Photo by Jackie Klusmeyer.

I Got Rid of Tipping at My Restaurant to Fight Racism, Sexism, and Unlivable Wages

"Tipping started right after the end of slavery. It’s basically a tool to keep control over people, to keep control over indentured servitude."

|
Jan 21 2017, 5:00pm

Photo by Jackie Klusmeyer.

Sanctuary Restaurants is a nationwide initiative offering resources to restaurants, enabling them to support diners and restaurant employees who find themselves targeted or impacted by harassment, bigotry, or xenophobia. Over the following months we'll be talking to owners and chefs of Sanctuary Restaurants about why they joined the organization and what they hope to accomplish. In this installment, Fiore Tedesco—chef and co-owner of L'Oca d'Oro in Austin, Texas—tells us about why it's so important to get rid of tipping in the restaurant industry in order to create a safe space and provide an opportunity for all restaurant workers to earn living wages.

A restaurant is not a smart way to make money, but it's what I love. It's what I know. And If i'm going to put 100 hours a week for years and years into opening this business, I have to be doing something good. Making fun food is not enough; it's not nearly enough. I love all the things I create, I love the platform I have just as a chef, but that's not enough to make me feel good at night. [L'Oca d'Oro co-owner Adam Orman] and I both feel this is a platform of responsibility within an industry where there are systemic problems, like tipping.

Tipping is one of the tools by which discrimination is allowed to exist. I've seen the implicit racism that tipping leads to. Tipping started right after the end of slavery. It's basically a tool to keep control over people, to keep control over indentured servitude. Then you carry that 100 years further and you think about gender expectations and what one needs to do for a tip. In certain places, women have to exhibit a certain behavior and sell a certain something in order to get more tips, in order to survive in that atmosphere—and that sucks.

READ MORE: A Look Inside the 'Sanctuary Restaurants' Popping Up Across America

On our menu right now it says, "We include a 20 percent service charge with checks so everybody in the restaurant makes a living wage." It gets shared. It's distributed. Nobody in the restaurant makes less than $14 [an hour] at the end of the day.

The psychology that goes into making money by tips, it's an impoverished mentality, and it's the same mentality that leads to generations of classism, and it's the same mentality that NGOs around the world are trying to solve with sex workers.

By not having gratuity, the hospitality-included price is just 20 percent higher. You can just distribute that however you want, so rather than having $45-an-hour employees and having a $9-an-hour employee, you have $30-an-hour employees, and then nobody is below $15 an hour. Some of the servers at the top of that payscale don't get that top wage, but I could argue that that's not real. That's not an equal distribution of the work that is happening there.

In my restaurant, nobody makes tipped wage. Nobody makes $2.13 an hour (minimum wage for employees who receive tips). At $2.13 an hour we get a tax credit from the government; If I pay them more, i don't get that credit anymore.

Why does that exist? Who is the powerful restaurant lobby that makes sure it stays that way? The National Restaurant Association. So we're trying to make change.

You look at the president-elect's nomination for secretary of labor, it's like the Darth Vadar of possibilities.

This system that we're abiding by makes an antagonistic relationship. The customers don't win. The bartender doesn't win, because the psychology that goes into making money by tips, it's an impoverished mentality, and it's the same mentality that leads to generations of classism, and it's the same mentality that NGOs around the world are trying to solve with sex workers. It's the same power struggle, and so why in the United States in 2016 are we still abiding by this?

Our labor laws are set up within the restaurant industry in aiding and abetting that—making it hard to make progressive changes for the people who work for you. If enough restaurants stop working within the system of tipping, that tax credit no longer makes sense. There's no longer a lot of support for it.

All the things I was just preaching about, those are things we've been doing since the beginning, but we haven't felt as strong of a need to market that, to form a relationship, an alliance, a coalition—because I didn't think we were in the face of an enemy. Maybe enemy is a strong word, but you look at the president-elect's nomination for secretary of labor, it's like the Darth Vadar of possibilities.

My wife, along the course of the election process, was very excited (and then expectant) that a woman was going to be elected to office, and what the meaning of that was, and the symbolic notion of that, and the actionable part of that—what that meant for change and empowerment in gender equality. And to have that stripped away felt really cruel to my wife and to my daughter. I have a seven-year-old-daughter, and to have that be a lesson that she learns, the lesson that things are getting better and you are being empowered as a young woman, to have that stripped away at the eleventh hour felt really cruel.

READ MORE: This Portland Bar Won't Let You Tip for Drinks

[Joining Sanctuary Restaurants is] a response to the whole system and what it feels like this election is representing: a smaller voice for women, a smaller voice for minorities, and sort of a stronger voice for fear-mongering.

It feels like a dark ages with social issues, so do we accept that or do we fight? Our population, we don't fight enough. We have to fight for what we believe in.

By preaching bravery, by sharing with other restaurants, forming an alliance where owners are of a certain position of power and of the same mindset, we can form an alliance to show that we can retain talent better this way.

There's financial interest in this for the restaurant, but this is only going to really work if we form a strong enough alliance to combat the NRA [National Restaurant Association] lobby, to combat the minimum-wage tax credit, and get that repealed, and get that changed to a more progressive law that makes sense for everybody that works in a restaurant, that really brings awareness about what the facts are, and how to shift your business model to take care of people, and how that takes care of you as an owner. I do believe this, but we need to prove it. So we're trying to prove it, and we're trying to work with other people who are trying to prove it.

After the election, Adam and I spent a couple days upset and in shock, like 52 percent of America was. After that our whole staff was sad, but it's our job to be leaders—it's our job to set examples and get everything going. Adam brought it up and was like, "What are we going to do here to make it better?"

It feels like a dark ages with social issues, so do we accept that or do we fight? Our population, we don't fight enough. We have to fight for what we believe in.

As told to Brad Cohen