Inside Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, where the cafeteria-style line meets the glass window dividing the dining room from the kitchen, there’s a little sign that says “No Tipping Cooks Allowed.”
Occasionally, that sign becomes the object of intrigue—as with a recent post on the local Reddit page, where dozens of readers shared theories and stories about the sign.
“It’s a very old tradition to discourage them from giving you extra meat,” wrote one poster. “At this point, it’s more for show/tradition than a real warning.”
The sign is, indeed, very old, says Jerry Rauschelbach, who owns the classic pit with his father. But it’s also a very real warning. While some people brag about getting over on a pit and feasting like kings, Rauschelbach doesn’t find any of it cute.
“It’s nothing more than theft,” he says. “The customer knows it’s stealing, believe me. And every one of my slicers knows it’s stealing, and it’s a fireable offense if I see it.”
The margins for restaurants—especially meat-centric ones—are razor-thin. That’s especially true right now, with raw brisket prices north of five bucks a pound.
According to Rauschelbach, during the last two years of Arthur Bryant’s life, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, leading his niece, who took over after his passing, to put up the sign.
“They were just stealing from him,” Rauschelbach says. “There’s an old saying in the industry that a bartender has to only work so many years in a bar before he or she can steal enough to start his own bar.”
At Bryant’s, customers are allowed to tip—but at the cash register, after they’ve gotten their food. The tips are divided among the entire staff, not just the one working the slicer. All cash tips are split evenly, regardless of shifts worked. The tips left on credit card receipts are divided up according to the number of hours worked.
“I tell my staff, ‘look, guys, we are not in the food business, we are in the people business,’” Rauschelbach says. “I have proven to them, numbers-wise, that the nicer you are, the more money they’ll throw at you. But you cannot do it through the window.”
The tipping problem is unique to Bryant’s, he says, given its layout. At most restaurants, you go to the register first and pay before getting your food. But at Bryant’s, you order from the person who does the slicing and pay afterward.
“If I wanted to stop it I’d have to change the entire dynamic of the restaurant, and I do not want to do that,” he says. “I want to leave the restaurant as Arthur Bryant intended it to be. But it does allow for… loopholes.”
It’s also worth noting that the consequences aren’t limited to the employees. Rauschelbach has been known to scold customers, too.
“There’s a sign right there—you’re just doing it to get more food,” he says. “Two or three times a year, I see the customer offering it. I saw it three weeks ago. I said, ‘Sir, you can tip it down here, but you can’t tip him.’ He said, ‘Well, he’s doing a good job.’ I said, ‘He’s paid to do a good job.’ We got into it a little bit and I said, ‘You’re either going to tip it down here or you’re not going to get your food.’ The way people argue anymore, they think the louder they talk the more they’re heard. I told him, ‘It’s okay if you don’t come back if you’re going to do this—I just don’t need this headache.’”
The sign, Rauschelbach suspects, might just make some customers curious about breaking the rules—most customers today wouldn’t necessarily think to bribe a man working a meat slicer.
“I think about taking it down, but the damned thing’s been there thirty years,” Rauschelbach says. “Why would I take it down? It’s just part of the atmosphere of the place.”