Hospitality Demands Responsibility

April 14, 2021

In “Redefining Hospitality, for All”, the New York Times provides some important insight but also some maddening misconceptions about the status and future of the hospitality industry.  The writer fairly points out how difficult restaurant work can be for workers and business owners, but it misdirects focus to the tip credit and misstates how it works, and only touches on the real issue, i.e., that kindness, respect and hospitality need to serve as the foundation of social relationships and not merely constitute commodities that are sold in a market. Here is the article:

The writer argues that there is a “profound dysfunction at the heart of the American hospitality industry, which routinely devalues the labor that runs it, and often diminishes the people who make restaurants worth going to in the first place.” But the primary example given was not about the industry, it was about customers who refused to respect restaurant staff at a family-owned Mexican restaurant, especially when it came to mask wearing. The example does not prove that the industry “routinely devalues labor”, it showed how many people in our consumer driven society treat front line workers terribly.  The owners of that family run restaurant were not the problem.  The problem is not the industry, made up of workers and business owners who serve customers.  The problem is the rest of us.

The writer fairly notes that “chefs are seeing the fragility of the business, and the vulnerability of their workers more clearly.” But the article goes on to divorce the circumstances of the worker from the circumstances of the business owner, failing to acknowledge that both are in the same proverbial boat. Instead, the article refers to one restauranteur who purportedly “called tipping an inherently racist and sexist system”, while noting without explanation that others who have tried the no-tipping model have moved away from it.  The article fails to state that a major reason restaurants continue to use tipping is because employees prefer it.  Tipping is not oppressive per se.  Rather, it is a system that provides employees with significant opportunities to make substantial pay, far beyond the minimum wage.

While the one restauranteur quoted argues that “tipping leaves you so incredibly vulnerable” the article fails to note that every single server is guaranteed minimum wage throughout the country.  If tips fail to bring workers up to minimum wage, the restaurant must pay to make up the difference. That is the law everywhere. Thus, the vulnerability is not from tipping but from an unduly low minimum wage in much of the country.  Raise the minimum wage? Sure. End tipping as an oppressive system. No.

Perhaps the writer was too much of an optimist to avoid articulating the real problem.  Hospitality is a people business and the problem here is that all too often people suck. That is not a problem limited to the hospitality business, but it can be more obviously noted in that space given that the entire sector concerns people interacting with each other.  When people go out to eat, they don’t just buy food. They join a community, they take a place on stage, they serve as an audience, they share experience, and they are connecting themselves with other people. People bring their whole selves to restaurants, and wherever you go, there you are, spreading your karma to the people around you for better or worse. And so, in the restaurant, you see it all.

Ultimately, the writer is right to suggest that you get what you incentivize, and that people must understand that “hospitality reciprocates”. The analysis should, therefore, focus not only on how we incentivize workers and business owners but also how we incentivize customers so that this important sector of our economy and public life can be “sustainable” and not so “one-sided”. On the one hand, restaurants can better gear their marketing plans to have them serve as community engagement plans. On the other hand, perhaps restaurants can generate pay apps like Uber’s so that customers can get rated as well as restaurants and servers. It’s not enough to blame the system and put more burdens on restaurant owners, which would only make opportunities for workers even less lucrative. Rather, we need to accept responsibility for hospitality and treat people more like humans and less like robots.  “The fault, dear [citizen], is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”