Dining With Denise Neil

Wichita restaurants are trying a controversial trend: No tipping allowed

The old saying goes that big trends hit New York and Los Angeles first, then show up in Wichita a few years later.

Now, an intriguing but controversial restaurant trend from the coasts has made its way into Wichita, and the businesses trying it out say it’s still too soon to know how well it’s working.

But they think it will.

It’s commonly called “hospitality included.” Restaurants that adopt the policy do not accept tips from their customers. Instead, they raise base prices to compensate for the loss of tips and pay their servers a higher hourly rate. In recent weeks, two restaurants in the Wichita area have begun operating under the hospitality-included concept: Elderslie Farm, a family farm turned fine-dining destination in Kechi, and Leslie Coffee Co., a warm Delano coffee shop that opened at 930 W. Douglas in December.

Hospitality included became a restaurant discussion topic in late 2015, when famous New York City restauranteur Danny Meyer announced that he would eliminate tipping at most of the restaurants in his Union Square Hospitality Group. Three years later, the company’s website says tipping is not allowed at 17 of the chain’s 19 New York City restaurants.

The idea, Meyer said in an October 2015 letter to customers, was to help even out pay among servers and their counterparts in the “back of the house,” whose contributions were just as important — the cooks and dishwashers among them.

“By eliminating tipping, our employees who want to grow financially and professionally will be able to earn those opportunities based on the merit of their work,” Meyer wrote in the letter.

Since then, many big-city restaurants across the country have gravitated toward the practice — even though media reports in the years after Meyer’s announcement have said his restaurants have suffered from high turnover and low staff morale. The internet is full of articles by industry people arguing in favor of and against the hospitality-included model.

George Elder, who runs the idyllic farm-to-table restaurant at his family’s Elderslie Farm with his chef wife, Katharine, said he’d read all about Meyer’s tipping policy when it first started, and he’d been thinking about it ever since.

About a year ago, he and Katharine started talking about whether it would work at Elderslie Farm, where they serve multi-course dinners on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Elder said that Meyer’s thinking just made sense to him. It had often bothered him that the dishwashers, whose jobs were just as important to the guest experience as the servers, were not able to benefit from tips.

“One of the things that hit me most about Danny Meyer — and we are working toward the same thing — is his idea that hospitality is a team sport and dishwashers and cooks need to feel like they have a way to advance themselves as do managers, servers and servers’ assistants,” he said. “The tip system focuses so much energy and money on the servers that it disproportionally creates one position in the middle of a team that, while it’s integral, is just not the only part of that team.”

Also, he said, diners would often fail to leave a tip at all. Sometimes, he figured, they were unprepared for the reality that a $70 meal called for a $14 tip — $28 for two. His servers would be crushed when they were passed over and would question what they’d done wrong.

Even less fair, he said, is that his servers couldn’t really plan their personal budgets since they never really knew how much they’d be making.

“Our best servers have budgets and families and need to know what they’re going to make,” he said. “They want to know what they’re going to get paid so they can make a commitment over a period of six months or a year and know it’s a good commitment for their family.”

Elder said that starting on Jan. 1, he raised the cost of the meal by “a couple of percentage points” and started paying all of his staff an hourly rate. He employs three servers in the winter months, more in the summer. He didn’t want to share his hourly rate but said it was comparable to other fine dining establishments and added that the restaurant does monthly profit sharing.

He added a paragraph to his menus and his website explaining the change, and he’s had several personal conversations with customers, some of whom say they just don’t feel right not tipping. He’s also prepared for customers who could be angry that tipping is part of the price and not optional. If that happens, he’ll try to resolve the situation for the customer.

The change is taking some getting used to not only for the customers but also for the servers.

Holli Todd started working as a server at Elderslie Farm in June. Her resume is full of server jobs, and she’s always worked for tips.

When she learned about Elderslie Farm’s new policy, she admits, she was uneasy. She didn’t really understand it.

But she loves working there, she said. She’s treated well, and she likes her coworkers and wants them to succeed, too. When she frets about the change, she tries to put the “selfish thoughts” out of her mind and trust her bosses, she said.

She’s going to give it some time.

“Tips have always been a big part of it for me,” she sad. “I’m 27 years old, and I have five kids, and I’ve always been really excited and motivated by the whole tipping thing. It’s just been so hard to get used to it. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it, but I trust that they have everyone’s best interest at heart.”

No more tip jar

Sarah Leslie opened her new Leslie Coffee Co. December, and she also declared her shop a “no tipping” establishment.

It’s a little different for her employees because the shop has counter service rather than table service, she said. But when Leslie had formerly worked as a barista, tips always caused a lot of anxiety.

Sometimes, the tip jar would be full at the end of a shift. Sometimes, it would be empty. The amount of tip money workers made really depended on when they were scheduled, not on how they performed their jobs.

“I know how things fluctuate between a busy opening shift with a bunch of regulars and a really slow close where not that many people come in,” she said. “I wanted to just eliminate all the energy that goes into tips — wondering ‘Did someone tip? Did someone not tip?’ — and instead focus on offering great service and being transparent with my staff.”

Leslie decided to set her menu prices a little higher and offer an hourly rate of $10 an hour to her employees. She also offers perks like paid vacation, holiday pay, paid training and employee discounts.

Since she’s just starting out, the pay is not as high as she wants it to be. But as time goes on, she wants to share her profits with her employees, and she has told them so.

“I don’t feel like it’s enough, but it’s as high as I felt I could go based on our prices and my projected sales.,” she said. “Ideally I would like to be closer to $15 for full time tenured staff in the future, but I’m not sure if we could achieve that without raising prices.”

When she tells prospective employees about her policy, they seem concerned at first. But no one has turned down a job because of it.

Persuading customers not to tip has been a little more difficult. During the first week at the business, people were looking for the tip jar and some seemed upset that there wasn’t one. Leslie finally posted a typed sign at her cash register explaining her policy.

“You may have noticed that the prices of our items are a bit higher than other coffee shops,” it reads. “This allows us to offer a higher starting wage, holiday pay, paid time off and other perks and bonuses. We believe that we are responsible for compensating our employees with a living wage for their work and offering them incentives to improve and grow.”

The sign offers people alternatives to tipping for good service, including praising baristas verbally, via e-mail or on social media.

Emily Hankins is one of the baristas at Leslie Coffee Co. and said she’s worked in other shops around town for tips. She’s taken a bit of a pay decrease working at Leslie Coffee Co., she said, but she trusts the process and she likes the atmosphere it creates.

“I feel like it takes a bit of stress off of us as employees to know that we’re getting paid the same no matter what and that we’re expected to provide that high level of service,” she said. “It’s very consistent. We’re still well taken care of as employees and still feel valued even though we don’t rely on tips.”

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.