Chef Tom Colicchio and then partner Danny Meyer were driving forces in banning smoking in their New York restaurant Gramercy Tavern, long before the idea became law. Both men went on to build their respective empires—Colicchio with Craft and Meyer with Union Square Hospitality and Shake Shack—and now they're each confronting another hot topic in the restaurant industry: tipping. Meyer has said he's eliminating tipping at all his restaurants. Colicchio is experimenting with the concept but says there are real obstacles ahead. Bloomberg "Reserve" columnist Peter Elliot met with Colicchio, a Top Chef mainstay, to discuss the sometimes prickly topic. Comments have been edited and condensed.
You're an activist, chef, celebrity, and you've also got strong feelings about tipping and wages in the restaurant industry.
Tipping actually goes more to running a restaurant organization than activism, although it does dovetail. The tipping debate is new to me. In fact, when Danny Meyer and I opened Gramercy Tavern, we talked about it briefly and both just said, "Well, we're not ready for this yet." We actually took on smoking [in restaurants] instead [as our issue].
So you agreed on smoking, but you have different strategies on tipping?
We come at it from very different places. There are recent studies that the amount of money that someone makes from tips from a gratuity has nothing to do with service. It has more to do with the color of their skin, their accent, their gender, whether they're flirtatious. And my feeling is that I shouldn't allow 100 different people to make a decision on how my employees are compensated, which is what we're doing.
Whereas Danny thinks people always tip a standard percentage?
Right. People need to understand that the majority of the money that servers make comes from tips. It's the majority of their wage. Until the beginning of the year, servers were making $5 an hour. But the national minimum wage for servers is different than minimum wage. In New York now, it's gone up to $7.50. Restaurant groups, not just my group and Danny's group, but people like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, we're trying to make our trade one that is considered professional. And you don't rely on tips if you're a professional. If you're a doctor, someone's not going to tip you.
What went wrong with tipping?
Basically, it just got overly complicated. So my feeling is, let's just do away with minimum wage, differences in tipping structures and taxes, and pay servers [a living wage]. I started it at lunch at Craft. Dinner is another story. That's where they make the majority of their money.
So what's the reluctance?
At Craft, if I were going to pay my servers an hourly wage that is on [a] par with what they're currently making, it would be in the neighborhood of $34 an hour. So back waiters or bussers in the range of $22. They're making a good wage because of tips. Now, we do away with tips. The only way to fund that would be through raising prices. If the average tip is about 20 percent, we still have to raise prices 23 percent, because then you're going to push up wages for everyone else. If I were to do it tomorrow, it puts me at a competitive disadvantage to someone who is just shopping online looking at prices. If everyone does it, then I think we'll see some change.
Is this just a mission among chefs of your standing?
No. I really believe that the younger generation, millennials who are going out to eat, they're used to not leaving tips. If you look at companies like Uber, I love the fact that I can walk out of the car and not worry about a tip. So I think it's going to change, and I think 10 years from now we're going to look back and go, "Oh, God, do you remember when we used to tip?" Just like now we say, "Remember when you used to smoke in a restaurant?"
Let's go back to how people tip.
The argument against not tipping is, "Well, service is going to be terrible," number one. If you believe that service is bad and you decide to give someone a poor tip—keep in mind, now, this is being shared—you're really not affecting that tip pool at all, that one person. If you really want to complain, you have a problem with service, find a manager. Don't wait a couple days and go on Yelp. That doesn't do anything. Go find a manager and complain. I'm not monitoring every single tip. But if I get a letter, we address it.
What does the future hold for you and for Top Chef?
Season 14. But I can't tell you more than that we start taping soon. And for restaurants? We're in a saturated market. These issues, GMOs, tips, wages—these will be the issues that make the winners and the losers.