One day, I interviewed two different Brooklyn restaurant owners.
The first — Sohui Kim of The Good Fork in Red Hook and Insa in Gowanus — has a gratuity-included policy at Insa. The other restaurateur relayed how there’s no way she could include gratuity and keep her price point low enough for her local customers. Whether or not gratuity included policies are financially viable or morally superior is hotly debated in gabby hospitality circles nationwide. Personally, I’m an over-tipping patron anyway — leaving 15% only for subpar service — and I’m a softie for making sure all staff are well taken care of. When gratuity is built into my check already, I breathe even easier.
But I don’t own or run restaurants.
So here’s Kim on why and how she works with a no-tipping policy.
Chef/Owner Sohui Kim
I’ve always felt a certain amount of inequity and unfairness in the tipping policy. Over years and years, I’ve worked for minimum wage for fancy chefs and put in my dues. And then I’d watch a waiter walk away with five hundred dollars in a night. I have a big sense of fairness, and so I thought that was wackadoodle. But I played the game and didn’t challenge it.
Now I feel terrible. How can you offer someone minimum wage to work twelve hours a day? We’re in the dark ages as long as we keep things that way. Before anyone else in the city was doing it, I was like why not? We ran the numbers, and while it’s not a perfect system, I wanted to do it. It’s part of our sense of family. It’s very important to us. I have loyalty because of that. How can you say, “You’re doing a wonderful job, can you do a double for $9.50 an hour?” I believe working in restaurants overall should be like any other industry where you’re paid on job merit. When we opened The Good Fork, we knew we had to treat people better and do any changes possible to make things better. At Insa, we did it from the start. Productivity is good.
Now it’s a big movement! Danny Meyer doing it across all of his restaurants was a total shock! If that man is doing it, then we’re on the right path. Pay people well.
It makes sense for restaurants to at least try. There are a lot of problems in the industry. But paying people over time, following the letter of the law, and giving people sick days should be a natural thing. I think it’s going to shake people up — you just can’t pay the back of the house poorly.
It also gives us better control as bosses and business owners, since we control all the money that flows in. It means we have an open policy, too; I will talk to anyone about how the money flows in and how it’s divvied up, because I’d rather have fairness. This is why I’m not a very good business person. I’ll never make money, but I’ll always be proud of my restaurants. I may not be able to send my kids to college, but they’ll have great stories about a mom and a dad who never stopped trying!
So far it’s working. We pay the back of the house better, they get overtime when they work doubles, and we have happy workers who make a living wage! We don’t have the uncomfortable talks about how they love working here, but ten dollars an hour isn’t doing it. Chefs who are having a problem getting cooks — there’s your reason. If McDonalds workers are going to get $15 next year, does it makes sense that a 2-Michelin starred restaurant is getting $10? We’ve been in the dark ages for so long. Food costs are skyrocketing. The bottom line is shrinking. It’s harder to find cooks. Tipped positions are going up and up. The whole restaurant model is getting a 2.0.
I’m really proud Insa is a part of this.