To most Europeans, America is that annoying country where customers have to subsidize employee wages — i.e., where bars and restaurants pay low wages and expect customers to make up the difference.
In recent years, however, a progressive national movement dedicated to eliminating the practice has gained momentum. With restaurateur Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), leading the way, the effort is dubbed #HospitalityIncluded, and it's all about making sure employees get fair, living wages instead of relying on tips.
Now, Choices Organic Café is following Meyer's lead. The popular vegan spot, which boasts three locations, is opting out of tipping. The choice was an ethical one for the well-being of employees, says Lori Zito, president of Choices.
"Current federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13. This means that some restaurants pay their employees only $2.13 per hour. That’s all the government says they have to pay — and so restaurant workers have to rely on customer tips to make ends meet," Zito explains.
Alex Cuevas, cofounder of Choices
Courtesy of Choices
For several years, Choices has been working with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a New York City-based group that aims to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant employees. With ROC's help, Choices decided to take the leap.
Before making the decision, the chain's leadership invited all employees to a town-hall meeting where they could learn about the movement and voice concerns. "The announcement was met with unanimous acceptance and support by our employees at the meeting," Zito says. "They left me in awe, admiration, and gratitude.
"Studies have shown time and time again, that rarely does the amount of the tip have any direct correlation to the actual level of service," Zito explains. "It is an antiquated system that has been shown to foster sexual harassment and discrimination, and it can create animosity between co-workers. It often leaves the restaurant worker in a stressful financial situation, where they are dependent on customers in order to make a living wage, rather than dependent on their employer. Choices Café has never paid tipped minimum wage. But we believe we can do even better."
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As far as how the new system will work, Choices will adjust/raise its pay rates to provide employees with a fair wage, reflective of what they were earning with tips. Some menu prices may go up, but in the end they'll be comparable to what customers were paying with small added tips, Choices leadership assures.
"With these stable wages, they will no longer have to rely on customer tips, and they will be making the same amount of money, even if their store is not busy on the shift they worked," Zito says of Choices employees. "In addition, we will be launching a profit-sharing program." In the long run, they hope the new programs will strengthen staff commitment, compassion, and love for people, animals, and the planet.
"This is a pivotal and historical moment in the hospitality industry," Zito says. "These changes are already being rolled out in cities across the country by some of the most ethical and progressive businesses. We will join them on the forefront."