What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome to Episode 249 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Eric Kozlik. Thanks for joining me for this audio essay episode, where we select one very specific topic in the realm of spirits, cocktails, and hospitality, and place it under the microscope for rigorous examination.
This time around, I’m gonna do my best to break down a news item from my neck of the woods, Washington, DC, and use it as a bit of a case study to figure out a BETTER way to have public discussions about how to support our friends in the service industry – the bartenders, cooks, and front-of-house staff that make our experience dining and drinking out so enjoyable.
Over the past several years, there have been a couple different attempts, in our nation’s capital, to overhaul the standard American tipped minimum wage model of paying front-of-house staff for their services. The initial attempt in 2018 was ultimately unsuccessful, but in our recent 2022 election, things went differently, and now there are some serious changes in store for bars and restaurants in Washington, DC.
I think the larger experience of dining and drinking out is important to think about because, yeah, this is a podcast largely about home bartending, but so much of making great drinks at home is informed by what we see and enjoy when we’re visiting our favorite bars and restaurants. And whether you happen to live in a place with a big, vibrant bar scene, or one where great drinks are a bit harder to come by, it’s useful to think about how certain historical, social, and economic factors play INTO that…which is exactly what we’re about to do.
I have to preface ALL of this by saying that I’m about to do something dangerous: I’m about to wade straight into an inherently political discussion — one that was boiled down to a “Vote Yes” or “Vote No” ballot initiative — and that puts me at risk for alienating certain people who feel very strongly about one side or the other of this debate. So I want to be very clear that I’m not here to champion one side over the other. That’s just not how I operate. What I’m more interested in is tracing HOW we got to this juncture where we’re trying to switch up our tipping practices, IF the proposed changes are being structured and implemented in a smart, compassionate manner, and WHAT implications this all might have on the dining and drinking out experience on both sides of the bar.
In this first installment, I’ll take you through some of the fascinating history of this cultural practice we call “tipping,” both in Europe and the United States. And then I’ll explain, in detail, some of the changes that are occurring here in Washington, DC. Once that stage is set, I’ll return in part 2 to pick through the widespread implications of the legislation and try to summarize a list of takeaways that will help you converse and vote intelligently about this topic if it appears on a ballot in your jurisdiction.
A Social History of Tipping
Think about the kinds of places and situations where you tend to give tips: there’s bars and restaurants (of course), but also hotels, at spas, when a valet parks your car, or even when you get food delivered to your home. Clearly, one of the things these situations all have in common is that a specialized service is being rendered to you. But that doesn’t really clear anything up. Your bank teller renders a specialized service, as does your bus driver, and your electrician, and your attorney, and pretty much anyone else whom you pay to do a thing. So if it’s not the specialized nature of the service that signals the need for a tip, where did this set of social expectations come from?
Well, as it turns out, tipping (as we know and practice it) originated in medieval Europe as an informal gift conveyed by a lord upon a servant who had provided either exceptional duty or fallen under special hardship. It was voluntary and completely unstructured…because the servants who would receive this special dotage were in absolutely no position to demand or enforce it.
This medieval time period, where Latin and Germanic language families were actively evolving into the set of Western languages in use today, also gave birth to a few terms that we would do well to stop and examine.
The first of these is the word “host.” When you go out to a restaurant, this is the person who greets and seats you. But in the Middle Ages, this was literally the Lord of the Manor – the person who controlled all the land and material and human resources that, if you were an honored visitor, would be harnessed to feed and entertain you.
According to my favorite etymology resource, etymologyonline.com, the world “Host,” is derived from a [quote]:
“Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘stranger, guest, host,’ properly ‘someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality,’ representing ‘a mutual exchange relationship…’” [end quote]
And if you zoom out just a little further and start fiddling with the word “hospitality,” you can see that the term is composed of the roots “ghos” or “hoste” (meaning stranger) and “poti” meaning power – the root of words like “potency,” “potentate,” and “potential.” So hospitality, based on its most essential definition, is a mutual exchange relationship between someone who has power (usually some sort of lord) and a stranger or visitor.
Another term that comes into play here is the word “patron,” which, of course, is what we call someone who goes out to a bar or a restaurant and pays money for their food and drink. The etymology here is, of course, less obscure, derived from the Latin “Patronus,” meaning father.
So with this second, pretty straightforward reference to a downward power dynamic between the person receiving a service and the one ultimately providing the labor, it’s pretty apparent that the origins of today’s hospitality industry are entrenched in some pretty elitist, classist history.
I mean, think about it: what’s the functional difference between saying, “hi, my name is Eric, and I’ll be your server today,” and “hi, my name is Eric, and I’ll be your servant.”
By the late 15th century, the practice of tipping in Europe became known as “giving vails” (spell it). And here, instead of a lord giving a few coins to HIS OWN servant for good service, vails involved the guest of a lord or estate providing this monetary compensation to the servants who waited on them during their visit.
This word (Vails) is derived from the Latin valere and the French valoir, which both mean “to be of value.” It also has a shared root with the French “avaler” meaning “to lower,” especially to lower one’s eyes as a sign of submission. From this root, we also derive the word “vassal,” as in, one who literally stands under a lord.
With the advent of giving vails, we can truly see the origins of our modern “system” of tipping come into play. Unlike earlier in history, it’s the guest providing the compensation, rather than the lord or host, and as it became a more mainstream practice with advances in infrastructure and in travel (over both land and sea) there was a social expectation that the practice would be upheld.
But that didn’t mean that it was adopted in a blanket fashion all across Europe and the Americas, and it certainly didn’t mean that everybody was a huge fan of tipping their servants. In fact, by the 18th century there was a widely-held notion that the practice of giving vails had gotten out of hand.
According to Kerry Segrave, in her 2009 book, Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities:
“Guests who visited private homes found servants flanking the door at departure time, with the departee expected to satisfy them. Even British royalty complained about the high cost of visiting friends. An ungenerous guest supposedly might find his horse injured, or he might hear a footman mutter that on the next visit he would receive a plate of gravy on his breeches. The system of vails became so hated that groups of masters attempted to abolish it. At a meeting of the gentry and nobility in 1760 in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was unanimously agreed to abolish the practice of giving vails to servants. They also decided, with less enthusiasm, that it would be more ‘honourable,’ for both master and servant, to raise wages. The attempt to abolish vails was taken up in London, where in 1764 a disturbance broke out at Ranelagh House in that city, in which the coachmen, footmen, and other servants of masters who wouldn’t allow their servants to accept vails ran amok. Those servants:
Began by hissing their masters, they then broke all the lamps and outside windows with stones and afterwards putting out their flambeaux [which are candles like Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast], pelted the company in a most audacious manner, with brick-bats [which are literally bricks] … whereby several were greatly hurt, so as to render the use of swords necessary.”
From this historical account from the 1700s, we can glean a few things:
- First, there’s some obvious tension about WHO should be providing these servants with compensation for their work. Should it be the guests? Or, as evidenced by the Edinburgh agreement in 1760, should the servants’ wages be raised at the expense of the Lords? This question of “who’s gonna pay?” is still very much at the heart of the tipping debate today.
- And second, we see a darker, grittier edge of that ancient “social contract” I was mentioning earlier. We see servants actually ENFORCING good behavior from their patrons by threatening bad service and even, in extreme cases, with literal violence and rioting. Unlike the servants several centuries before who might see a gift of money if their Lord was in a good mood, this class of servants is becoming more organized and more self-conscious about the role they play in the social economy of their culture.
If you’re following along on the timeline, you know that there’s another big event that happened toward the end of the 18th century: American independence. For a couple hundred years leading up to this point, the American colonies had been absorbing the culture of their mother country, England. But when the schism occurred once and for all, the notion of tipping became more of a back-and-forth conversation between Europe and America, and we haven’t really ever gotten on the same page since.
By this point in time, tipping had jumped the gap between the public and private world, coming to be expected at places like restaurants (a new phenomenon at the time) and hotels. And between Britain and America, the largest bone of contention seemed to be how large of a tip was expected, with the Brits taking (in many cases) a more conservative bent, and then grumbling when wealthy American travelers would come and “spoil” their servants.
“Accursed be the Race of Flunkeys”
My favorite quote from Segrave’s text on this subject comes from Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who was departing a restaurant in Gloucester, England. He writes:
“The dirty scrub of a waiter grumbled about his allowance, which I reckoned liberal. I added sixpence to it, and produced a bow which I was near rewarding with a kick. Accursed be the race of flunkeys!”
Now I thought that word “flunkey” was kind of interesting. It’s a word that I’ve always had a vague intuitive sense about. It’s clearly negative in connotation and describes a certain type of person. But this quote from Carlyle got me curious.
Apparently this term arose in the 18th century and refers to a “”footman or liveried servant,” … perhaps a diminutive variant of “flanker” (in reference to servants running alongside coaches. It’s also used in the sense of someone being a “flatterer” or “toady.”
What I love so much about this little “flunky” rabbit hole is that it reveals the OTHER side of the coin, where patrons feel that they are ACTIVELY being taken advantage of by these servants who are demanding higher tips. And this feeling of being “ripped off” is an issue that also remains close to the heart of the tipping debate to this day. Remember, that term “vails” means “value.” And if you feel like you’re getting “nickeled and dimed” and that everyone you encounter has a hand out waiting for a tip, you can see how that might make you take a certain stance regarding the practice.
This raises the question of whether a tip is something “essential,” or something inherently “extra” or “above and beyond” what is necessary. Compare this notion of “flunkyism” – this world where every service is hyper-monetized and contains hidden fees and social expectations – with the sense of the word “tip” that pervades most languages today.
Origins of the Word “Tip”
One origin story for the word is that it’s actually an abbreviation for the phrase: “to insure promptitude,” and that it came into common use in coffee houses in London during the late 1700s. Patrons would give the waiter a coin, wrapped in a piece of paper with the letters “TIP” written on it, and the practice allegedly took off from there. From this story, we can glean that there are multiple “levels” of service one might expect from a server, and that the presence or quality of a tip might encourage that person to go “above and beyond” by providing exceptional service.
Segrave also provides some other linguistic context, writing:
“Other theories hold that the word tip comes from the Dutch tippen meaning, “to tap,” and referring to the sound of a coin being clicked against a glass to catch a waiter’s attention; or that the word tip derives from the Latin “stips,” meaning gift. In many foreign languages, words for “tip” are associated with drinking, because in many countries the tip began as a gratuity to enable the tippee to buy himself a drink. In French “pourboire” means literally “for drink;” the German “trinkgeld” is “drink money;” the Spanish “Propina” is from “propinar,” meaning invite to drink; Russia’s “nachai” is the equivalent of “for tea;” and the Chinese “cumshaw” is “tea money.” It may be reasonable to surmise the word tip is a short form of “tipple” — to drink.”
So on one hand, we have a world inhabited by cronies and flunkies, all looking for a handout they don’t deserve and getting ready to spit in your beer or spill a bowl of soup on you if you don’t dole out a good enough tip. And on the other hand, we have a world where people who tip well get great service, and their beneficence allows the waiters to go and have a drink after work, no doubt toasting the memory of their patron with a tankard filled with their favorite libation.
If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know that neither of these descriptions reflect the truth of the world. And yet, these stereotypes still have life in them to this day.
The Racist Origins of Tipping in the US
Here in the US, tipping started out as something deeply “un-American” because it established a caste system, and we had ostensibly just fought a war to separate ourselves from those Feudal monarchic European powers and establish a land where “all men” were allegedly “created equal.”
And according to one article, by the 1860s, this mindset had actually started gaining traction in Europe. This is where they split off from us entirely and evolve into what is largely considered a “tipping optional” culture, where no tip is needed or expected when you go out to eat or drink.
But while Europe was embracing a more egalitarian approach to service industry wages, America was struggling with a major hypocrisy that would drive them right back into a system they had previously claimed to abhor. In the wake of the Civil War, there were suddenly large numbers of freed black slaves in the Jim Crow South who were in need of work. But due to a whole host of factors, the only occupations available to them were the same type of back-breaking agrarian labor they had done on plantations, or life as a porter, waiter, or other service industry worker.
At a moment when it seemed that the practice of tipping was on the brink of being all-out banned in America, the temptation of being able to hire black workers in the Jim Crow South and beyond without actually having to pay them was an economic reality too seductive for many to pass up.
So while the system of tipping, in general, comes from a classist, elitist, feudal legacy, the variety of tipped wage structure that pervades the United States service industry today is absolutely and without question a racist holdover from slavery designed to keep a certain class of people from rising above their status and means.
Sure, there were some occasional weak attempts by certain states to ban tipping in the past century or so. And sure, there has been some legislation during the New Deal era and beyond aimed at making life a little better for tipped-wage workers. But with the exception of just a handful of US states, bar and restaurant workers today are facing pay conditions that aren’t all that different than what Pullman porters and hotel maids endured over a century ago.
Initiatives 77 and 82
This brings us to recent legislation here in DC that represents a 4+ year struggle to address how bar and restaurant workers are compensated with the goal of updating the model. Back in 2018, we saw ballot initiative 77, which was was designed to incrementally increase the minimum wage for tipped employees to be equal to the minimum wage for non-tipped employees.
This initiative actually passed with 55% of the popular vote, but it was struck down by the DC City Council and not submitted to Congress for approval.
This is a crucial detail because it reveals something about how DC works as a municipality, and it’s a flavor that many places won’t experience when putting this kind of law on the ballot for a vote. Because DC is technically a City, run by a Mayor, but also operates kinda like a state, but also happens to be the seat of the Federal Government…because of all that, new laws need to be submitted to Congress for approval before they can take effect. It’s weird – and it doesn’t reflect how this sort of thing works most of the time – but it’s just how things work here in our nation’s capital.
Well, because several people on the DC City Council (as well as mayor Muriel Bowser) happened to oppose this initiative, they looked at that narrow popular vote with the 55% majority and determined that this was actually not in the best interest of our fair city, and therefore they actually voted to overturn Initiative 77 before it could even be sent to Congress for approval. As a rationale for this action, Council chair Phil Mendelson stated:
“The Council amends laws all the time. And if a law is a bad law it should be amended or repealed. It doesn’t matter if the law was adopted by Congress, the voters, or ourselves.” Mendelson also stated, “77 may be well-intentioned, but the very people the Initiative is intended to help are overwhelmingly opposed. If we want to help workers – protect them from harassment and exploitation – there are better ways than Initiative 77.”
This quote brings up another important through-line in the DC tipped wage debate: harassment and exploitation. Based on the history we just reviewed, it’s pretty clear that there’s classist and/or racist exploitation kinda baked into the mere notion of tipped wages in America. But harassment…that seems to have a more ethical, less economic ring to it.
Enter Ryan O’Leary. He’s a former restaurant server who took it upon himself to do something in the wake of Initiative 77 being overturned, which is how Initiative 82 came to be, sponsored by O’Leary’s DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry (or DCtBaBRI) – came to be. Rolls off the tongue.
Here’s his story, taken straight from the “About Us” page on their website:
“Ryan O’Leary has been a resident of DC for 10 years and has worked for years in the restaurant industry as a server. (Editorial here: According to his LinkedIn profile, it looks like he worked for a couple places, including Chef Geoff’s and Clyde’s here in DC. None of the news articles name names, but hey…it’s right there on his LinkedIn.)
He’s worked as a server for years, most recently for one of the most successful and highest-grossing restaurant groups in the country. For a long time, he viewed the harassment, discrimination, and instability as simply part of the job. The few times he did push management to respond to sexist and racist behavior he witnessed – both by the customers and the staff – he was threatened financially and in one case, fired on the spot. He put up with it all in the name of securing his livelihood – his tips.
After being laid off in the wake of the pandemic (More editorial here: looks like that layoff would have been from Clyde’s), he realized he could no longer shrug off the disrespect he experienced and witnessed while working for tips. He was forced to confront how precarious our positions in the service economy truly were, how disposable we are considered to be, and how unjustly we were treated by an industry with a criminally low unionization rate, rampant wage theft, and of course, the indignity of being paid a subminimum wage.
And the more he learned about the subminimum wage, the more driven he became to change it. After July 1st, the subminimum wage for tipped workers is $5.05, only a third of the full $15.20 minimum wage. As a result, tipped workers in DC are over three times as likely to live in poverty and more than twice as likely to rely on Medicaid compared to the rest of the local workforce.
He realized it doesn’t have to be this way. We can be paid a living wage, get our tips on top, and allow restaurant owners to succeed. It’s already the case in states like California, Montana, and Minnesota, where all workers, regardless of being tipped, are paid the full, fair minimum wage. People are still tipping at restaurants in LA and San Francisco even though their waiter is paid $15/hour.
He saw it firsthand in New York, where he visited a restaurant that pays all their workers, front and back of house, $30/hour, while their most expensive menu item was a mere $21. It is possible. It is happening and DC can do it too.
As our nation’s capital, we are in the unique position to prove to workers around the country what is possible and to push the federal government to give workers what they deserve: a full minimum wage, with tips on top.”
So to summarize, O’Leary’s primary reasons for re-proposing this legislation – now called Initiative 82 – seem to be the following:
- Service industry workers receive a subminimum wage
- They are frequently harassed and subjected to wage theft by restaurant management
- Other states and individual businesses have successfully implemented more equitable wage initiatives.
- Therefore, we (both patrons and workers) should rise up and demand the same here in DC
I’m not going to start analyzing these details here…because that’s for part 2, but suffice it to say that O’Leary’s rallying cry was sufficient to leverage almost 74% of the vote a few weeks ago – a much more compelling showing than Initiative 77’s 55%.
This time around, though, Councilman Phil Mendelson had no interest in proposing to strike down the legislation, which means that as long as Congress doesn’t alter it during their 30 day review period, it will take effect.
The timeline will extend from January 1, 2023, where the minimum wage will squeak up just a tiny bit – to $6.00 an hour – and conclude on July 1, 2027, when the minimum wage will become equal to that earned by non-tipped employees. So all-in-all we’re looking at a roughly 5 year implementation period, which has both costs and benefits, as we’ll explore in the next installment.
Of course, there were mixed reactions to the passing of Initiative 82. A lot of folks were thrilled, and a lot were dismayed. I happened to be at a meeting of the DC craft bar guild on election day, and I can verify that there was a decent amount of trepidation in the room about what this legislation could mean for their day-to-day lives.
TO BE CONTINUED…