Shake Shack founder and restaurant guru Danny Meyer famously said that "tipping is a hoax that fosters inequality
." As Meyer went on to explain, "Tipped employees ... are making about 300 percent of what they were 31 years ago. During that same period, everyone in the kitchen — the dishwasher, non-tip eligible employees — have seen their hourly income go up about 20 percent." And that Meyer says has created a false economy.
Whether you believe that or not, in 2015 the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants eliminated tipping from all of his restaurants leading the charge for others to do the same across the U.S.
In Charleston, however, the push for progress on the no gratuity front hasn't been much, aside from a discussion at the recent Charleston Wine + Food festival. However, today Charleston can finally claim one all-inclusive restaurant — Gaulart & Maliclet Fast & French Cafe.
"This has been something that's been in the works for years," says Fast & French co-owner Lawrence Mitchell. "We've always had an interesting and unique way of dealing with tips. We've always pooled them and used those to pay the wages of our employees. Regardless of busy or slow they were getting paid the same thing, except during Spoleto, then there would be extra hopefully and people would get bonuses. It's been this way for 30 years."
Now if the term tip pool makes you anxious, we understand. Many restaurants have been hit with lawsuits in the past few years for not handling tip pools correctly
, and here
). A tip pool can become illegal if employees who do not “customarily and regularly receive tips” are included in the tip pool. For instance, if dishwashers, cooks, chefs, janitors, etc. are sharing in the tips. If they are included, then the tip pool is illegal.
But this has never been a problem for Fast & French because, according to Mitchell, every employee handles every role at the restaurant.
"If you're working at Fast & French, you might have a dishwashing shift one night, then you might be at the register, then you might be waiting tables," says Mitchell.
Moving to an all-inclusive menu just makes what Mitchell and his co-owner Jennifer Bremer have been doing for years just a bit easier, he says.
"We've adjusted the prices for inflation and have a new menu," Mitchell says. "Mostly what we had to change was we hadn't had a chance to change to keep up with inflation. We folded in all of that so now everything is a flat fee." That means the lunch special — a half sandwich with a bowl of soup, fruit, bread, and a glass of wine — is $13 even.
And beyond making for simpler math, Mitchell says the shift has been a boon for efficiency. "Talk about speeding things up at the register, now you don't have this endless counting back change. It's streamlined."
But what of transparency. I've received more than one irritated email from family back in Washington state dining out in Seattle and not realizing the tiny font "no gratuity" sign at the bottom of the bill until walking out and looking at the receipt. Beyond the post on their Facebook page announcing the shift, is Fast & French making it obvious to customers that there's no need to tip?
"It's on the menu. It says that several places when you walk in there. We have a big sign at the register," says Mitchell. "And any money you leave will be donated to charity."
When Mitchell and Bremer approached the staff about the shift to an all-inclusive menu, they wanted Fast & French's employees to decide what to do with any extra money patrons may leave out of habit. They all agreed that giving extra cash to a rotating series of charities would be the best option. Lutheran Refugee Services is this month's benefactor. "After that they'll choose another one," says Mitchell.
So far Mitchell says Fast & French guests have reacted well to the change. "It's been really positive. Everyone likes to get in and out faster. Everyone likes that if you look at the menu, the lunch special they know they just leave $13. They appreciate that aspect."
Staff like it too. "We've always paid a living wage. What's different now is they're bonus is now going to be based on things like whether we've kept food costs low or kept the food waste down."
But as far as Fast & French leading a no gratuity charge in Charleston, well Mitchell is a bit more skeptical.
"We were uniquely positioned to make this change. We've always had the system we've had. I don't know if other restaurants can pull it off," he says. "I'm not sure it would work for a real service-oriented business plan."
Fast & French is open Mon.-Sat. for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.