Earlier this week, news broke that one LA chef and restaurant owner had come up with an unusual solution to the increasingly controversial practice of tipping. Chef Zach Pollack added an additional tipping line to all receipts at his restaurant Alimento, allowing customers to leave a separate gratuity for the kitchen staff.
The reasoning behind the decision, Pollack tells Eater, is simple: "It was six to eight weeks ago. I had lost two cooks who were doing a really good job ... I couldn't afford to pay them more than I was, and they ended up taking higher paying jobs. Simultaneously, because of our success and our size, the floor staff is making a good amount of money. I couldn't come up with any more money from the restaurant to offer [the cooks]. "
"The tipping system as it is now is flawed." — Zach Pollack
Creating a kitchen tip wasn't the only solution Pollack considered. He also weighed the option of raising menu prices and eliminating tipping all together. He says that compared to places like Europe and Japan where service is included, tipping is just "a big part of our culture and our economics." He also considered including a 20% service charge — money which could be used at the restaurant's discretion towards wages or other expenses — but decided that it wouldn't fit the style of the restaurant. He also didn't like the lack of "transparency" with service charges. The new Alimento system, by contast, was "fairly easy to adopt." "The tipping system as it is now is flawed. Period," says Pollack of the traditional American payment scheme. "This is a fix. Is it perfect? Of course not."
Here's how the Alimento kitchen tip works. Customers have the option to leave a tip on the designated kitchen line when they are paying their bill. (It's "not a requirement or an expectation," says Pollack). Just as normal gratuities belong to the front of house staff and not the management, so do the kitchen tips belong to the kitchen employees. The kitchen tips are then pooled and divvied up.
Pollack explains to Eater that no salaried kitchen staff like himself or his sous chefs touch those tips. "It's line cooks, prep cooks, and dishwashers," he says. "Hourly people." Pollack also clarifies the pecking order of the back of house tipping breakdown, adding by way of example, "a line cook that has been here for a year will take a bigger cut than a dishwasher that started two weeks ago."
"It's a way to keep them happy, and give them a wage they deserve." — Zach Pollack
Pollack emphasizes that this tipping arrangement in no way reduces his responsibility to pay a good and fair wage to his kitchen staff. He has not lowered compensation because some of his kitchen staff is now tipped. And he also notes that this gratuity does not come at the expense of his servers. Rather, the kitchen tips are an added bonus. "It's a way to keep them happy, and give them a wage they deserve." Pollack likens his new tipping arrangement to the way that other restaurants suggest on their menus that customers buy the kitchen a round of beers. ("I'm sure they'd rather have the cash," he says).
Tipping laws vary state by state. In California, where servers make full minimum wage (as opposed to a lower tipped minimum wage), tips cannot be shared with kitchen members who are not directly involved with customer service. By creating a separate category all together, Pollack hopes to avoid the thornier issues of tipping out the back of house staff. Not surprisingly, Pollack consulted with an attorney and an accountant before implementing the policy.
But what do the customers think about it? Having only implemented the policy on December 2, Pollock says it's a little too soon to tell. Kitchen tips nightly have ranged from approximately 1.5% of sales to 4.5%, and Pollack isn't ready to call out a pattern yet. That said, Pollack seems optimistic. "Reception at the restaurant has been neutral to positive," he says. "We haven't had any resistance." He adds: "It's literally a more comfortable way for someone who just loved their meal and would like to give some money to the kitchen but doesn't want to slap a wad of cash in the chef's hand."
Whether other restaurants will follow Alimento's lead is unknown at this point, but Pollack remains hopeful. He believes that if more restaurants adopt the practice, restaurants producing better food will then offer better pay because of the tips. Pollack's vision is that this practice would "attract good line cooks to kitchens with good food."