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The Tipping Point: the arbitrary social convention that’s due for debate in 2014

(Image: Carissa Rogers)

(Image: Carissa Rogers)

Here’s the thing about tipping: it’s messed up. It’s an inconsistent and unreliable source of income for servers, and it’s vulnerable to trickery, theft and mood swings. Perhaps this is why half the countries in the world avoid it, including Japan, Singapore, Australia and most of Europe.

Here in Canada, we tip—at least for now. 2013 brought reams of writing about abandoning it (or, at the very least, reforming it) in favour of a fairer system for all involved. Many managers, servers, diners and commentators are on board, but will 2014 be the year of change? Probably not.

Problems with the current tipping system make frequent headlines in Toronto. There’s the issue of owners taking tips from staff. There’s the issue of restaurants trying to nudge up the expected tip percentage. On top of that, nobody can seem to agree on how to tip properly.

In a recent TEDx talk, Toronto industry vet Bruce McAdams, formerly of the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant empire, systematically explains his theory that tipping is a disaster. It promotes discrimination (attractive servers make more) and causes workplace inequality (cooks rarely get a share of tips). It’s not even an incentive to provide better service, he argues, since studies show that most people tip according to habit.

Anti-tipping lobbyists like McAdams prefer the European model. There, many restaurants charge a service fee on the bill, which helps fund higher salaries for staff. In Ontario, a server’s wage is a measly $8.90 an hour, well below standard minimum wage, and the rest is compensated by tipping—an arbitrary social convention.

Not everyone thinks so. Jen Agg, owner of The Black Hoof on Dundas West, loves the freedom of going out to restaurants and being able to tip for a great night out. “The free market approach leads to better service,” she says. Other methods of compensating staff would come “at the expense of raising prices considerably.”

In the States, backlash against the practice appears to be on the rise. New York Times food critic Pete Wells recently condemned it, and certain restaurants are doing away with it altogether.

The Linkery, a now-closed restaurant from San Diego, ran without tips for years. In an article for Slate, The Linkery’s founder claimed that eliminating tips and instead adding an 18 per cent service charge to each bill—similar to what many European restaurants do—resulted in dramatic improvements to the service and the food. The restaurant was able to distribute money more fairly, which reportedly promoted staff unity.

New York’s Sushi Yasuda also ditched tips in favour of a service charge, as did some other high-end U.S. restaurants, like Per Se and Alinea. Many notable chefs, including Momofuku’s David Chang, have toyed with the idea.

No Toronto restaurants have outright abolished the practice, although some are coming close. Chris Klugman, owner of Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park, isn’t a fan of the standard North American tipping system, so he’s experimenting with a different model. At his restaurant, all staff members are paid a minimum of $11 an hour, and all tips are pooled and shared between waitstaff and the kitchen crew. The results have been mixed.

“We have a very loyal staff,” he says. “It helps bridge the gap between the front and back of house.”

Still, Klugman has some kinks to work out. He finds it difficult to attract experienced servers because they’re so used to raking in huge tips. And since the tips at Paintbox are shared according to hours worked, there’s less incentive for employees to finish their work quickly. Ideally, he’d like to emulate the European model, but including a service fee would make it impossible for his restaurant to maintain competitive prices.

He admits that it’s a challenge trying to adopt a different system when everyone else uses the standard model.

“It would be great if there was a universal change,” he says.

We’re not holding our breath.

Should tipping be abolished in Toronto restaurants?

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  • Dave

    Say what? Mövenpick/Richtree/Marché has always had a fixed service charge (sometimes unjustified) and no tipping. Does this not meet the author’s definition of “abolished” because the arbitrary tipping model was never there to begin with? It’s certainly not fine dining but would still be considered a restaurant by most definitions.

  • Meritarian

    Performance incentive = win / win. Arbitrary service charge – where’s the server incentive for friendly, timely and attentive service?

  • DcD

    Marche? Really? Sorry, that’s not a restaurant. I assure you, servers aren’t complaining or wanting a change. if you work in a nice restaurant, and are good at what you do, then you can make even $1500 a week, on tips alone. And yes, if you don’t work in a nice restaurant, then you might not do so well. But if you take pride in what you do, and serve for a living, you aren’t working at some dive where people think $2 is a tip. Bad tippers will always exist, but it all evens out in the end. I’d be interested to hear from a server that thinks a service charge is better. No, it doesn’t work in Europe. They all dream of coming to North America where you can actually make some really money in the industry. The one con in the tipping system I see is when service is crap, you still look like the cheap one if you don’t tip. But every system has its flaws……

  • Skippy the Magical Racegoat

    Because the performance incentive is an illusion. It’s been shown over and over that, on average, tipping rates don’t affect service (and vice versa). And with tip pooling, your money doesn’t always go directly to the server anyway.

  • Lara

    New to Toronto, I’d love to hear more about tipping, what is acceptable and what’s frowned on??

  • Mark Shannon

    I’ve never been comfortable with the fact that tips are the expected form of earnings for wait staff and servers. Personally, I have never worked a restaurant job (aside from a brief stint at McDonald’s in my teens), so I admittedly cannot see it from their point of view, nor do I have any grounds on which to empathize. That said, I think servers should be paid fairly (no lower than minimum wage), and should earn their tips, not expect them.

    Automatically placing the service charge on the bill is, in my opinion, a sneaky and deceptive tactic to the diner. In my experience with restaurants that have done this, the service has only ever been on par or worse than restaurants that don’t. Why are diners forced to reward poor performance?

    I don’t have a problem tipping well when the service is enjoyable, but I should not be expected to tip the same when the service is nowhere near acceptable.

  • Halyeskies

    Are you kidding me? People in the service industry already get paid pennies! One relied on their tips to make a decent living!

  • India Mcalister

    I tip out to the rest of the restaurant (4-5%) and still only earn a servers wage (plus tips) still it’s better than what I would earn working retail or at a cafe… Most people tip at least 15%, the only customer’s that have trouble with this are Europeans who are not used to tipping, which is frustrating. Since they might be very demanding customer’s and order a lot of food, and then leave no tip. However, I treat every customer equally and give them whatever they need even if I have a feeling they might not tip.

  • Razorback Andy

    I wonder what the Green Party has to say about this?

  • Ryan Ngovu

    Tipping in general should not be a cause for and ensure great service. Excellent service is taught and instilled and should be present at all times. If more people thought of service as a priority, and tips as the effect of that level of service, we may all be better off. Personally, I’ve seen better service in the States and may be the result of actually caring for customers and clients and keeping the standards very high. I am not suggesting we become a society of complainers but more often than not, I can see that businesses would benefit from customers letting management know of poor service (a short 5-question survey is not one of those ways). It is much easier to say, but caring and training is absolutely paramount to a well-run business. I believe tipping is a great way of letting a server know they have done a good job.

  • monix

    should we as society be working to address that first -fair wage- then, if we choose to, free choice and no public shaming, we can leave a tip for someone when we are impressed or have spare change? Everyone in the service industry is punished when I as a client have a bad day. Doesn’t seem fair…the conversation should be about wages, not tipping.

  • monix

    Sounds like team work…. too bad the client is damned no matter what – either thought of as cheap or out of pocket, and the cook’s helper still gets nothing or very little. ‘ts the spirit…

  • Mrs Simmons

    I get take out only these days except for my occasional trips to my favorite restaurants. I used to eat out 5-6 times a week, but with the social norm of the tip rate mysteriously increasing in the past 20 years (10% before tax when I was a server, then 15 before tax, servers wanting 15 to 20 POST tax, now I recently, these blogs and articles no doubt written by past servers or servers say that they want 20-25 percent POST tax….I’ve even read a server write that if you can’t tip 20 percent post tax, don’t eat out…..hmmm)

    there is no conceivable reason for this rate increase that keeps being shoved in my face…. food prices on the menus have gone up accordingly with inflation, so the tip amount has been rising automatically. it makes no sense. I’m so sick of all the whining and the sob stories about how hard their lives are and how little their minimum wage is. if it is so bad, consider a change in careers, everyone’s life is hard. we all live in the same world after all.

    I hold firm on 13-15 percent pre tax (used to be 15 then I have decreased 1 percent every time I hear a sob story from a server about how hard their job is and how little they get tipped, and how they want more and more. also Ill consider tipping on tax when hell freezes over or when servers pay full taxes on their entire income+tips) for adequate-good service at restaurants I don’t frequent.. haven’t had good service in these places in a long time either. just adequate or barely acceptable and often bad with a strong sense of entitlement on the side. give me a bill with a cute line and a smiley face and expect a fat tip when you’ve done nothing.

    Don’t worry, we eat take out at home and have dinner parties in our homes instead of eating out with friends. so you’ve got 2+ frequent diners out of your restaurants who tip you such a meager amount. I’ll take my money elsewhere.

    If I want to be served my food, the servers at my favorite restaurants are good and appreciate my 15 percent pre tax tip, so I eat there. peaceful and everyone is happy! silly principle I know, but I won’t participate in feeding greed and false sense of entitlement as a cultural norm. More and more people are doing the same thing we are doing.

    I will dine out freely again if they just increase the menu prices(or add a set amount of service charge.) and pay every one in the back fairly. the dishwashers and the cooks, the guy behind a deep fryer, etc I don’t believe at all that the service will be worse this way, it will be more or less the same in well managed places with good servers with the right attitude. if service gets worse, that restaurant won’t do well. they will either fix it or go out of business. DONE. and believe me when I say this, we won’t lose all the restaurants in the city because of it.

    In my travel to asia, I have noticed that service is often much better in countries with no tipping required. What an unusual concept, servers do their job because it’s their job. not one person begged me for more money. go figure.