"I think that restaurant patrons have unwittingly believed that they could, if they wanted to, use their tip to punish bad service, and/or to praise great service," Meyer tells All Things Considered's Kelly McEvers. "What that's done over the years has actually been quite the opposite, because the average American restaurant-goer leaves the exact same tip, irrespective of the service they receive. And unfortunately, none of those tips that you leave in a restaurant may be shared with the full team, i.e. the cooks, the dishwashers, the prep cooks, the butchers, etc."
But it might not be easy to bridge that gap between what the servers make and what the dishwashers make. Meyer says that since he started in the restaurant business 30 years ago, he's seen "something fascinating and completely unfair: Waiters' income in a fine-dining restaurant has gone up well over 200 percent."
That's happened for two reasons: "Menu prices have gone up, and the average tip that people leave has actually gone up from around 15 percent in 1985 to about 21 percent today."
Meanwhile, Meyer says, workers at the back of the house who don't get tipped have seen their hourly wage go up only 22 to 25 percent.
Gramercy Tavern, in New York City, one of Danny Meyer's restaurants. Meyer says he will try to keep the new prices on par with a 21 percent tip — what diners have been adding on average lately.
"So by incorporating everything in the menu prices, and therefore having it be the restaurant's responsibility to pay everybody a fair wage, we think we have the opportunity to make a great place to work for everybody — not just servers, but also for our cooks," he says.
Meyer says he hopes it'll also solve the problem of servers having to take a pay cut of about 25 percent if they want to move up and become managers. "We're going to change that," he says.
Of course, this sea change in how his restaurants are run will result in higher menu prices. How much? Meyer says, "When you get your bill, it should look just about exactly as it would have if you had left your gratuity in the old days."
That means he will try to keep prices on par with a 21 percent tip — what diners have been adding on average lately.
This strategy could also help fine-dining restaurants in expensive cities like New York City hold on to cooks who now might find even better opportunities at fast-food restaurants, Meyer says.
"We've never faced a labor shortage the way we have right now," he says. "The fast-food industry is by law going to be raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. So why would you tell your parents, 'Gee, please help me pay the bills for a culinary education so I can make less than that in a white-tablecloth restaurant.' "
Will other restaurants follow?
"There's a huge number of colleagues in our industry who will be watching very, very closely," says Meyer. "We felt a responsibility to go first, and we're proud to do it because it's the right thing to do. And I really think you're going to see this happen all over the country."