Portrait of Alethia Mariotta of Vinya

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Alethia Mariotta, and covers her decision to eliminate tipping in her restaurants.

What my husband, Max, and I love about our restaurant Vinya is the intimacy.

The space gives us the ability for our front of house and back of house staff to interact directly with the guests. The server and the chef are both visible. The chef is talking to the guest directly and serving the meal.

Like many restaurants, we recognized the inequality happening between front of house and back of house staff. We wanted to level the playing field.

Guests enjoy the coziness, that they can talk to the chef about their meal. This is what made Vinya a great testing ground for the no-tipping concept — we thought.

Max is a Swiss national, and we lived in Switzerland for seven years before we moved back to the states and opened Vinya in 2015. Max was trained from age 14 to be a chef, restaurateur, and wine expert. And in Switzerland the tip is not customary. But a service charge is.

Like many restaurants, we recognized the inequality happening between front of house and back of house staff. We wanted to level the playing field. And we firmly believe in hospitality included, the movement to eliminate tipping in restaurants to create a more equitable payment structure inside restaurants.

So we eliminated tipping in favor of a surcharge and higher rate of pay. The staff welcomed it. The guests were confused, called it un-American. Six months later, we brought back tips.

Recognizing the value that each and every team member brings to the guest experience is what hospitality-included means to us. Everyone brings their skills to the table and, in the restaurant industry, pay shouldn’t create wide disparity. People should be paid with less disparity. The kitchen doesn’t work without servers and servers without the kitchen.

Consider the line cook. If servers are walking away with $300 in tips that night and the line cook is paid $12 or $13 an hour, it’s not fair. Both the server and the cook worked hard to deliver a memorable guest experience.

The economics were pretty straightforward for us. We factored in 15-18% gratuity into the base cost of making the dish. We don’t know anyone that leaves less than 15% when going out, and of course, if people wanted to leave a couple dollars on top they were free to do so.

Restaurant staff management just got easier, employee turnover just became a thing of the past.

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But it immediately threw our guests off. They were confused. They were unhappy. Some thought we were taking something away from our servers.

That allowed us to increase the pay for the kitchen and have them share that gratuity. We increased the hourly rate for the kitchen and gave a flat hourly rate for the servers based on this. This was rightly created through higher prices for the meals and full disclosure on the menu.

We didn’t face a staff revolt like some other restaurants have reported. Many don’t realize but for restaurant staff, when they’re not working on commissions or tips, credit can be easier to access. A mortgage, for instance, might be more accessible. That’s just the way our credit system works. We were proud to create a more stable pay structure.

Without a critical mass of restaurants making this shift, the change became a distraction.

But it immediately threw our guests off. They were confused. They were unhappy. Some thought we were taking something away from our servers. Guests openly complained saying it wasn’t fair, that they always tipped and it was the American way.

We had to roll it back. We believed in hospitality included, but we were one restaurant trying to make a big, cultural change surrounded by others that were sticking with tips. Without a critical mass of restaurants making this shift, the change became a distraction. You don’t want to get into a heated discussion with your guests before they even order their drink.

We still believe in the movement.

Our vision is to welcome guests into our community and family when they walk through Vinya’s door. We couldn’t provide that atmosphere if our removal of tips sparked indignation the moment you sat down.

Tipping is more than a form of payment. It’s become ingrained in our culture. But it needs to be revamped because fairness is what’s truly American. Until the movement gains steam, though, we’ve gone back to tipping. And we’ll wait for the opportunity to make a change our staff and guests can both get behind.

Written by
Alethia and her husband Max own and operate restaurants in Providence, RI. A firm belief in equity in the restaurant for the staff and guests are what drives her.
  • AssociateProfessor

    Why not pool tips? I have known many local restaurants to put all tips in a single jar and then split it among all staff. That’s fair and not off-putting.

    • CrystalBase

      They said it right in the article. A higher normal wage helps the employee get loans and mortgage lending. Tips aren’t considered stable enough to do that. The customers are just being persnickety about not having control of the wait staff through tips.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    I am unclear as to the disparity between front and back pay. The quality restaurant employees I have had the pleasure of knowing, always tipped the back of the house out of the tips they received, specifically for that reason – they all contribute to the experience. Did your staff not practice this? Other restaurants pool the tips and divide them amongst all the staff. The idea of a surcharge is a bit offputting, I must admit. I realize tipping is not practiced in Europe, but was not aware of forced surcharges. I just assumed it was all part of the price for the meal.