Seven years ago, Sophia Banks was a wedding photographer in Toronto when she made the decision to stop living a lie. She shed her male identity and came out as a trans woman. The first year after that decision was a struggle—both personally and professionally. “After I came out as trans, all these people cancelled their contracts on me. My sales on the wedding studio went from $100,000 to $10,000 a year,” she told VICE.
She lost her business and had to rebuild her life. That meant going back to the restaurant industry in her early 30s as a trans woman who was trying to figure things out. It also meant working behind the scenes for minimum wage because she says no one would hire her for a position that dealt with customers, despite her years of experience. “I ended up leaving Toronto because I couldn’t afford to live there anymore and I moved to Montreal and it was the same shit there too. Horrible kitchen work with low wages and shitty hours. It was just slavery.”
As someone with two decades of experience in the restaurant industry, Banks saw a lot of problems related to the practice of tipping, and the uneven distribution of that tip bounty. “There’s a lot of exploitation that comes with tipping and people’s biases or prejudices. Generally speaking, they’re going to tip the pretty blond waitress more than the elderly woman of colour,” she said.
Banks had done it all, from being a dishwasher, to being a sous-chef, but coming out gave her a unique perspective into how differently the industry treats workers who fall into different levels of the hierarchy. She describes the culture as one of “toxic masculinity,” which is inherently unfair.
She vowed to build something better. These days, she owns and runs a business called Vegan Canteen, which includes a vegan restaurant in Val-David, Quebec, with a no-tipping policy. And both of her employees—who will be joined by others in the coming weeks—make a “liveable wage” of $25 an hour, which is more than double the $9.80 minimum wage for servers in the province of Quebec (the province’s general minimum wage rises by 50 cents to $12.50 next week). The $25 her workers are making is slightly more than the average wage across the province, in all industries, which is $24.92. Banks says this combination of good pay and no tipping solves a lot of issues that are rampant in the food industry.
Banks and her life partner, who is from BC, picked Val-David because “it’s a super-chill little village that is queer and trans-friendly.” Many have described this community of about 5,000 people, nestled in the Laurentians, as being “like Tofino, but with snow.” And the cost of living is significantly lower than it is on Vancouver Island.
In addition to the restaurant, Banks has carved out a niche for herself with an organic vegan food delivery business that serves Montreal and Ottawa, with Toronto in its sights. Based on what she’s seen, there are places in her area that offer vegetarian-friendly options, but nothing comparable to her all-vegan business.
The ranks of Canadians choosing to cut out meat, have been climbing yearly, with approximately ten percent of the population identifying as either vegan or vegetarian. According to a survey by Dalhousie University, more than half of that meatless community is under the age of 35. “People seem very excited about it all because essentially there’s nothing vegan outside of Montreal. As vegan is growing more trendy, more people are getting onboard with it,” she explains.
Banks’ restaurant is adaptable, just as she has learned to be. For the last two months, it has offered a vegan alternative to the popular sugar shack experience in la belle province, which traditionally centers around maple syrup and all kinds of meat including tourtière and bacon. And you won’t find horse-drawn carriages or petting zoos that are often part of the cabane à sucre experience. “We offer an a vegan experience that doesn’t abuse or exploit animals,” says Banks.
In the next couple of weeks, the sugar shack will transition into a cafe and deli-style eatery which will be open seven days a week, rather than the current two days they operate on now. A new manager will be joining the company as well as other staff, all making a “liveable wage.”
High-quality, organic, locally-sourced vegan ingredients and well-trained staff with minimal turnover don’t come cheap. Banks says if you’re looking for an $8 meal, this isn’t the place for you. To offset the lack of tipping, there is an extra 20 percent baked into the already steep prices. A proper meal in the cafe can run $30, and Banks understands that may mean some customers can’t come in as often as they’d like.
She and her two arms-length business partners (who have invested in the company but give her free reign to run it) have agreed that profitability shouldn’t come at the expense of their staff. “Maybe we’ll make a bit less, but me and my business partners are fine with that. I don’t want to be contributing to exploiting people.”
Banks faces an uphill battle—more than half of new restaurants shut down within a year of opening. Even successful establishments that have tried the no-tipping or automatic tipping model have mostly ditched it.
One Earl’s location in Calgary tried a “hospitality charge” instead of tipping but stopped after six months. According to the website, the feedback suggested “people either loved it or didn’t.” It goes on to state: “we learned that we couldn’t do it alone without other restaurants following an alike model; it was simply too much of a change for most people.”
This specific change is exactly what’s needed to overhaul the industry, according to Banks. She says it results in employees who are there to stay and have a vested interest in seeing the business succeed, beyond just paying their bills.
“If I’m paying $25 an hour, you don’t have to be there 40 hours a week. You can study part-time. You can pursue your own business and pursue your other passions. I don’t want people to think of work as monotony and not have time to devote to their passions. I don’t want my employees feeling dead inside. Nobody wants to feel that way.”
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