded to the increase in labor costs in a variety of ways: Tom Douglas announced he was adding a 2 percent “wage equity surcharge” to diners’ checks. (The next day, after a wave of negative feedback, he nixed the idea.) Ivar’s Salmon House also raised prices in order to pay for an immediate wage increase for all employees to $15 an hour. But the plan also included eliminating tipping (instead, waitstaff will get an 8 percent commission on all sales). While Ivar’s claims servers will make as much as, or more than, they did last year, servers themselves aren’t so sure.

“The numbers don’t totally add up,” an Ivar’s server who wished to remain anonymous and who averages considerably more than 8 percent in tips told me. “Even with $15 an hour, I’m sure I’m going to take a financial hit.”

Ivar’s is, to my knowledge, the only restaurant that’s eliminated tips, and anecdotal evidence indicates that, so far, customers are responding positively to the change. It’s possible that other restaurateurs may follow Ivar’s lead, and it’s also possible that diners will begin tipping less knowing that servers are making a higher hourly wage. But how do Seattle’s tipped servers and bartenders, who make up a large portion of the workforce intended to benefit from these changes, feel about the idea?

“Fifteen dollars an hour with no tips at 40 hours a week? I would have to move,” said one longtime server, who works in Fremont and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “On top of that, I never really work 40 hours a week, as restaurants don’t want to pay overtime or health care.” (It’s worth noting that Ivar’s is a large company that offers its employees, both full- and part-time, health benefits—an exception in the restaurant industry.)

“The bottom line is that I wait tables because of the tips,” Shawn Berner, a server who has worked in the industry for almost 20 years, wrote in an e-mail. “Sure, I love great food, wine, and I like interacting with people, but serving allows me to pursue other interests BECAUSE I earn tips.” Berner added that she’s going back to school in the fall, and because she already has a degree, she doesn’t qualify for financial aid. “If I worked 30 hours a week for $15 an hour [and decreased tips], I would make significantly less money and be unable to further my education.”

Tips are valued because they often constitute a larger portion of a server’s income than his or her hourly wage. “I’ve always had a sense that I had the best gig in the industry, and I’m lucky to have it,” said Sarah Fox, who has more than 15 years of experience as a server. She noted that back-of-house workers—cooks, dishwashers, etc.—aren’t as well compensated. The new minimum wage will most likely help them the most. “I personally have a really hard time with the inequity between front of house and back of house, though I’ve definitely taken advantage of it,” Fox continued, adding that she earns tips that are typically between 20 and 25 percent of bills and was able to put herself through graduate school waiting tables. “But looking at the larger inequity, if we’re raising the minimum wage so that everyone makes a real living wage, and potentially over the long run I see a downward shift in tips, I’m okay with that.

“Outside of the city limits, the average tip percentage goes down, and in other states [with a lower minimum wage], servers are making even less,” Fox continued. “I respect that servers are worried about making less money, but within the larger context of the restaurant industry, we are still operating in a really privileged space.” Fox pointed out that in Washington State, servers make one of the highest minimum wages in the country.

All the servers I’ve spoken with agree that the wages of back-of-house workers—who work long, physically demanding shifts for considerably less money—should rise. But how to make that happen is a point of contention. “I like my money now, and I feel tipped employees like theirs, too,” said the Fremont server. “Leave my hourly the same and bump up the others.”

In order to better compensate their lowest-paid employees, restaurant owners could accept lower profit margins. Instead, they seem to prefer to ask customers to pay more and, potentially, servers to make less.

If the earnings of Seattle servers fall because of a decrease in or the elimination of tipping, restaurant service across the city will likely suffer as workers are expected to do the same amount of work for less pay.

“The service inherent with tipping is a huge part of the industry here and what makes dining out enjoyable,” said Shawn Berner. “I explain the menu, I make suggestions, I describe flavors and textures, and I make sure the kids are fed first. I EARN the tips I receive. I don’t believe that ‘just anyone’ could do it for as long as I have and continue to smile every day.”

“Seattle is a high-maintenance town, food-service-wise,” said Sarah Fox. “They want to talk about where their salmon came from, what kind of hops are in their beer. People will still expect the same standard of service that they had been getting for 20 percent [tip].”

Fox—who is also a historian, editor, and author—said if she starts making less money, she might leave the restaurant industry. “I know a lot of long-term front-of-house people who would make similar decisions,” she said.