Tipping Point

In the hierarchy of Manhattan Japanese restaurants, Sushi Yasuda ranks very near the top—exceeded perhaps only by Masa Sushi Yasuda in New York Cityfor quality, freshness and price.


The restaurant surprised the New York dining community about a week ago by announcing that it would no longer accept tips. “Following the custom in Japan,” reads a statement at the bottom of each guest check, “Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salaries. Therefore gratuities are not accepted. Thank you.”


This makes it one of the very few restaurants in America to do so. True, there are establishments that include a service charge (Alinea and Per Se come to mind), but this approach is unique: The restaurant actually pays a living wage to its employees, along with benefits such as paid vacation and sick leave, although they’ve apparently raised prices a bit to make this situation happen. Rather than saying that gratuities are not necessary, they go so far as to say they’re not accepted—although there are reports that cash left on tables is not automatically being returned to customers.


The benefits to the service staff are obvious, since they now have income security that isn’t dependent on the flow of business, the time of year or the mood swings of the clientele. However, there are advantages for customers as well. Tipping has long been one of the most baffling practices in American restaurants, and especially in sushi bars, where most people have no idea who should get what: Does the gentleman behind the bar, who prepares and serves most of the food, deserve a tip, or should generosity be lavished on the waitresses who deliver only hot food and drinks? This takes the agony out of the experience, leaving only the ecstasy behind. And, as one clever customer realized, he can now eat 20% more sushi for the same price.


Most visible restaurant employees in this country are paid sub-standard wages, with the understanding the customers will make up the difference. No such confusion exists in Europe, where a service charge is automatically added to the check; if you receive exemplary service, you’re free to leave more. The French express this very elegantly (as they do with most things) by drawing the distinction between the service charge and a pourboire, or tip.


Cynics, of course, sum up the reason for Sushi Yasuda’s policy change in two words: Maimon Kirschenbaum. What makes him the most feared person in New York’s restaurant community? Read Thursday’s post to find out.


Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com

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