Alyssa Arian has worked in San Francisco restaurants for a decade and, like most servers, she got into it for the tips.
“Some nights you leave with $80 or $90,” she says. “$100 is kind of the average mark for what you want as a server, sort of anywhere in this city I think as a minimum.”
Since February, though, Arian hasn’t earned any tips. She’s working at Sous Beurre Kitchen, a new French spot in the Mission where tipping’s not allowed.
At a full-service restaurant you know the drill. You eat your food, you get your bill, and then you calculate the tip. But not at Sous Beurre Kitchen, Berkeley’s Comal, or Oakland’s Camino.
Instead, these and other Bay Area restaurants are ditching the tableside math and going for a more transparent approach to pricing: where the amount you see on the menu is the amount you pay. Advocates say this means more and fairer wages for everyone.
No tips, but more stability
Before she interviewed, Sous Beurre management asked Arian if going tipless would work for her. Other people had turned down the policy. Arian wasn’t sure, but decided to give it a try. Today, she can’t hide her enthusiasm.
In general, Sous Beurre servers make less than they would with tips, on average $25 per hour. But if they work 40 hours a week, they get benefits, sick days and vacation time -- in short, stability. That goes for the cooks and dishwashers, too.
“The reality of the back of the house making far less than the front of the house has just always been something that we've had to not think about and deal with internally,” says Lauren Giunta, a cook at Camino restaurant in Oakland.
Camino went tipless in January and cooks now start at $16 an hour. Since Giunta’s been there for two years already, she’s earning even more.
“One job is enough for me, I don't have a lot of financial needs, I don't support a family, I don't have a bunch of obligations other than my student loans,” she says. “So for me, it is a living wage.”
Cooks and dishwashers typically don’t earn tips directly. They get a small share of whatever the servers earn. A tipless restaurant makes sure that everyone earns money every night, and that the house can afford to pay them -- even give them benefits.
That’s why Sous Beurre Kitchen went tipless from the start, says Michael Mauschbaugh, the restaurant’s chef and owner.
“When I decided I wanted to go out on my own I wanted to make sure my employees felt like I had their best interests in mind,” he says. “And that's why I decided to reapproach the entire business model.”
Mauschbaugh built a 20 percent service charge into the menu price of every item he serves. He says it’s already making a difference for his workers. Dishwashers and line cooks are earning above minimum wage. Their hourly rates are between $13 and $15, and $16 and $18, respectively.
Minimum wage is the bigger force at work here. Right now, San Francisco’s minimum wage is $11.05 per hour. In May, it will rise to $12.25, and it will keep rising to $15 by 2018.
Oakland’s minimum wage already increased this month from $9 to $12.25 an hour. Today, that’s the highest minimum wage in the country. So for restaurant owners, the cost of doing business is going up no matter what.
In Oakland, Camino owner Allison Hopelain says tipless is the wave of the future.
“We've always kind of wanted to find a way to address the inequities between the kitchen staff and floor staff,” Hopelain says. “And then with the minimum wage being raised, with Measure FF being passed, it sort of gave us this moment to do it.”
A tipless future?
UC Berkeley labor economist Sylvia Allegretto is paying close attention to the tipless trend, because it affects a lot of people. Restaurant jobs are growing much faster than jobs overall, and her research shows close to one in 10 workers in the US are in the restaurant industry. But the industry is still really unstable.
“You go to work, you might think you're going to work seven or eight or nine hours but if it's slow they'll send you home,” Allegretto says. “It's very hard to count on some kind of ongoing consistent pay from a lot of these jobs.”
Allegretto thinks the no-tip trend is interesting, but it’s too soon to see if it can scale.
“This is getting a lot of press but right now very few restaurants are doing this, and they mostly seem to be higher-end restaurants where they're just getting rid of tips,” she says.
California restaurant workers are a little better off than their peers around the country. California’s one of just seven states where tipped employees earn minimum wage as base pay, as opposed to a “subminimum” wage that tips are supposed to supplement.
Federally, that’s $2.13 an hour and has been so since 1991. Whereas California’s restaurant workers make $9 an hour, at least. So in this state, the conversation can get a little more philosophical. Allegretto says it raises questions about whether tipping should exist at all and what it means.
Fred Sassen co-owns Homestead, a casual but higher-end neighborhood restaurant in North Oakland that went tipless this month. A big part of his reason was that he didn’t see the point in tipping when there’s a more equitable way to compensate people.
“In the United States we are one of the very few industries that puts its employees and its livelihood in the hands of a patron to be generous,” Sassen says.
So he and other owners are putting that responsibility on themselves. To them, tipless really means asking patrons to pay more up front so you can pay your staff more fairly.