Tip pools

While surfing the web, I came across an article featuring 10 things a restaurant doesn’t want to tell you.

This little tidbit particularly irked me.

At high-end restaurants such as New York City’s Per Se and Napa Valley’s French Laundry, both owned by chef Thomas Keller, the practice (of tip pooling) is called service compris.

“The 20% service charge is clearly stated on the menu, and it’s equally divided among the staff,” says a spokesperson for both restaurants. Though the tip pool is designed to foster a team environment among staff, for customers it means something else entirely: that your gratuity isn’t specifically rewarding the waiter or sommelier who provided you with exemplary service.”

What bothered me most was the idea that unless your server/sommelier isn’t getting the full “reward” you give them, then you are being somehow cheated.

Then I thought about it, and realized that what really bothered me was the fact that there is clearly no understanding as to what it takes to give a table exemplary service.

Folks, your server and sommelier are able to give you exemplary service because of their support staff.  Food runners, bussers, bartenders, bar backs, back waiters, dish washers, and lets not forget cooks.  For service, particularly at the level of Per Se, it takes a large team.  A team that shows up hours before the restaurant opens to polish silverware and glassware, set the dining room.  A team that busts their butts to make everything relating to your experience as smooth as possible.

To think that the face time with your server is the only component to great service, is a huge disservice to those making the servers look good.

I have worked in restaurants that do and don’t tip out the kitchen.  I don’t know that I would ever take a job again in a restaurant that didn’t tip out the kitchen.  This is not out of my desire for a few extra bucks.  At management level, I’ll never see another tip.  It’s the idea that the people toiling in the kitchen, dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, are contributing to the experience, and should be justly rewarded.

It’s never much.  10 or 20 dollars a week each, usually.  But it’s the gesture, the acknowledgement that everyone contributes.

It’s also in part to help rectify the fact that the front of the house always takes home far more money than the kitchen.  In fine dining, even the busboy takes home more than the cooks.  I often work with servers who take home in one night what I make in a week.  An entry level position requiring minimal training in the front of the house can be worth more money than the lead line cook, someone with years of experience, and often a degree complete with student loans.

Veil’s chef Johnny came from Alinea, a restaurant where the prerequisite to a position in the kitchen is a position as a food runner, which is a low level front of the house job.  He laughs about the fact that he has never made more money in his life.  Even now, and he’s our chef.

So would I work in a kitchen that doesn’t recognize the inequality and at least make some kind of gesture towards the fact?  Not if I can help it.

Should you be miffed that your entire tip doesn’t end up in your servers pocket?  Absolutely not.  And heck, if you really liked your dinner, tip the kitchen directly.  10 dollars will buy the guys a beer, and will honestly make their week.

10 Responses to “Tip pools”

  1. Lane Rosenberry says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I tipped out kitchen works better with the front of the house than a non-tipped kitchen.

  2. Tracy says:

    Wow. I guess I’m naive (and I know I’m lucky in that I’ve always worked in places that tip out to the kitchen) but I canNOT believe there are people dumb and/or vile enough to resent tip-sharing. Seriously. Are these the same people who’ve lost such sight of what they’re getting at a restaurant that they complain about the cost of their meal if it’s something they could make cheaper at home? Dear restaurant customers of the world: If you feel like your server would be getting stiffed by losing a portion of the tip you left, maybe that’s because you didn’t leave enough. Love, Tracy.

    P.S. For less bitchy commentary on tip-sharing (and I will now be listing the above post among my favorites in that category), I really like The Linkery’s “About Our No-Tipping Policy” and their Q & A pages on the subject.

  3. Robert says:


  4. Brett says:

    Dana, between this post and the previous one you wrote on pastry chefs, you’re becoming one of the most articulate spokespeople for explaining the contradictions of our industry. I applaud your clearly articulated viewpoints and encourage you to keep on shining the spotlight on the dilemmas that face the passionate, hardworking back of the house staff.

    I agree with your viewpoint entirely. Every employee of the restaurant, from the dishwasher on up, contributes to the service experience and deserves a portion of the tip pool. Service is a team effort. Unfortunately, in California at least, the law sees things differently. I don’t know how the law is interpreted in your state, but in California tips are officially the property of the server who receives them, not the restaurant. Legally, restaurants cannot dictate a policy mandating or even suggesting how the server distributes those tips with other restaurant staff. Granted, many restaurants thankfully ignore this law and encourage servers to share a small portion of their tips with cooks and dishwashers. Unfortunately, the government (I forget which branch oversees this) is cracking down on restaurants that do this.

    The only way around the law is to do what the Laundry, Chez Panisse, Coi and a few other Bay Area restaurants do. They tack on a “service charge” of 18-20%. Service charges are legally different from tips. They become the property of the restaurant. The management can then distribute the tips in a more equitable manner. It’s kind of a bummer that it has to be done this way, because it leaves open the possibility of abuse from greedy owners. But, so long as the process is open and transparent and their is some oversight, it can work. Some San Francisco restaurants are adding smaller service charges to help cover the cost of the newly mandated benefits for restaurant workers. But that’s another more complicated issue and I’ve gone on long enough. Keep on writing your excellent behind-the-scenes viewpoints!

  5. Sheng says:

    Point well taken. In regard to your last point, how do you tip the kitchen directly?

  6. dana says:

    Sheng- Ask your server to deliver a tip directly to the kitchen in cash, or if they give you a tour of the kitchen, “palm” someone like the sous chef/lead cook. This is the act of hiding the bill in your palm and shaking hands with one of the cooks/chef. It will get shared, no doubt.

    Brett- Thanks, and this talk of mandated benefits is news to me. Do they simply have to offer benefits at a cost to the employee, pay half, or pay the full amount?

    I hate the idea of tacking a service charge onto the end of the bill. To me things like this should be absorbed in the over all cost of the menu. It’s like the fuel surcharge I now see on all my delivery invoices. 3 dollars per delivery. I would rather see it absorbed blindly than feel nickle and dimed to death.

  7. Max says:

    I’d be curious to find out why instead of having a service charge as a different line item, why isn’t the cost of service built in the cost of the goods?

  8. dana says:

    Max- I wonder the same things as well. It seems that the restaurant absorbs costs like these and transfers them to you in the price of your dining experience. My only thought on this is that until all restaurants do this, those few that start the trend will simply be seen as having bloated prices by the public.

    It’s much like the 2 to 4 dollar fuel surcharge tacked on to almost every delivery that comes in the restaurant now days. When we shop for purveyors by the lowest price on dairy, meat, or what have you they can keep the cost to appear lower, retain our business, and then make up their own cost with the surcharge.

  9. Cameron says:

    I am a sommelier and recently had to decline what would have been a dream job in California! This was a brand new resort/ high end restaurant on the beach. I was offered a good hourly rate and a full server’s cut in the tip pool. This practice is done at most Las Vegas restaurants. The problem was the job title Supervisor/Sommelier. In California they can not force a line employee to let a supervisor share in the tip pool. So since I could not be guaranteed my full cut let alone any tips at all, I am still employed in Las Vegas. I’m sorry California, but I could not move my family to a much higher cost of living, to only make $16 dollars an hour! The restaurant was a michelin starred amazing eatery, but did have a need for the som to do some supervisory duties.

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