The first restaurant to backtrack on a no-tipping policy blames lack of business due to construction in South Lake Union.
Seattle restaurant Mollusk has removed its 20 percent service charge and returned to the practice of accepting tips, according to chef/owner Travis Kukull. The restaurant opened in October in a construction-beset pocket of South Lake Union, home of Amazon and, soon, Google, with the service charge in place from the beginning. But, Kukull says, “We just are not busy enough yet for it to make sense.”
Kukull — whose former restaurant Gastropod won critical acclaim in Sodo — says “a couple” front-of-the-house staff members left after being unhappy with the policy. Mollusk’s service charge was split equally between front-of-the-house and kitchen employees, bringing the latter up to $15 to $18 an hour. But, Kukull says, servers, bartenders and hosts were making significantly less than they had in their previous jobs.
Kukull still supports ending the practice of tipping. “I want it to work, and I think it’s a great idea and creates a better community atmosphere,” he says. “But we’re just not in a position to make it work … until we’re slammed.” Mollusk’s issue, he asserts, is one of location: “This neighborhood still needs a lot of work — needs to have more foot traffic and less construction.”
“It’s all about waiting it out for the neighborhood to grow up a little,” Kukull says.
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To make up the difference in wages for kitchen staff, he’s raised menu prices 10 percent, all of which is going to those workers.
He remains open to an eventual return to the service-charge setup. “We’re just adapting as we go along,” he notes. “This is all a new idea for everybody — you just have to be open to change.”
Change is the order of the day in the restaurant industry, with restaurateurs rejiggering their pricing structures to adjust for the incremental increase in minimum wage here, in New York and in California. One year into Seattle’s progress toward $15, some of the city’s lowest-paid workers report feeling financial relief. And while conservative think tanks forecast economic doom for Seattle, then made claims and produced numbers purporting to back it up, economists are waiting for meaningful statistics.
University of Washington professor Jacob Vigdor, who’s conducting a city-sponsored study on the minimum wage, tells The Seattle Times that in the meantime, “The sky is not falling.” A study from the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Seattle reports that the number of full-service restaurants in the city is up 23 percent since March 2014. Seattle is also experiencing a shortage of cooks, with other industry workers in demand. In January, one local bagel shop offered a $250 gift card for referrals for new hires.
In Seattle, Daniel’s Broiler, El Gaucho, Renee Erickson, Tom Douglas and the Huxley Wallace Collective have gone the service-charge or service-included route in an effort to keep servers at competitive compensation levels, while increasing pay to the historically less-well-compensated back-of-the-house workers. The practice of tipping also has been criticized for being racist, sexist and ineffective. Nationwide, other restaurateurs including New York’s prominent Danny Meyer are making the change.
Meanwhile, with Seattle rents continuing to rise, a movement toward secure scheduling for workers gaining support, and restaurant labor currently a seller’s market, the only thing certain in the industry is more change.