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If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry, you are familiar with the historical inequitable pay disparity that exists between the cooks, dishwashers, and porters in the kitchen (known as the back-of-house, or BOH) and the servers and bartenders in what’s called the front-of-house (FOH). Personally, I’ll always remember how it felt when, as a 20-something line cook working at a high-end French restaurant in New York City, I would see the servers counting out tips after their six-hour shift—$200 to $300 each—as my fellow cooks and I neared the end of our 12-hour shifts, having made a fraction of that; I was taking home $375 after taxes for a 60-hour-plus work-week.
If you haven’t ever been immersed in restaurant culture, you should know that in Colorado, the BOH, who prepare your food and keep things clean and sanitary, typically earn an hourly wage which must meet at least the state’s mandated minimum ($12 an hour as of January 2020); they receive no tips from customers. FOH staff earn a lower, untipped hourly wage ($8.98 an hour), supplementing that with gratuities from guests. It’s a system based on the racist practices of the post-Civil War era that leaves BIPOC and female service staff at a disadvantage and under-compensates the kitchen crew, which are often made up of people of color and immigrants.
For restaurateur Bryan Dayton and chef Steve Redzikowski of Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality (HECH; the restaurant group behind Acorn, Brider, and Melted in Denver and Corrida and Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder) that system is outdated, unjust, and ripe for change. “We took the pandemic shutdown as a time to reset,” Dayton says. “Where does our industry go from here? Running back to a broken system that’s been playing on repeat for decades isn’t sustainable. We need a model that works for our employees, owners, and investors, that yields a better product and a healthier ecosystem.”
What does that model look like? Originally, Dayton and Redzikowski wanted to adopt a salary-only, five-day-work-week model at Corrida and Oak, HECH’s finer-dining Boulder concepts, including benefits like paid vacation time and subsidizing half of their teams’ health insurance coverage; if all went well, Acorn would follow suit. But in June, when Dayton and Redzikowski brought the plan to the furloughed staff they were in the process of rehiring, very few opted in.
“As much as we wanted people to jump onto salaries and go after that lifestyle, more staff wanted to stay hourly,” Dayton says. When speaking with 5280, both FOH and BOH staff cited flexibility and fewer work hours as reasons for opting out of a salaried position; two FOH and two BOH staff went for the salary model with full benefits.
“It was a mixed bag, so instead of salaries, we decided to give the entire staff a pay raise instead,” Dayton says. The new hybrid business model works like this: Salaried employees at Corrida and Oak work five days each week for $35,000 to $65,000 per year, depending on position; all salaried employees and any staff member who works more than 30 hours each week is eligible for benefits, including health insurance (50 percent paid by HECH) and two weeks of paid vacation. To equalize the pay rate for non-salaried workers, HECH increased BOH wages to start at $16.50 an hour, and FOH workers now earn $16.50 an hour with no tips.
You read that right: There is no more tipping at Oak at Fourteenth or Corrida. Instead, customers will find a 24 percent Community Value Fee (CVF) added to each check. Every dollar from the CVF is distributed back to the employees, with 20 percent going to subsidize wages and 4 percent going towards benefits. In the group’s own words:
“To give some context to these numbers, our average tip percentage in 2019 was 21.5% at Corrida, as well as our sister restaurants Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn. Our 24% Community Value Fee will add just 2.5% to our average tip from last year, or the equivalent of $2.50 for every $100 a guests’ check increases. Adapting to the changing environment during COVID-19, we have made real adjustments by lowering the overall price each guest will pay for their experience this year, and we hope guests will see this as a value much larger than 24%. The result of our new structure is balanced compensation distribution among all team members and the expansion of employee benefits at all levels. We believe this approach is necessary, equitable, and supporting of our values and mission. Our hope is to create a work environment where our entire team feels, and sees, the value of the work they do.”
At Acorn, the model looks a bit different, with a shared tip pool—all gratuities are split among BOH and FOH—and a 2.5 percent CVF added to every check to subsidize some of the pay and benefits. “We are experimenting in two lanes to see which works best for our business, our employees, and our guests,” Dayton says.
Under these new systems, HECH has left behind the hierarchy of titles and rigid roles to a model in which each employee is a “community member.” “The staff will work together under a ‘one team, one dream’ mentality, with flexible roles that can be adjusted on the needs of the restaurant,” Dayton says. That means that a server might help behind the bar or wash dishes, and a cook might run food out to guests.
For Jordan Gilbert, previously head bartender at Corrida, the move away from tipped wages is a step in the right direction. “The amount we’re making isn’t so much less than we were before, but the huge difference and the greatest thing I see is the consistency. We don’t have to worry about making more during the busy summer season and less during the slow winter months. Plus, now we’re all equal; everyone is reliable and everyone is capable. I feel that a lot more than I did before.”
Chef Sarah Beckwith, who helps run the kitchen at Oak at Fourteenth, says that her team is excited to be back at work on a more level playing field. “The cooks feel a bit more part of the team now, and that they’re being taken care of. They can still earn overtime, and the CVF is earmarked for their benefit. Plus, the cooks understand and appreciate that the FOH that did come back to work took a pay cut because they thought this was a more equitable system. It’s gone a long way towards us all feeling like we’re on the same team, making good food and hospitality and supporting each other.”
As for Brider, HECH’s fast-casual spot on Platte Street, “it’s a whole different animal,” Dayton says. It will continue to be open for lunch and dinner daily under the direction of chef Chase Devitt based on the tip pool model that’s been in place since it opened, in which all tips are split between all non-salaried employees.