All of Danny Meyer’s USHG Restaurants to Eliminate Tipping — Starting With The Modern in November, and Maialino Today
“We are making a bold decision for our team and our guests, and we don’t take this lightly. We encourage you to share your thoughts and feedback at HospitalityIncluded@ushgnyc.com. We remain more committed than ever to our promise of delivering excellent dining experiences with warm hospitality — and we hope that you will both support our team and join us on this journey. With gratitude,”
We hope every restaurant cook in America sent Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG)’s Danny Meyer a Valentine this month.
By announcing its plans to gradually eliminate tipping at all 13 of its New York restaurants this year, USHG is taking a big leap forward toward making cooks’ wages more equitable and competitive.
That’s especially true if the rest of the restaurant industry plays “follow the leader” and follows suit — and it’s clear that the entire country is watching to see how this rolls out, as we saw underscored during a December trip to Boston when we woke up to read in the Boston Globe that “Rethinking Tipping” had been named the “Most Promising Trend” in the newspaper’s annual restaurant awards.
Most promising trend: Rethinking tipping
In October, influential New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer announced he would eliminate tipping in all 13 restaurants of his Union Square Hospitality Group. Many in the restaurant industry nationwide are exploring similar measures. Locally, Select Oyster Bar opened with a 20 percent gratuity included. Yvonne’s implemented a 3 percent “kitchen appreciation charge” to address disparity in earnings between the front and back of the house. Restaurants like Tasting Counter and Journeyman include the tip in the purchase price of a ticket to dinner. Finding a way to ensure fair and equitable wages for all restaurant workers is, and may always be, a work in progress. We are headed in the right direction.
—Devra First, Boston Globe (December 8, 2015)
We were curious about USHG’s bold plans, so we were very happy to have been invited to a roundtable discussion with Meyer and several key members of his team (including Dino Lavorini, Erin Moran, and Sabato Sagaria, MS) held for long-time customers and friends of The Modern in its private dining room in November. Called “Hospitality Included,” this approach is rooted in the kind of people Meyer had told us during an interview for our 1998 book DINING OUT that he hired for all his restaurants: 1) extremely nice, 2) intelligent, 3) infused with an extraordinary work ethic, 4) empathetic, and 5) emotionally self-aware.
That commitment to professionalism and taking care of people – as opposed to other restaurants where front-of-the-house staff counts its success by the size of the wad of cash it takes home at the end of the night – is the key. USHG front-of-the-house staff members see the value in being able to pay those hard-working cooks in the back-of-the-house a bit more, not to mention evening out their pay cycle by getting a steady paycheck week in and week out – regardless of snow, sleet, rain, or hail and its effect on business.
As chroniclers of the restaurant scene, we’ve long been aware of the low wages paid for such physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding work. (In fact, it’s why we lobbied to have our first book BECOMING A CHEF come out in paperback instead of hardcover – it was the only way to keep its cover price under $30, so it would be more accessible to restaurant cooks then earning less than $10 an hour. Even so, Barnes & Noble told us that in addition to being a runaway bestseller, it was also one of their most-often pinched books from their cookbook shelves in the late 1990s.)
But until Meyer’s roundtable, we hadn’t realized just how bleak the numbers had become in 2015: Cooks’ wages had risen by only a few dollars per hour over the past 20 years, while waiters could earn two to four times that hourly rate. This led to more Culinary Institute of America grads (especially those student-loan laden) choosing to work in the front of the house of certain USHG restaurants than in its kitchens. Given a tangle of legal restrictions on compensating restaurant employees, the only way to right the pay scales involved eliminating tipping. Thus, “Hospitality Included” was born.
Both of us started working in restaurants in our teens (with Andrew continuing into his 30s), and tend to be 20-25%-plus tippers for good to great service. So it was definitely a new experience to dine at The Modern the night of November 23rd and not have any way, other than completing a comment card, to express our appreciation for the extraordinary hospitality we’d received during an equally extraordinary dinner prepared by Chef Abram Bissell, with wines curated by wine director Michael Engelmann, MS. (We’d already been tipped off by restaurateur Barbara Lazaroff a few days earlier in no uncertain terms just how impressive she’d found her last dinner there.)
We returned to The Modern a few weeks later as walk-ins without a reservation, and were virtually positive we were not recognized. The bar was busy, but we lucked out and managed to nab the last two seats at the end of it. It being the holidays, we found the restaurant’s offering of risotto with white truffles at cost ($40) an irresistible steal — and were eager to re-taste the fall squash soup with porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and farro we’d loved so much on our last visit, with a couple of glasses of wine. While Sean was busily mixing cocktails non-stop, Dara stepped in and made sure our order was taken and that we felt taken care of.
Several sips into it, one of us was embarrassed to have knocked over our glass of wine, which splashed all over our end of the bar. Without missing a beat, Killian — who’d just recently moved to Manhattan from Great Britain — not only removed all traces of the mishap, but replaced it with both a second glass of wine and compassionate friendly banter that erased all embarrassment. #HospitalityIncluded indeed.
Today, Maialino entered into the no-tipping fray. Despite a packed dining room — which boasted our fellow food-loving Acting Company supporter actor Kevin Kline in one corner, and “Glee”‘s Chris Colfer in another — the staff was on it, explaining the new policy with the same detail it was able to describe each element of the dishes they were serving. Mark (pictured above) took especially good care of us, with characteristic USHG warmth. When we ordered an extra spoon for our minestrone, he went the extra step of having the kitchen split it into two bowls as well, each with a generous serving. He also painstakingly answered our questions about our tonnarelli pasta’s texture.
We asked Mark what he thought of the new #HospitalityIncluded policy, and he explained that he — like many of his colleagues — were restaurant professionals, and that he saw it as a positive step for the restaurant business. When we shared how tough it was for us not to have a way to show our appreciation, he smiled: “Come back sooner.”
Before we left, Mark tipped us off to the existence of destination-worthy ricotta pancakes with kumquat and maple syrup ($18, #HospitalityIncluded) on Maialino’s breakfast menu. So we just might be back sooner than anyone might imagine.
Union Square Hospitality Group has more information about its new no-tipping “Hospitality Included” initiative on its website at ushgnyc.com/hospitalityincluded.
The Modern is at the Museum of Modern Art at 9 West 53rd Street (bet. Fifth and Sixth Avenues). 212.333.1220.
Maialino is at the Gramercy Park Hotel at 2 Lexington Avenue (at 21st Street). 212.777.2410.