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Vegas probably not ready to embrace a tip-free world

Danny Meyer might need to hire a food taster the next time he visits Las Vegas.

The New York restaurateur and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group has a juicy presence in Las Vegas. His Shake Shack gourmet burger joints at New York-New York and Downtown Summerlin appear wildly successful, and surely no one doubts his creative cuisine or ability to please the public’s taste.

But he set off a grease fire recently when he said he was considering discontinuing the tradition of tipping at his New York eateries. He promised to offset the waitstaff’s losses by raising food prices and paying a higher hourly wage. (It’s surely no coincidence that Meyer’s suggestion came ahead of new, higher hourly wage rules in New York.)

Meyer’s idea sent a buzz through New York and splashed in the national news. Foodies chewed on the concept, and the opinions circled the editorial table. His plan has plenty of support from people who haven’t been waiting tables and hustling tips to make up for the absurdly low hourly wages the receive.

Micah Solomon observes in Forbes that Meyer’s superior skills set him apart, but he could well be onto something big. He writes, “Danny Meyer is an acknowledged master of hospitality, and his establishments are known for their exceptionally well-selected, … well-trained, well-managed stable of front of house employees who bring a great flair and sense of both empathy and performance to what they do. Which makes Meyer in many ways the exception, even the outlier. If, by contrast, you’re employing waitstaff whom you’ve selected without care, trained only minimally, and supervised not at all, you may need to continue to depend on your customers to keep them honest. Because nobody else is.”

That, I suspect, is the problem with changing a system that has worked well for restaurant owners. They might not be as high minded as Meyer, who has raised food prices at select New York restaurants more than 20 percent to cover the tip-wage disparity.

In New York, his idea is almost as popular as his restaurants. The New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo adds, “Danny Meyer’s no-tipping plan is the biggest restaurant breakthrough since Ice Age owners launched the first mammoth house. Anyone who eats or works in a place where food is served should cheer him on.”

But what about Las Vegas, the tipping capital of the free world?

I can almost feel the foundations of the town fracturing.

Many restaurant owners might reluctantly raise their food prices, but it’s hard to imagine old-school operators trusting the market enough to pass along the difference to the wait staff. Maybe I’m too cynical, or perhaps the fact I was born and raised in a town where the float of daily tokes through the local economy is a way of life that makes me wonder whether it would work here.

The National Restaurant Association trade group, to no surprise, opposes raising service staff wages to $15 per hour as is now the standard in New York and some other cities. Restaurant owners should be able to craft their own tip policies, the group says.

“It’s vital that restaurants continue to have the freedom to choose what works best for their business and their workforce to keep the industry thriving as a leading jobs creator for our country,” the NRA said in a statement. “… We have found the practice of tipping has traditionally attracted millions of employees to our industry and still has strong support from American diners.”

If Meyer’s vision of a tip-free restaurant future ever catches fire here, it would be enormously controversial. And it would change Las Vegas forever.

Would that be such a bad thing?

John L. Smith is a fourth-generation Nevadan and columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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