In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: Restaurant tipping—and how the proceeds get distributed among restaurant staff—is always a controversial issue; back in 1979, some disgruntled servers took their case to arbitration.
“Tipping is a questionable practice,” began a July 1979 Star editorial, “but as long as it remains a factor in determining the wages of restaurant employees in Ontario, everything should be done to ensure they receive the tips they’re entitled to.” Issues surrounding tipping—including surveys regarding the public’s bill-topping habits and concerns among servers about proper tip distribution—were highlighted by the paper that month, though many of the issues discussed remain contentious.
The spring of 1979 saw several labour grievances launched by angry servers at downtown bars and restaurants. Arbitration ended the El Mocambo’s policy of requiring bartenders to pay back one per cent of total booze sales during their shift to their managers; less successful were waiters at Noodles restaurant at Bloor and Bay and the Courtyard Café in the Windsor Arms Hotel. The sister eateries employed a percentage-of-sales tip distribution system where waiters paid two-and-a-half per cent of the night’s sales to the maître d’, up to two per cent to busboys, and five dollars a week to the bartender. Servers filed a grievance through the Canadian Food and Associated Services Union, objecting to the maître d’s cut, which often wound up being 20 per cent of the tips they would have received. Management countered that the front-of-house staff were essential to good service by setting the tone, greeting guests, and providing general assistance. According to Windsor Arms food and beverage manager Frank Falgaux, “when you tip you feel you are paying the waiter. But if everything was good then all those people contributed. A tip is really for the team that makes the whole dining room.” The arbitrator agreed with management.
Servers at some establishments also found themselves saddled with the responsibility for paying credit-card transaction fees that their bosses wouldn’t absorb on their own. Management at Sherlock’s on Sheppard Street explained that the practice allowed the server to pay their part of “the expenses involved in collecting for the charge account” rather than passing the fee directly onto customers. Combined with other cuts, Sherlock’s waitress Sybil Walker estimated that, out of a weekly gross of up to $300 she earned in tips, up to $120 was passed on to others—a significant loss given that minimum wage for servers back then was $2.50 per hour.
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from the July 11, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star
While many diners automatically paid the standard 15 to 20 per cent tip during the summer of 1979, Bardi’s Steak House owner and Canadian Restaurant Association president Alex Manikas suggested they should be more discerning. “A waiter who greets you cheerfully and is genuinely attentive warrants a bigger gratuity than the cold, proper automaton in white gloves,” he told the Star. But that philosophy didn’t occur to difficult customers. In an incident at the Peter Pan on Queen Street West, a customer who occupied a prime table during peak dining hours with his girlfriend to enjoy a bottle of wine and carrot cake left the change he received from server Hillary Kelly for his $9.98 bill—two pennies. When she asked why he was “so tight,” he responded, “because I’m a socialist. I don’t believe in tipping.” Kelly told him that she was a worker and he had insulted her efforts. She threw the tip back at him and the rest of the restaurant cheered as he departed in a huff.
As for the secret of receiving generous tips, Fran’s waitress supervisor Jessie Logan suggested “catering to the whims of a regular customer, no matter how eccentric they may seem.” She recalled a diner at the chain’s St. Clair location, “a quiet, well-dressed man in his 30s,” who dropped by nightly to order a meal current health authorities would pounce on in a second: a raw hamburger accompanied by a glass of milk with a whole egg (including the shell) placed in it. “The bill would come to less than two bucks. You know what he would tip me? No less than $5 and up to $35 per night. They don’t make great, loony tippers like that anymore.”
There had been an effort to form a waiters association to replace tipping with a flat 15 per cent service charge a la several European countries, but it fizzled when employers balked. Not that all restaurant owners were opposed—La Cantinetta owner Luigi Orgera, who had servers at his King Street restaurant place their tips in a pool, felt a service charge would allow waiters to receive higher pay and equalize generous and miserly tippers. He believed that “the pay would be better so we could attract a better staff.”
But tipping—and the controversies surrounding it—remain with us, as demonstrated by a recent private member’s bill from Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue to forbid management from taking a share of tips.
Additional material from the May 15, 1979, edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 11, 1979, and July 16, 1979, editions of the Toronto Star.