By Joshua Albert
A new restaurant opening in Fishtown has been making headlines not for it’s food (it’s not open yet) but for another reason: it’s unconventional tipping policy.
Girard, slated to open full swing this fall, is doing away with tipping and will instead pay for health insurance for it’s employees, provide a profit sharing program, and will pay employees $11 an hour instead of the standard $2.83 an hour, which owners are describing as a “living wage.”
Girard will not provide a place on credit card receipts for patrons to leave a tip. All cash tips that are left will be split amongst all employees, including kitchen workers and host staff. According to the owners, the profit sharing program is anticipated to provide an additional $2 an hour during slower months and $4 extra during busier months, and will be split with “back-of-the-house employees”.
Additionally, the restaurant will charge slightly more for each menu item to compensate for their increased hourly rate.
I spoke with Cristian Mora and chef Brian Oliveira, the owners of the new restaurant, and I genuinely think their hearts are in the right place and I applaud their efforts. However, after working in fine dining restaurants for almost ten years (half of which were in Philly), and being something of an advocate for restaurant employees, their efforts are not enough and could be setting a terrible precedent. This isn’t to say I don’t support the concept of doing away with tipping, as there are many reasons to do this, but it must be done correctly.
First, I think it helps to understand the difference (or perhaps similarities) between a “living wage” and a ” meagerly surviving wage.” In the sense of policy making decisions, the phrase “living wage” is defined as what a person needs to meet the basic necessities of survival. The phrase can be misleading. When most people hear the phrase “living wage” they get the sense that it means “Hey, I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m comfortable.”
But a living wage is not that. A living wage does not provide for someone the opportunity to pay for school, pay back loans, buy a house, or any of the other factors that must be considered when most people hear that phrase, which is why maybe the phrase should be changed to “surviving wage.”
Additionally, the living wage for each person is different, as this calculator provided by MIT demonstrates. If you’re a single mother, your “living wage” needs are going to naturally be drastically more than an 18 year old going to college on their parents dime. A single mother working at Girard 40 hours a week would still need assistance of some sort just to make ends meet. In fact, it may not even be possible.
Speaking of single mothers, I talked with Nadia Adams, a 22 year old Temple neuroscience student who works full time and has a two year old. “I work a full time job at $10.50 an hour, and I barely get by,” says Nadia, who receives government assistance to help make ends meet. Because Nadia has to work full time, she’s only able to take one to two classes per semester.
Nadia is part of $15 Now, a labor rights group that garnered much political traction in Seattle, eventually helping to enact a law that increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The discussion about increasing the minimum wage and income inequality has been a hot topic of discussion and debate around the country in the past year, even grabbing attention from the Obama administration.
“It’s commendable what the owners of Girard are trying to do, but it isn’t enough, and isn’t going to inspire other business owners to do the same,” said Nadia. She believes that significant change will only occur from a legislative level.
There is a concern that raising the minimum wage will cause inflation and hurt small business owners. To address those concerns and a few other issues that they are often confronted with, $15 now put out this handy little FAQ flyer.
Another concern that I have: attracting quality servers, many of whom would be taking a significant pay cut to work at Girard.
“You know we were concerned about that too, but we think that we will be providing a sense of stability that will hopefully attract a certain kind of employee,” Mora told me during our phone conversation. He also informed me that they have gotten a significant amount of response from people who were interested in working with them. Servers I talked to, however, were less than thrilled.
“$11 an hour is not bad but to me it would be insulting,” said Nicole, a cocktail waitress at an area night club.
On my personal Facebook I put out a call to talk to servers about this. Here are just a few of the comments I received.
From experience, it takes time and dedication to learn and master the style of service that is required for this caliber of restaurant. You have to know various food styles and preparations, the difference between Bordeauxs and Burgundies, various types of cocktail preparations, multi tasking while being ” in the weeds” all while still maintaining a perfect composure. All things that take skill and practice that only comes from experience working in similarly styled establishments. This skill is often rewarded by a relatively decent income from tips in “nicer” restaurants with higher check averages. So to say that this restaurant won’t attract quality servers isn’t an over statement, it’s a true reflection of the current state of the Philadelphia restaurant community. Servers who can make more elsewhere, will.
Another concern I and other restaurant employees I talked to for this story: scheduling cuts. Typically in just about every restaurant I’ve worked at, labor cost is a constant concern with management and owners. Management at the last restaurant I worked, for instance, checked labor hourly, often times telling kitchen employees to clock and take a break during the slower hours. Then there’s “french overtime”, a term used to refer to times when kitchen workers are scheduled to come in for ten hours, but are only allowed to clock in for eight; or they are given such a large prep list that they wouldn’t be able to do it with the time in their scheduled shift, so they come in early to work off the clock.
Many kitchen employees see this as just an industry standard and stepping stone for their advancement in the restaurant industry and rarely complain or file lawsuits.
Traditionally, this isn’t as much of a concern for front of the house (FOH) employees because they are currently paid so little ($2.83hr), but it can often be a source of tension for servers and management. This is because during slower times, restaurants will often overstaff restaurants with FOH employees because it cost them so little. This results in servers getting less tables and consequently less money.
Naturally, labor cost monitoring is mandatory for business owners if they want to run a profitable restaurant. I will be curious to see how Girard will tackle this issue, considering all of their FOH employees will be making a significantly higher hourly rate than servers in most restaurants, especially knowing that when most restaurants open they tend to staff heavily to provide smaller sections for more guest focused service.
So in conclusion, based off my discussions about this with numerous people, I’m going to make three unsolicited suggestions – and to repeat, I can’t stress enough that I think the owners intent is pure and good, but just maybe needs to be revisited and revised.
1. Instead of not allowing tips, allow them, and encourage them. Retract the concept of having a non tipping restaurant. continue to pay your employees a higher hourly rate, but allow them to make a tipped wage too. Matthew Barnes, a server in Washington State, told me that servers there are paid a minimum wage of $9.32, in addition to collecting gratuity. “It works out lovely,” he says.
Sure, the minimum wage isn’t $9.32 for servers here in PA, and it might not be for a while. But if you want to set a tone for restaurants, and do something with impact, that model isn’t a bad one to follow.
2. If not allowing tips is something you’re dead set on, start employees off at $15 hour, while continuing to include the profit sharing and healthcare program. This will create a more stable income for your employees and potentially give them the means to invest in themselves and advance in life, and you know, maybe not have to drink PBR all the time.
Additionally, set contracts with employees so that they are guaranteed a specific amount of hours each week.
3. Do away with the concept all together and instead focus your efforts on a more legislative level so that systemic change can occur. I think that still providing health insurance is important, however instead of paying your employees a higher hourly rate, use that money to invest in legal and community based strategies to lobby political officials to start making changes.
Unfortunately, Girard doing this likely won’t inspire other restaurant owners to follow suit. I really wish this wasn’t the case, but it’s frustratingly part of the status quo – and part and parcel of American capitalism.