Should A Service Charge Be Included at Restaurants So That Servers Can Have Benefits?

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

In a New York Times op-ed piece Phoebe Damrosch, the author of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, and also a former server at Per Se, poses the following question: "How can restaurants attract more professional, committed and inspired workers and how can they persuade current waiters to be proud of their work?"

Her answer: restaurants in America should consider switching to the European system of servis compris (service being included in the check).

The result, Damrosch argues would be the following:

  • Restaurateurs could pay servers a steady, consistent wage and perhaps even provide their servers with a benefits package that would include health insurance.
  • Servers would feel better about their profession and their lot in life in general.
  • Happier servers would provide better service, so serious eaters would have a better time when they eat out.

Some restaurateurs like New York's Danny Meyer (Union Square Cafe, Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, and more) have already figured out a way to provide health insurance for its employees without adding a service fee to every check. I called him to see what he thought of the ideas that Phoebe Damrosch espoused.

His answers, after the jump.

Danny Meyer had not read Damrosch's piece, so it was left up to me to summarize it. His first thoughts:

To me, these issues are completely separate. We do offer health care benefits to the people who work at the Union Square Hospitality Group. But for us, providing health care to the people who work for us is a choice we make as restaurateurs. It's just like any of the other choices we make, like having flowers in our restaurants or art on the walls. Every choice we make involving expenditures has consequences for us as business people, and obviously for our employees as well. Our offering health care benefits to our employees is a philosophical choice that we have made.

As far as imposing a service charge at his restaurants, Meyer had this to say:

We looked very hard at this [servis compris] policy fifteen years ago. We were going to call it "hospitality included." We felt people who worked in the dining room were apologizing for being hospitality professional. I felt there was a resulting shame or lack of pride in their work. My assumption was that it was fueled by the tipping system, and I was troubled by the sense that the that tipping system takes a big part of the compensation decision out of the employer's hands. So we brought up the "hospitality included" idea to our people. To our surprise, it turned out the staff actually enjoyed working for tips.

Meyer also mentioned another important issue: Restaurateurs would have to pass the attendant cost to their customers. To diners who already suffer sticker shock at many restaurants, some prices might become too high to accept.

Phoebe Damrosch's piece was thoughtful, well-reasoned, and elegantly written—but the issues she was trying to confront are complicated and don't lend themselves to easy answers.

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