By Nick Twietmeyer, UW News Lab / Special to CHS
Slowly but surely, the concept of a tipless restaurant is gaining a foothold on Capitol Hill. It has been a year since Lionhead and the Renee Erickson trio of Bateau, Bar Mesuline, and General Porpoise ditched tips in favor of a service charge and flat hourly wages for their staff.
Several of Seattle’s high profile restauranteurs have followed suit while others on Capitol Hill say they are exploring the model. Some have cited Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law and concerns over a decrease in tipping as their rationale for the move. Capitol Hill owners who spoke with CHS said they were primarily motivated by offering more stability for their staff.
At the Sea Creatures trio at 10th and Union, owners said ditching tips was relatively seamless and popular among servers.
“Going tipless has actually helped us to attract the types of people we like to work with, namely professional servers and cooks,” said Jeremy Price, co-owner and operations manager of the Erickson parent company.
As part of the tip phase out, Price promised employees that overall take-home pay would not decrease. “Front of house staff is making the same as they were before. The back of house has seen an average 15 percent pay increase,” he said.
Optimism Brewing has taken a similar approach, where tip and tax are all rolled into the price of a beer. “We simply advertise a price for our product and the customers pay that price; the way it is at every other business,” said Optimism owner Gay Gilmore.
Gerene Fox, a 12-year service industry veteran now working at Optimism, said she was attracted to earning a flat wage. “I don’t know if I would’ve come on board if I thought I’d have to work for tips again,” Fox said.
Fox said she understands why some employees prefer to work for tips, but that it leaves out a large chunk of service industry workers.
“I think there’s a lot of people who love being able to work one or two nights a week, work Fridays and Saturdays, bang it out in a crazy bar,” she said. “But it takes a very specific person and I think there’s a lot of people who get lost in the cracks.”
As of January 2016, small business employees should be making a guaranteed minimum $12 an hour. Those with medical benefits or tips could be paid an hourly wage as low as $10.50 per hour. In six months, Seattle’s first true $15 an hour minimum wage requirements will go into effect at businesses with 500+ employees that offer no health benefits. UPDATE: We’ve tortured this paragraph into submission — hopefully. Let us know if it needs further work!
Outside of a few missteps, most owners seem to be rolling with changes. Pizza became a minimum wage talking point last year when the Capitol Hill outpost of the Z Pizza chain closed — the owner said it was because of the minimum wage law. However, warnings that the law would doom future pizza ventures did not pan out. Pizza on Capitol Hill is hotter than ever.
As part of the slow march to a city-wide $15 minimum wage, the city commissioned the University of Washington to conduct a series of studies on the law’s impact. The most recent study showed there has not been runaway cross-industry price inflation like some critics predicted, though prices in Seattle restaurants have risen roughly 7%.
Ivar’s Salmon House, one of the city’s most iconic chain restaurants, dropped tipping in April 2015. The restaurant initially added a 21 percent charge to all menu items while distributing the additional income equally among employees, in part, by increasing worker wages to $15 an hour. Ivar’s later implemented a line on the receipt where patrons can add an additional gratuity specifically for their server or bartender, but it is stated that “tipping is not expected.”
Tipless restaurants are still few and far between, but the $15 minimum wage law has brought some service industry precepts into question.
“Tips do not fix poor service,” Gilmore said. “If someone has a bad experience at Optimism, that is my fault, not the server’s.”
With reporting by Bryan Cohen