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Tip the dishwasher? Short-staffed restaurants now take gratuities for kitchen staff

Line cooks and dishwashers are finally starting to get a share of the tipping jar — and a small but growing coterie of restaurant bosses say it’s good business. Ten months ago, as a nationwide labor shortage was ravaging the industry, North Carolina-based restaurateur Patrick Whalen began collecting tips for his kitchen staff in a desperate bid to curb turnover and keep the doors open. While skeptics predicted friction from customers and waitstaff alike, Whalen says the idea has since snowballed into what he believes is a smart business model. His five fine-dining restaurants, which include three Church and Union eateries in Charlotte, NC, Charleston, SC and Nashville, Tenn., have collected $591,000 in tips for kitchen staff since April. His company, 5th Street Group, has meanwhile matched as much as $500 a day in tips at each location — shelling out $486,000 to bring the total haul for the back of the house to nearly $1.1 million. If it all sounds like lunacy in an industry with razor-thin margins, Whalen says his offbeat wager has given him a major advantage over competitors as the industry scrambles to recover from the pandemic. “We were able to meet the massive pent-up demand for dining out because we have virtually no turnover,” Whalen told The Post, adding, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.” Also consider the fact that Whalen — looking to make sure that his servers didn’t end up making less money than they had before the new tipping initiative — forked out an additional $200,000 to pad the waitstaff tipping pool in cases where customers split the gratuity between the kitchen and front of the house. To convince skeptics he’s not losing money, Whalen has been publishing his restaurants’ weekly revenues along with how much money his staff earned in gratuities on Twitter. Since his 10-month experiment began, his top line has exceeded $20 million, according to the latest tweet from his @tip_kitchen account. Whalen has piqued interest from other restaurateurs with his new strategy. Ryan Marks, owner of Chicago-based Legacy Hospitality, says he is planning to roll out a tip the kitchen program at his three upscale restaurants — The Vig, The Whale and Welcome Back Lounge — after speaking with Whalen. “It always bothered me that on a Saturday our cooks are getting the crap kicked out of them and they are getting the same amount of money as a Tuesday,” Marks said. His servers, meanwhile, will “fight to work on Saturdays” because they will earn more when the restaurants are busy, he says. John Pope, chief executive of the company that owns the landmark Cavalryman Steakhouse in Laramie, Wyoming, said he added a line on customers’ bills this summer to encourage them to tip the kitchen staff. “The Great Resignation forced us to take action,” Pope told The Post. “We asked our customers to help us fix this pay imbalance.” About 15% of the eatery’s customers are doing so, which adds another $1 to $2 an hour to the staff’s pay, Pope said. The steakhouse now pays its kitchen staff an average of $14.42 an hour, up from $11.70 before the tips. “Our goal was to get their hourly rate to $15 and the tips have helped to get us nearly there.” The extra cash can add up to $250 per paycheck, said 24-year-old prep cook Hunter Nordwick. “It’s significantly helped me and my wife to prepare for our new baby,” he told The Post. At 5th St. Group’s restaurants, about 20% of customers are tipping the kitchen, but that along with the company’s contribution has pushed the pay of the lowest-paid full-time employee, including dishwashers, to $50,000, Whalen said. Across town in Charleston, another restaurant group called Macs Speed Shop, which operates nine barbecue and taco joints, has been tipping its kitchen staff at one eatery for about eight months and is rolling out the program at four new restaurants opening this year. It’s added another $2 to $3 an hour to the kitchen staff at Mexican eatery SouthBound, the company’s president Shang Skipper told The Post. But the rollout has not been smooth sailing all the way. “We’ve learned that we need a better way to track the tips because it puts a lot of pressure on our accounting team and to communicate it to our employees,” Skipper said. A small number of the company’s servers, he said, “thought that the money was being taken from them and complained about it.” Word of restaurants tipping kitchen staff has quietly spread to other cities over the past year, even though at least one eatery started doing it in 2014. Alimento of Los Angeles is credited with being the first to share gratuities with its kitchen staff — though it stopped doing so during the pandemic — and it’s not clear how many, if any, followed its example eight years ago. Big Apple restaurateur Willie Degel, who owns six Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse restaurants in New York and Georgia, plans to add an extra tip line to his customers’ checks for the kitchen as soon as his point of sale provider can change its formatting, Degel told The Post in January. Over the past two years, more people have left the hospitality industry than any other. Many took higher-paying jobs that have more steady hours. In November alone, about a quarter of the 4.5 million people who quit their jobs worked in restaurants and hotels, according to government data. “We consider the restaurant model broken right now,” Pope said. “But that’s also an opportunity to reset the economics of the industry.”

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