Donatella Arpaia: Service will suffer if we get rid of tipping

Donatella Arpaia TODAY
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia talks to Savannah Guthrie about why she disagrees with abolishing tipping.

Should restaurants pay wait staff a living wage so they don’t have to depend on tips? It’s a debate that’s been raging over the last several months.

High-end restaurants like California’s Chez Panisse and The French Laundry follow the tip-free European style of service, and recently, Sushi Yasuda, a Japanese restaurant in New York City, did the same. But they are anomalies in an industry that pays service people much less than minimum wage, making them dependent on tips from customers.

In a June survey, 57 percent of respondents said tipping should be abolished in American restaurants. But those who disagree worry that ending the tipping system will decrease the level of service customers receive.

“This is a culture where we’re known for our service and we’re incentivized by this form of service,” said celebrity chef and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, who owns a handful of restaurants in New York City. “I don’t know, but I grew up spending my summers in Europe, where it’s based on this type of policy that they’re working on, and the service is not as good as in America.”

But Saru Jayaraman of Restaurants Opportunities Center United, an organization pushing for a living wage system, said, “People who put food on our tables cannot afford to eat themselves.”

A recent study by Cornell University found that tipping doesn’t necessarily lead to better service, but studies have also shown that all-inclusive restaurants that build service costs into the menus are perceived as being higher-priced, Mike Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, told in a previous interview.

“It’s true even with 20 percent tippers, even though the all-inclusive restaurant would have been cheaper for them,” Lynn said. “Diners don’t like being forced to do anything.”

Arpaia said that even waitstaff in her restaurants prefer the tipping system — unless they are serving Europeans.

“When Europeans come here they don’t tip, because it’s ingrained in their culture not to tip,” she explained. “That’s why my servers say, ‘There’s Europeans here, can we add a tip?’ And I have to tell them, no, we can’t. It’s a very complicated issue.”

Arpaia added that although the all-inclusive system is "justified" at higher-end restaurants, "where [servers are] more professionals and they want stability in this very unstable economy," her waitstaff "wouldn’t want to see tips going away, because a lot of them are in it for the hunt, and I think that it is definitely part of our culture."

Read more about the pros and cons of abolishing tipping. 


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