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Not all restaurateurs are sold on a no-tips policy

Even some servers worry they’d take home less, but others see it as a way to stabilize their erratic earnings

Kamariah Jackman looks forward to being paid better on slow days.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

To tip or not to tip: That is the question many restaurateurs are facing as the movement to eliminate gratuities gains steam.

Peter Simpson plans to do away with the practice next month at his 25-year-old vegetarian restaurant in Northampton. He can make it work by raising menu prices, he said, charging $2 more for spinach lasagna and 50 cents more for a Creamsicle smoothie.

This will allow him to bump up hourly wages to at least $14 at Haymarket Cafe, reducing pay inequities between the kitchen and wait staffs and providing more consistent paychecks to servers. So far, customers have been supportive, he said.

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For Haymarket server Kamariah Jackman, the thought of making a steady wage on a slow day — she might previously have gone home with only a few bucks in her pocket — is comforting, she said. But she admits she was skeptical at first: “I do very much like walking out of work at the end of my shift with a nice wad of cash.”

Tipping was thrust into the spotlight last week when a prominent New York restaurateur, Danny Meyer, announced he was ending gratuities at his 13 establishments — a move he said will allow him to pay his kitchen employees higher hourly wages.

But what works in New York may not work in Massachusetts, industry insiders say. Fast-food workers will soon be making $15 an hour in New York, a rate Meyer said he needs to match in order to attract skilled cooks.

In Massachusetts, legislation has been proposed to raise fast-food workers’ wages accordingly, but it’s unclear how far that bill will progress. Wait staff in Massachusetts already make among the highest wages in the country for such work, averaging nearly $13 an hour, including tips.

On Beacon Hill, a bill to eliminate the state’s minimum wage of $3 an hour for those who get tips was the focus of a recent legislative hearing. Seven states currently do not have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers.

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Without tips, restaurant owners said, they would have a harder time attracting the best servers, who can make upward of $300 on a good night. Eliminating gratuities could also lead to a decline in service and in sales, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which issued a statement expressing skepticism about Meyer’s plans.

“If I’m making 20 bucks an hour whether I give you wow service or whether I give you ambivalent service, what’s the motivation to give you wow service?” he said.

Some in the industry say it makes more business sense for customers to share in the burden of paying servers’ wages, particularly at smaller operations.

“There’s no better math than when the customer’s here, they pay for part of the labor,” said Jeffrey Gates, whose restaurant group owns the Aquitaine chain and Gaslight and Cinquecento in the South End, among other establishments. “It’s a very good, clean system.”

At the same time, servers shouldn’t have to take a pay cut in order for employers to pay line cooks and dishwashers more, said Joe Cassinelli, who owns the Painted Burro, Posto, and Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar in Somerville. “It’s not the responsibility of the front-of-the-house staff to pay a higher wage to the back of the house,” he said.

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But the tipping-optional system works in some countries, others say, so why not here?

Josh Lewin plans to make tipping optional at the cafe he and a partner are opening in Somerville’s Union Square this year. Everyone from dishwashers to servers will make more than the regular $9 per hour Massachusetts minimum wage, he said, but there will be fewer of them, and menu items will be priced slightly higher.

Still, he knows it might not work. He plans to have limited table service at first and expects to face some resistance from job candidates.

“There’s definitely a contingency of servers who tell you they have no interest in this and they think it’s a horrible idea,” Lewin said, noting that some wait staff earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.

If restaurant owners could pay servers what they are used to making, said John Fitzpatrick, a longtime server at Aquitaine, he wouldn’t mind eliminating tips. But he doesn’t see that happening. “In a perfect world, I think it would be great if restaurant owners could afford to pay their employees what they’re worth,” he said.

“I don’t know if that really is feasible.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.