Last week the New York Times ran an article about the no-tipping movement, citing restaurateurs such as Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio, and Andrew Tarlow as pioneers. The piece detailed the many struggles restaurant owners face when upending their business models: rethinking menu pricing, striving for equitable pay between the floor and the kitchen, and keeping check averages and profits strong.
Chef Amanda Cohen, founder of New York City vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy, took to Twitter to respond: “Nice to see @nytfood talk no-tipping. But why continue to erase women from this story? At least 4 do no tipping in NYC & I was the first.” And then: “this reinforces @nytfood the BS notion that there are no female chefs out there. There are plenty, but press always leaves them out.”
We caught up with Amanda to hear all about life without tipping, educating diners, plus why women chefs are left out of the media — and how to represent them better. Read our conversation below.
How long has it been since you eliminated tipping? You were one of the first.
About two years. We reopened Dirt Candy in February of 2015, so since then.
One chef quoted in the NYT article talked about adding more food to a dish to ease the sting of the price tag. Is that something you had to do at Dirt Candy? Did you tweak your menu pricing?
We’ve done everything under the sun to figure it out. We certainly didn’t have the right answers at the beginning — we’re learning them as we go along. We did try to keep our prices down as low as possible. The other thing that we did is, realizing this is a whole new world, it was upon us to educate the consumers. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we could talk to our customer about what’s going on, without it seeming like they’re here at dinner for a lesson.
What’s worked in terms of education? What do people respond to?
We try to slip it in some point in our opening spiel, that yes, our prices do look a little high, but we don’t have any tipping. People can remember that as they’re ordering, to order as you would at a normal restaurant. That’s helped.
What other changes have you seen? A lot of people mentioned ways they’ve tried to cut costs. Have you experimented with that?
I haven’t. Because we opened with it, we’re just figuring out everything with this restaurant and how it works. I have a slightly different problem, which is that, as a vegetarian restaurant, it’s hard to get people to pay for vegetables.
More than anything, we added more staff. We probably don’t make more money because of it, but people expected a level of service and knowing that this was such a unique situation, we didn’t want anybody to have a reason to call us out. We wanted the best service we could have, so we put more people on the floor. We put more people in the kitchen so the food actually came out in a timely manner. We didn’t want anything that went wrong with a diner’s experience to be blamed on the no tipping.
Some people have been transparent that they saw profits slip after the no-tipping implementation. What’s your take on that? Did you experience that, did it correct itself, or do you think it’s avoidable?
I think it’s avoidable, but you have to really want to commit to it. It’s our job at this restaurant to deal with the no-tipping issue, so we keep educating our customers, servers, kitchen, and everybody so they can feel really confident when they’re talking about it. We’ve gone up and down. We started out with the administrative fee, and I think it was a little easier to get our check average to where we wanted it to be. People just ordered, and then they were like, there’s that 20% thing at the end.
But they were also really upset with it. People would be like, why don’t you just include that in the prices? It’s still tipping. Even though technically it’s not — it’s not going to the servers, it’s going into a pool of money we have to pay out to everybody — it was really hard to get people to understand that. So there was a lot more education involved with the admin fee. We got way more negative comments than we would have expected. It wasn’t about the no tipping; it was, why wouldn’t you include this in your prices? Our feeling was always that if we included it in our prices you’re going to think the prices are too high, which is a valid point.
You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Yeah. And then we went to having the tip included, our profits probably did go down a little, but we’re off by like $5 a check, not $25. Again, it’s reminding people we are a no-tipping restaurant. We tried to talk about it as much as possible — I do a lot of interviews and panels, because we want people to understand: your bill is the same at the end. It’s just that the money is divided differently than it would have been. No matter where you think you’re putting that 20% tip, you’re actually spending the same money as you would if we were a tipped restaurant.
What about the front of house and back of house rapport, two years in? Have you noticed a difference in the relationships there?
Everybody gets along, and there’s clearly a more equal pay system here. But I don’t know, because I don’t have another restaurant to compare it to. There isn’t a lot of resentment, which is very nice. I have worked in restaurants where you do feel that resentment when a server is going home with $500 a night and a cook, who’s also worked really hard that night, isn’t going home with nearly that much.
I would think you’re able to attract better talent in the back of the house with more equal pay. Has that been the case?
What we’ve been able to do is actually keep people, both front of house and back of house. We’ve been really lucky with that. We weren’t sure how the servers were going to accept the system, but they’re pretty happy with their guaranteed pay. And in the back of house, we don’t see this huge turnover. People are staying.
Some people mentioned in the article went back to tipping after the no-tipping model didn’t work for them. Did you ever consider that at any point?
Yeah, I’m sure that thought went through my head on a really bad day. But I genuinely do not agree with tipping. I also see two years in the future when minimum wage is going up to $15 an hour, and I wouldn’t have known how to deal with that. If I wasn’t already at this system I don’t know how we could incorporate it. It’s not just your payroll going up, it’s your payroll taxes, your limited liability insurance, your workmans’ comp — there’s huge amounts of money tied up in that minimum wage going up, which I also agree with, but you’ve got to find a way to pay for that. In restaurants margins are so slim; I’ve got to find that money somewhere. This is a system I configure where I’m not actually putting it all on my customers.
This was something that was really hard for people in the article to understand: it’s not a straight 20% increase. Yes, the tipping is a 20% increase, but you have to factor in all the other costs. It actually costs more. It’s much higher than you think it is.
I’m just trying to figure out a way where I’m not burdening my customers with that. Every restaurant, in two years, either they’re going to go to no tipping or prices on the menu are going to be drastically higher. Somehow the customer is paying for this — the restaurant owners aren’t.
I assume over the next two years many people will start to rework their business models to accommodate the minimum wage hikes.
Right. If restaurateurs say, my payroll has gone up this amount, I’ll pass this on to my consumers — well, the tipping is actually going to be higher on top of it. These costs are going up.
You posted on Twitter about the lack of female chefs and restaurateurs in the article. Is this an ongoing pattern you see with publications?
Yes. Most publications. We have been written out of this story. Not all women are involved with every issue, but certainly in this one, you have female chefs in New York City who are doing this. It’s very easy to find them. To not put them in the story, to me, means you’re writing them out of the history.
I’m actually the first one who did this, and I’ve gone through all of these systems: I’ve done the admin fee, I now have tipping included, I’ve done this for close to two years.
At Dirt Candy we really stuck our necks out there for this; it could have broken the restaurant. If you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine, but you have other female chefs who are doing it. Why aren’t you talking to them? There are actually female chefs who are doing this, who are struggling through this as well. For me, not to include them, is bizarre.
If you’re going out of your way to pioneer something and take a risk, it’s a miss not to be included in the story.
It is a miss. I do think if we had failed miserably in the first month, I’m not sure anybody else would have done it. We see this constantly in other media stories, where women are not being interviewed or talked about when they have something to say.
The more you leave women out of these conversations and stories, the less recognition they have. The less recognition they have, the less chances they have to win awards and get Michelin stars or Beard awards. The less people know their names.
It’s not just about promoting a woman for a woman’s sake, these are really easy things you can do that we’re still not doing.
It’s a domino effect. What would you like to see the industry do to bring more female voices to the forefront?
I think you just have to look a little bit harder. We’re out there. You just have to talk to us. A story like this is a perfect opportunity — women are doing it, men are doing it, let’s talk to both sides. I think you have to look a little bit outside the box, but you don’t have to look that hard. Women aren’t hiding; we aren’t cooking in secret in hidden pop-ups that nobody goes to. We’re out there. But maybe our name isn’t the one that pops up first. Go to Google page two when you research.
I’m not asking anybody to make anything up. We’re there. We’re all doing this.
What else do you want people to know about the no-tipping movement?
For as much as we spend time educating customers about it, there is still so much misinformation about the no tipping and why we’re doing it. The goal of this isn’t to steal money from our waiters, it’s to pay everybody a fair wage. If I’m stealing money from my servers, they’re probably going to quit! Why would they work for me?