An Unlikely Sector Considers Liveable Wages

This blog originally appeared on Windsor's Pathway to Potential website on August 14, 2016, by Laura Tucker and is re-posted here with permission.


On a recent trip to Oregon to visit family, my partner and I found ourselves in Portland with a day to explore the city. Naturally, we decided that a food tour was the obvious choice on how to spend four hours of free time. I booked us for the “Epicurean Excursion” tour offered by Portland Walking Tours.

As we approached our sixth venue for the day — Park Kitchen — I noticed a familiar logo posted on their window. It was the Gratuity Free logo that restaurants across the United States have started displaying to alert diners that tipping is not required, nor expected.

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Having developed the strategy for launching our own living wage campaign here in Windsor-Essex, I had read about the United States’ Gratuity Free movement and had filed it away with the notion to check back at later date to see how the restaurants taking part, and the campaign in general, were doing.

The Gratuity Free movement started in New York City in 2015. According to an article by the Guardian on October 15, 2015, an influential restaurateur, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, rolled out a gratuity free plan in November 2015 at his more than a dozen establishments. Less than one month later, the New York Eater reported that another restaurateur, Andrew Tarlow, started to implement it at his restaurants. According to the article, Tarlow even designed the Gratuity Free logo — the one I recognized at Park Kitchen in Portland.

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Head Chef David Sapp


Admittedly, as we entered Park Kitchen, my head was spinning with questions. Once the tour participants had enjoyed their tasting, I casually derailed the food tour and asked for a quick interview with head chef David Sapp to find out more about their decision to go gratuity free. It turns out that they had just gone gratuity free eight days before my visit, and for these reasons, customer feedback was limited. Sapp did explain how they implemented a gratuity free structure and went on to say that so far, “the staff love it; they all got a pay raise.”

Sapp shared that the menu items at Park Kitchen have been marked up an additional 18 per cent, which covers what he calls a fair wage — $15 per hour — for all of their staff, who are all full time and who also receive full medical benefit coverage. It may be worth noting that as of July 1, 2016, the minimum wage for the Portland region in Oregon is $9.75. Oregon has also recently signed a minimum wage bill that will see this rise to $14.75 by 2022. Also, unlike what we have in Ontario, Oregon is one of seven states where there is no tip or liquor credit on the minimum wage for servers. In Ontario, servers are allowed to be paid $1.45 less than the minimum wage per hour with the assumption that the general public, through their tips, will cover the difference.

Let’s go back to Park Kitchen. I took note that the drink coasters were cut-up menus from the pre–gratuity free days. Park Kitchen’s menu item ‘the chef’s supper’, an eight-dish family style experience of the chef’s seasonal favourites, was priced $10 more, covering the aforementioned price adjustment. This still seemed to be a fair price, especially with a state sales tax of zero.

The owners’ goal at Park Kitchen is to make working in the restaurant industry a justifiable career path. “We adjust with the times and this [our team] is our most valuable asset, so the better the environment we have, the more they want to stay with us” said Sapp; “this is our sustainability plan”.

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Having been a former server, I was intrigued and wanted to know more about how the servers in particular felt about this change. The answer was a game-changer both for me — and for the industry as a whole. All of the members of the staff at Park Kitchen are cross-trained. This means that one day you may be in the back of the house and the next day in the front, therefore eliminating the very distinct divide between the two. Sapp explained, “the idea [of gratuity free] can sometimes be used against servers. Hiring for the back and training them for the front is our proactive solution”. It is a different way of implementing a gratuity free structure than others have done, and regardless of how it works on the inside, in the eight days of having the gratuity free menu, Sapp said that customers seem to like it because it is really simple and streamlined; “customers get out of our restaurant faster and don’t need to do math.”

Although wage changes to the industry are still very slow going, according to Statistics Canada, the number of food and beverage–related jobs is still increasing in Canada, and although it is relatively easy to enter this occupation, many servers leave as soon as they find a job with better working conditions. This also means that the demand for labour and the sector’s increasingly uncompetitive wages may be enough to get local restaurateurs to think differently. It is certainly an industry that gets a bad reputation and one that also has the power to change the poverty rate in our community. If you have not worked in the industry, I recommend reading Corey Mintz’s article A cycle of exploitation: How restaurants get cooks to work 12-hour days for minimum wage (or less), published in the Globe and Mail, for more insight on this sector.

So where does Ontario stand with this? Around the same time the Gratuity Free movement started in the United States, CTV News reported that a restaurant in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood started adding a 12 per cent administrative charge to each bill and profit sharing 10 per cent of restaurant sales to provide its staff with a “fair wage”. More recently, Toronto Life reported that this past May, prompted by labour shortage issues, another Toronto restaurant also joined the movement (implemented in a slightly different way).

According to data provided by Workforce WindsorEssex, in 2015, there were 11,265 people working in food service and drinking establishments in Windsor-Essex. This increased 9.6 per cent since 2011 and is expected to stay fairly steady. The average reported earning for those in this field in 2015 was $15,124 per year — with a living wage, this could mean a $10,000 difference to those workers.

So the question is: With a local living wage of $14.15 per hour (excluding employer paid medical benefits), are restaurateurs in Windsor-Essex able to do away with tips and embrace the living wage movement to help their employees, businesses, and community thrive?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

For more information on our living wage campaign click here.