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Restaurant Surcharges Fire Up Chicago Food Media

Do Chicagoans need to reassess their tipping habits?

A second-floor dining room with an enormous glass wine cellar.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurants, like Oakville Grill & Cellar, have been deploying service fees since the pandemic.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Chicago’s media dish on their favorite spots in 2023 as part of Eater’s ongoing tradition of polling the city’s experts for their year-end takes. Here, the panel tackles a controversial topic: service fees — yay or nay?

Sarah Spain, ESPN writer, TV and radio host: When in doubt, employees who make our dining experiences great should get paid. Fine with the fees.

Brenda Storch, contributor, Eater Chicago; freelance writer: Yay. It ensures that staff are compensated fairly, regardless of the diners’ knowledge or generosity. This option allows for an additional gratuity if desired.

Amy Cavanaugh, Chicago magazine dining editor: Personally, I prefer an all-inclusive rate — spots like Daisies, Lula Cafe, and Akahoshi Ramen do a nice job spelling out what [is the] rate that works for them and what’s expected from diners.

Monica Eng, Axios Chicago: I would like to see service fees rolled into the cost of the menu items. The restaurants don’t do themselves any favors — in the diner’s eyes — by adding a charge onto the check that the guest did not order. Plus it's gonna confuse the crap out of people as they try to navigate both “service charges,” which don’t have to go to the staff, and the gradual disappearance of the tipped minimum wage.

And yes, Chicagoans are going to have to learn how to tip, which many couldn’t manage when they were just expected to leave 20 percent on the bill. Now with the service charges at some places and the incremental rise of the tipped minimum wage, they’re gonna need a math degree to figure it out.

Alex Jewell, Best Food Alex: This is probably a subject wrought with even more nuance, unfortunately. I’ll just say this: service fees are conceptually important. Tipping is important. There are fair critiques when it comes to transparency around how restaurants (particularly larger restaurant groups) actually use those fees, and I think there is always room for improvement when it comes to plugging loopholes and/or making sure the worker is the ultimate (only) beneficiary of these fees. If we can’t confidently determine that to be the case, that’s a problem — but it isn’t a problem with service fees or tipping in the meantime, it’s a systemic problem. A lot of restaurants operate on low margins, other economic factors are putting pressure on everyone’s cost of living and the industry as a whole, and that makes it easy to complain on Reddit about the obvious inflation we’re seeing in our dining spend. But complaining on Reddit about paying service workers more misses the point entirely, to be blunt. TLDR: Yay.

Jeffy Mai, editor Time Out Chicago: If the fees are going toward the staff, yay. If they’re being tacked on in lieu of raising menu prices, nay. Owners — make it obvious and transparent; diners — don’t shortchange your server. Everyone is struggling to make ends meet.

Michael Nagrant, author of the Hunger, a Substack newsletter; former Sun-Times and RedEye dining critic: Yay, but only if those service fees are deployed to lift all staff salaries, provide access to quality healthcare and services, correct inequalities related to racial disparity, and provide a better dining experience. If the service fee is deployed to enrich an owner’s personal pocket, then GTFO.

Janice Scurio, South Side Sox and CHGO Sports: Nah. I don’t mind paying a buck or two extra for a good sandwich, the caveat being that a restaurant’s employees are paid well, with great benefits. I’m always a generous tipper because I know others aren’t. I’ve been stiffed a bit back when I worked in the service industry, and it was those folks who paid an extra buck that made up for the rude “We’re done here”s I’d get making deliveries. That being said — I’d like to see tipping disappear eventually and sweetly baked into the cost of food.

Danny Shapiro, founding partner of the Scofflaw group; co-host of the Joiners podcast: Chicagoans tip pretty well in my experience. Service charges are tricky — it depends on how significant [they are] and how they’re being distributed.