Tom Colicchio says that ending the tradition of tipping would solve a lot of problems for restaurateurs and employees
End the practice of tipping and pay employees a living wage instead? Colicchio is on board.
Discouraging or even abolishing tipping: much of Europe has been doing it for years now, and individual restaurants around the United States are starting to catch on. Instead of tips, menu prices are adjusted, and servers are given a living wage so that they don’t have to live off of optional and erratic gratuities. Chefs and restaurateurs can also benefit from getting rid of the tipping tradition. In an interview, Top Chef star Tom Colicchio said he would be on board for a tip-less society, especially since most labor violations that end up in court actually stem from problems with gratuity.
“If I increase my menu prices by 20 percent and do away with tips, then I guarantee that these lawsuits would disappear,” Colicchio told The Daily Meal. “This is why we want to have a new system where there is no tipping.”
Colicchio went on to explain that a few months ago, rumors had been going around on Twitter that he and David Chang were going to be the first celebrity chefs to dip into the tip-less pool, but it hasn’t happened yet. He says that younger diners at his restaurant are already getting used to a tip-less society with Apple Pay, Uber, and OpenTable, which all include tax and gratuity costs in the initial fees.
“Nobody wants to be the first to do it,” he said. “It’s hard to be the first one to get out there, because customers still like to think they are in control of what their server makes. But five years from now, I’d be surprised if tipping hadn’t practically disappeared altogether.”
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“We’ve raised our prices maybe $1.25 in 10 years,” said Armando De La Torre Jr., owner of Guisados, which opened in Boyle Heights in 2010. “Every time we do it, we are so afraid.
“Whenever we raise our prices, we’re going to lose customers,” he said, adding that Guisados last raised its prices in February 2020. But over the last few years, and particularly since COVID-19 gutted the restaurant industry, “So much has changed in terms of rent, labor, insurance, general liability, and on and on and on,” he said.
“We’re not doing this to be selfish.”
America loves inexpensive food. Cheap-eats lists grace almost all major food websites, and in this democracy the right to dollar menus, 99-cent cans of Arizona Iced Tea and $1.50 Costco hot dogs (drink included!) is nearly as self-evident as the pursuit of happiness.
I’m not criticizing people’s enjoyment of fast food or a cheap snack — I’ve written plenty about that and even hosted a web series dedicated to it. But as we shake off a year of pandemic brain fog and barrel toward a return to indoor dining, independent restaurants continue to face challenges. Rising food and labor costs, pandemic-related expenses (additional training, PPE, outdoor dining tents and propane heaters), high delivery-app fees, and new competition from ghost kitchens and low-overhead pop-ups make climbing out of the COVID hole that much more difficult.
Eating in restaurants should be more expensive. It’s worth it.
This won’t be a popular opinion raising restaurant prices would put dining out, already a luxury, out of reach for some. But as a country, we’ve become so used to the idea of cheap food, we’ve forgotten the actual cost of hospitality: the time and labor that goes into growing, preparing and serving a responsibly sourced meal.
No one wants to pay more to eat out. But while rising costs shouldn’t be borne exclusively by diners, the burden can’t rest solely on our restaurants either. In an age when it’s common to shell out thousands on personal electronics without a thought, does it make sense to chafe at a salad costing more than $12?
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The growing dominance of fast food in the restaurant landscape also has fueled the notion that some foods — tacos, pho, sandwiches — “should” cost only a certain amount. And if we balk at a price perceived as too high, there’s inevitably a Panera down the street that’s more than happy to satisfy our sense of “should.”
“The economics of our situation are less favorable than ever,” said Heather Sperling, co-owner of Botanica, the Silver Lake restaurant. “And they were never that favorable.”
The highest profit margin Botanica has been able to achieve since opening in May 2017 is 5%. In 2019 it was 3%. “This is just an unbelievably expensive industry,” said Sperling. She and co-owner Emily Fiffer “could and might have to” raise prices in the near future. “We get very nervous about that,” Sperling said.
Botanica has relatively high food costs — around 30% of the restaurant’s expenses — largely due to its ethos of sourcing from small, local producers. And with every dish comes the calculus of assigning a price that not only allows the restaurant to make a small profit but incorporates what Sperling calls “emotional” or “contextual” cost.
“How are they going to perceive the value of this dish?” Sperling asked. If diners decide they could cook a given dish themselves at home, the sense of value decreases. One Google reviewer wrote of Botanica’s Turkish eggs, “So if your [sic] the ultimate hipster who likes to pay $16 for 2 eggs and some lettuce then this is the place for you. ”
Sperling responded by explaining the local sourcing of the eggs, lettuce and bread in the dish, and why that necessitated the price tag.
“It’s a very challenging line to walk,” she said.
De La Torre constantly wrestles with perception and expectation at Guisados, with seven locations, which he operates with his father. They face an additional barrier — a preconception some hold that Mexican food should be inherently cheap.
“It’s a really difficult situation to be in,” De La Torre said, “especially for our specific situation: We sell tacos.”
Part of Guisados’ mission is educating consumers that there’s more to Mexican food than carne asada, he said, as well as disabusing diners of the notion that tacos should always be cheap. “A taco costs more than a dollar to make, and we need more to survive than a dollar per taco,” he said.
That bias — the notion about how some things “should” be priced — makes it even harder to fight rising food costs. The Producer Price Index (prices that domestic producers receive) increased 12.4% for farm goods between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (By comparison, there was only a 3.9% increase for processed foods.)
One week, as an experiment, De La Torre charged 25 cents for salsa to help defray the cost. The feedback was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. “We had to stop it right away,” he said.
“I get customers that bring their own avocados. They bring their own avocados,” De La Torre said. “I don’t think they’re bringing their own pita bread into Bavel!”
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Guisados’ prices still receive criticism and comparisons with cheaper competitors. But with the rising cost of labor in California ($14-an-hour minimum wage for businesses with more than 25 employees), there was no choice. “If Guisados was still operating at $2.50 per taco, which is where we started at, we would have been closed by now,” De La Torre said.
Food cost is only a portion of what restaurant owners wrestle with. The other big part — a thornier part — is the cost of labor. The traditionally accepted disparity in pay between front- and back-of-house employees is rooted in racial and class bias: A 2015 study conducted by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers illustrated how Black and Latino workers were less likely to be employed in more lucrative front-of-house positions — hosts, servers and bartenders — than their white counterparts. Some restaurateurs are working to change that disparity, but raising back-of-house wages necessitates the further shaving down of thin profit margins or exploring other avenues to get that money.
Within front-of-house remuneration lies another issue: that of tipping, another traditionally accepted practice that has been shown time and time again to be regressive and problematic.
But it’s also a practice that’s difficult to end. In 2015, restaurateur Danny Meyer decided to raise menu prices and adopt an all-in, no-tipping policy in the name of pay equity. But he soon encountered a difficult truth: It’s hard to get rid of tipping unless everyone else gets rid of it too. Line cooks got raises but some servers took pay cuts — and promptly quit. Meyer’s hospitality group officially ended the policy last year. Other restaurateurs, including David Chang and Tom Colicchio, also briefly experimented with a no-tipping model but ultimately reverted.
At Botanica, Sperling weighed options to cover rising costs, including adding an 18% to 20% service charge to checks, a practice more restaurants are beginning to adopt. She eventually settled on adding a smaller 4% service charge in 2019. That extra cash allowed her to guarantee back-of-house staff an additional $2 per hour while avoiding the potential tax burden of collecting 18% to 20% from diners — money considered revenue for the restaurant.
The psyche of the diner is another consideration. Adopting a policy of eliminating tipping but substantially increasing menu prices was not an option for Sperling: “People see [higher menu prices] and they get total sticker shock,” she said. While a $19 entree might end up costing $25 with tax and 20% tip, diners still want to see that smaller number on the menu.
At Guisados, De La Torre has opted for small price increases instead of an additional service charge. Even if he were to clearly spell out that the money went entirely to restaurant workers, he said, “A lot of customers wouldn’t want to pay that,” firm in their belief that “restaurants are responsible for paying their employees.”
In 2014, Zach Pollack, chef-owner of Alimento and Cosa Buona, began adding a separate tip line for kitchen staff on checks at Alimento in 2014 — something he got “a ton of heat” for. He derided the notion that 20% of a restaurant’s income should be exclusively reserved for servers: “The idea that a fifth of the money that consumers spend on an industry whose margins are 10% on a good day goes exclusively to waitstaff was insane to me,” he said via Instagram direct message. (In 2018, Congress vacated a law that prohibited tip-pooling with back-of-house employees.)
Small farmers, meanwhile, are fighting their own battles with pricing. Meredith Bell, owner of Autonomy Farms in Bakersfield, specializes in hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and eggs. She said customers at L.A. farmers markets are understanding of her prices, which are higher than you’d find at large supermarkets. Still, the margins aren’t enough for her to provide health insurance for her seven employees, something she aspires to do.
Bell competes with large-scale meat producers that operate less sustainably than she does but can sell meat for a fraction of the price. Bell sells chicken retail for $6.50 per pound. At big chain stores, it’s easy to find chicken for $1 per pound Costco famously sells a $4.99 rotisserie chicken.
“I don’t know what they do,” Bell said of large purveyors. “I don’t know how it’s financially feasible.”
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Economies of scale explain some, but not all, of rock-bottom meat prices. “It blows my mind when people offer turkey at 99 cents a pound,” she said. “My cost of just getting the turkey at 2 days old is $7.” Then, there’s the cost of raising the animal for the next five months.
“It’s almost misinformation,” she said. “When people are buying cheap food, no one stops to think: How do they do this? What am I eating here?”
Bell rejects the notion that eating healthy, sustainable food is a luxury for the rich: “It should not be for elitists,” she said. “Good food should be accessible to everyone.” But she has to pay much more to process chicken — around $3.75 per bird — than large-scale producers, who can pay a fraction of that amount. “I have to be given the same opportunities to get my animals processed and slaughtered,” she said.
Ultimately, she’s concerned about farmers being pushed toward greater efficiency at the cost of quality. “I worry about the future of food and where it’s going,” she said.
How did we get here? And what are some possible solutions?
Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of Food Studies at New York University, will tell you that America’s cheap food obsession began in earnest during the Reagan years. “From the 1980s on,” he said, “It becomes a patriotic American thing to be suspicious of government [and embrace] lower taxes. And cheap food became a part of the package.”
In addition, a long history of immigrant butchers, bakers and restaurateurs, Ray said, adopted a labor model where owners employed family members, often unpaid. When that’s the tradition, it becomes difficult to “carry the burden of a worker making a livable wage,” Ray said. That industry model still weighs on some restaurants today, which run on paper-thin margins and have few corners left to cut.
“The consumer has to pay some of the price,” Ray said, “if we care about better food, better jobs, better care of animals.” But the government, he said, also must pitch in. Medicare for all or an extension of the Affordable Care Act would be a way of “socializing the cost” of supporting restaurants by ensuring the health of workers.
Ray also suggested that the restaurant industry unite to address the growing dominance of delivery apps, which charge fees he calls “criminal.” He pointed to developments in Singapore during the pandemic as an example of what could happen when “instead of competing to the bottom, you collaborate with each other.”
Entrepreneur Jack Ong worked with a group of developers to create Makan Guru, a delivery app created to help Singapore’s beloved food-hawker community. The app takes only a 5% commission (30% is standard) and proceeds are donated to a local YMCA. Less formally, a Facebook group called Hawkers United acts as a hub for people to promote their favorite vendors, sharing addresses and phone numbers to encourage diners to buy directly without a middleman. The group has 286,000 members — not bad for a country of 5.7 million.
That kind of noncompetitive banding together is what ultimately will give restaurants a fighting chance in this new era. Could it happen in a country as vast and individualistic as the U.S.? “American politics is changing,” Ray said. “That’s what’s hopeful. At least half of Americans are willing to consider these things.”
If we care about sustainable food, more equitable pay for workers and supporting an industry as it recovers from its annus horribilis, we’ll need to. And it will be worth it. “I’ve been saying for years the best deal to be found anywhere is just eating at a restaurant,” Pollack said.
He’s right. Good food, and good service, are worth paying for.
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Lucas Kwan Peterson is a James Beard Award-winning columnist and video producer for the Food section.
No tips? No way, Fla. restaurant staffers say
He lays out crisp fives and crumpled ones and piles of change that jingle coming out of his pockets. He sets aside 1 percent for the busboy and a 1/2-percent for the hostess. He carefully stacks his credit card receipts, double checking each one.
“You lose a credit card slip and you don’t get whatever money was on that slip. That could be half your day’s pay,” Hajek, a bartender and server at Cristof’s on McGregor in Fort Myers, said.
“You’ve always got to be careful.”
This meticulous tip-counting routine is a familiar one for the more than 2.4 million waiters and waitresses working at restaurants across the United States.
And it’s a routine some high-profile national restaurateurs are eliminating.
Last week restaurant magnate Danny Meyer announced he would do away with tips at his 13 New York City restaurants. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio made a similar move in September, getting rid of tips during lunch service at his flagship Manhattan restaurant Craft.
With the move Meyer plans to increase menu prices by close to 20 percent, according to New York Eater. The change will mean higher wages for not just his wait staff, but for back-of-house dishwashers and cooks, as well — positions that are not allowed to share in tips due to current labor laws.
“Starting at The Modern in late November, you will no longer find a tip line on your check, and there will be no need to leave additional cash,” Meyer said, referencing his most expensive restaurant.
Danny Meyer says there will soon be no need to tip at his New York eateries
“Once these changes are implemented, the total cost you pay to dine with us won’t differ much from what you pay now. But for our teams, the change will be significant. We will now have the ability to compensate all of our employees equitably, competitively and professionally.”
While the no-tipping model might make sense for some in New York, a place where cooks are in critical demand and servers are easy to come by, local restaurateurs and servers say here it would never work.
They point to the seasonality of the local hospitality industry, where restaurant revenues can fluctuate by 50 percent or more from the peak of tourist season in March to the dregs of late summer.
But there also seems to be a very strong pro-tipping mindset locally, among not just wait staff and restaurateurs, but also the dining public they serve.
In an informal Facebook survey conducted by our food critic Jean Le Boeuf this week, more than 70 percent of respondents preferred the standard tipping model to paying higher menu prices and not having to tip.
“The move towards a non-tipped environment is a new and somewhat small concept with only a handful of restaurants testing it nationwide,” said Christin Fernandez, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.
“As the industry of hospitality, we’ve found the practice of tipping has traditionally attracted millions of employees to our industry and still has strong support from American diners.”
But some would like to see the industry change.
Many factors influence tipping
When Matthew Neff opened Neff Studio Salon in Cape Coral in 2008 he had a handful of talented hair stylists, eight chairs and one rule: No tips allowed.
“My stylists are professionals. They are guaranteed an hourly wage, paid vacation, paid sick days,” said Neff, whose salon has doubled in size since opening.
“They get their guaranteed hourly wage, plus a commissioned bonus based on retaining clients and hard work.”
Neff acknowledged salons are a very different business model from restaurants. But there is some overlap – those awkward moments waiting to see if customers leave any change arguing over who will take care of the notoriously low-tipping client that just walked in the door.
“You have a bad taste in your mouth before they even sit down,” Neff said. “It’s a bad experience on both ends.”
In Florida the tipped-minimum wage rose to $5.03 in January, a 12-cent increase from 2014. That’s still more than $3 less than the state’s minimum wage of $8.05.
Servers rely on the tips of diners to make up that difference and earn a living.
But diners are a fickle lot.
“Tipping is very personal,” said Randy Upchurch, director of the School of Resort &Hospitality Management at Florida Gulf Coast University. “It’s as much based on culture as it is one’s psychology.”
According to U.S. News & World Report, diners don’t tip based on service but rather based on personal tipping patterns. If you’re used to tipping 20 percent, you’re going to do so no matter how slowly your water was refilled.
A 2014 Nation’s Restaurant News study showed the average U.S. diner tips 18 percent. Men tip more than women, on average, the study found. Diners in the Northeast proved the most generous, those in the Midwest the stingiest.
Watch the boats go by as you enjoy waterfront dining at Rumrunners in Cape Coral. (Photo: The News-Press)
And then there are the intangibles: Waitresses who wear red get higher tips from men, according to a study in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research. Touching diners on the arm, squatting to eye level, and drawing a smiley-face on the bill have also been shown to increase tips for men and women, according to a 2014 study published in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly.
Tipping culture can also get downright ugly.
Anecdotally at least, servers pay less attention to single diners and customers who don't appear as though they'll tip well. Studies have also shown minority servers receive smaller tips than their white counterparts.
"Tipping culture encourages exploitation of workers by owners, and abusive behavior by entitled consumers,” reader Katherine Brownell noted in our Facebook poll.
“Going out to eat as a single younger woman often results in horrendous service from tip-driven staff,” she wrote, “and I can't really blame them for focusing on the rudely demanding older couple when I'm worth ‘less’ (from an economic standpoint) and they have bills to pay.”
Tips are here to stay
Todd Johnson has shared a kitchen with Tom Colicchio, at a restaurant owned by Danny Meyer. Johnson, the chef-owner of Rumrunners in Cape Coral, worked for a stage at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan while preparing to open Bistro 41 in the 1990s.
He appreciates their tremendous talents. He respects their business acumen. But he also has doubts on their no-tipping strategies.
“They’re going to lose some great servers,” Johnson said. “I think the superior-quality servers are going to stay away from that. Do you want cash tips or do you want to punch a clock and make a salary? Cash wins out.”
Johnson said his servers keep their tips, paying out a small percentage to bussers, food runners and bartenders at the end of each shift.
As a lifelong cook, Johnson said he’s rarely been jealous of the money made by front-of-house staff. His cooks are free to wait tables if they’d rather, but most have a passion for food and no interest in tending to temperamental customers.
Many of Rumrunners servers have been with the restaurant since its inception. Johnson credits his low-turnover rate to steadier-than-average business and loyal regulars. His waiters know they’ll make good money during season, and that they won’t starve come summer.
Upchurch said restaurateurs use tips to incentivize servers.
Courtney Johnson, of Rum Runners, calculates the check for customers during the lunch rush in Cape Coral on Wednesday. (Photo: Jack Hardman/The News-Press, Jack Hardman/The News-Press)
“It’s about ensuring the quality of your guests’ experience,” he said. “Serving is personal selling, it’s selling yourself to a customer, and tips can promote that.”
The overwhelming number of readers surveyed also saw tips as a means of ensuring good service.
“If the tip was included in the price of the food, I have a feeling the crappiest of servers would only get worse because they have no motivation to improve,” Kristin Marie said via Facebook.
Vannette Packard put it more succinctly, “Tips speak.”
Upchurch said the standard of tipping, or not tipping, becomes endemic to various cultures. In Europe and Japan tipping is seen as rude and insulting.
Here in the U.S. it’s the accepted norm.
“Tipping’s been around since forever,” Upchurch said. “That’s not something that will change with the flip of a switch.”
Back at Cristof’s, Hajek credited his wife, an IT professional, for providing cost-effective healthcare benefits for their family. On a good night Hajek said he can make $200 or more, but a slow one could mean just $30.
Serving is Hajek’s career. He’s done it for 25 years. His first words of advice to new trainees: “Save, save, save during the good times,” he said.
So would he go to work at a non-tipping restaurant if it meant a steady, say, $17-an-hour wage?
“To be honest, if they could guarantee 40 hours a week I might try it,” Hajek laughed. “I’d definitely try it for the summer, then head back to Cristof’s once season hits.”
Tipping Is Bad, But ‘No Tips’ Might Be WorseThe owners of Chez Panisse in the San Francisco Bay Area have added an automatic surcharge to bills in lieu of tips. (Ulterior Epicure / Flickr / Creative Commons)
Tipping is falling out of fashion — at least if you believe a new article in the New York Times. According to Pete Wells of the paper’s Dining and Wine section, the practice is “ irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.” And some fancy restaurants, it seems, are looking to get rid of it.
We’ve covered the many, many problems with tipping here at Working In These Times, from the ease (and creativity) of wage theft to the low pay rates it enables. Recently, I wrote about the fight launched by the Restaurant Opportunities Center-New York (ROC-NY) to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to the same level as the regular state minimum wage, which would allow tipped employees to be able to rely on at least a guaranteed income when they go into work. But those of us who support workers in the restaurant industry face a complicated conundrum: Though we universally acknowledge tipping to be problematic, the odds of restaurants paying servers a comparable wage if tips are eliminated seem pretty slim without some major changes in law and practice.
I’m hardly a defender of the tipping system — as a former server, I know all too well the abuses and uncertainty it leaves servers facing. But it’s worth noting that if high-end restaurants and chefs are leading the charge against tipping, it may not be because they have their workers’ best interests at heart. In her book Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman of ROC United notes that only 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a living wage, and those jobs are overwhelmingly concentrated in fine dining. That means that the few servers who do make decent money in the restaurant will most likely see a pay cut, not a raise, if their restaurant moves away from tipping and toward paying a salary.
Chef Tom Colicchio, who told the Times that he’s thinking about doing away with tipping at one of his New York restaurants, said he wanted to pay servers “ an hourly rate that would be consistent with what they make now.” We assume that means what they make with tips, but we don’t know what their new hourly rate will actually be. Colicchio noted that he’s not sure his staff will like the new system — suggesting that he’s aware that it’ll be hard for the restaurant to cover the typical tipped income of a server at a fine dining establishment, so their pay may well be lower than it would have been with tips.
Other chefs and owners have already begun substituting a service charge for the expected tips, according to the Times. Rather than most restaurants’ current system of paying kitchen staff out of the general income and then expecting tips to cover almost all servers’ wages, these restaurants split an 18 percent automatically added fee among all of their employees. But presuming that most servers make between 15 and 20 percent in tips per table and share only a small percentage of that with bussers, food runners and bartenders, dividing an 18 percent “ service charge” among the whole staff will lower the servers’ income — and there’s no mention of whether their hourly rate will be increased in turn to that of the cooks or dishwashers, who legally have to make at least the federal or state minimum wage.
Meanwhile, these owners express concern that line cooks and dishwashers haven’t seen their wages increase as a result of this system, as though they aren’t the ones who set those wage rates for back-of-the-house workers. Instead, they’re effectively playing off one group of exploited workers against another.
And as Wells notes, restaurants “ depend on tips to make their payrolls. The temptation to treat that money as general revenue can be hard for some to resist.” Treating tip money as general revenue is illegal under current law — we call that wage theft. Restaurants are allowed to pay a sub-minimum wage (federally just $ 2 . 13 an hour and higher in some states) to tipped employees because tips make up the difference. It’s not the restaurant’s money to take, in other words, unlike the money charged for the meal. Yet restaurants have been caught repeatedly taking cuts of servers’ tips. Wells acknowledges that lawsuits over wage theft are part of the reason that some of these restaurants are moving away from tipping. It seems that temptation is indeed too hard to overcome.
One restaurant owner complained to the Times that “ as you grow to a certain size these days, and you’re high profile, everyone starts examining what you do,” and obeying the letter of the law for tipped employees means having to focus on nitpicky things like “ Did they get paid overtime for their sidework?” (Sidework, for those of you who haven’t worked in restaurants, is the work servers do, often before or after their shift, to set up or break down the dining room and prepare for the next meal. Depending on the restaurant, it can be as simple as rolling silverware or as onerous as scrubbing walls and scraping gum off the undersides of tables — two things that I personally had to do as a waitress making $ 2 . 13 an hour when not being tipped.)
Many questions remain. Will restaurants that voluntarily forego tipping still manage to dodge minimum wage laws? What are these restaurants that don’t accept tips actually paying servers, and how are they calculating whether those wages are consistent with what servers made before? What happens to servers at less fancy restaurants, where diners, as Wells mentions, are less likely to accept service charges or price increases, and where, as Jayaraman has pointed out, servers barely scrape by anyway?
Eliminating tipping without a guaranteed living wage for restaurant workers won’t be progress. Indeed, if this change comes from high-end restaurants on down, it may well end up taking money out of workers’ pockets rather than helping them, as we’ll have to take the bosses’ word for it that they’re compensating staff fairly when the law only requires the bare minimum. We need better wage and hour protections for tipped workers, including a long-overdue increase in the tipped minimum wage. If tipping is going to be eliminated, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t slash the income of hundreds of workers in the name of “ fairness.”
No tip for you: restaurants move toward hospitality-included menus
“Hmmm,” was the considered opinion of a member of the waitstaff at Manhattan’s Union Square Cafe last week when asked about working for a set wage, not tips. “It’s good to know how much is coming in,” the staff member later reconsidered. “Not so good if you need to make cash fast.”
A little over 18 months ago, restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that the famed cafe, as well as other full-service restaurants in Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, would phase out tipping, ending a practice that Meyer said has roots in slavery. The news sparked a national discussion on tipping in a country where gratuities have embedded themselves in the national culture.
To date, seven of Meyer’s 14 restaurants have made the transition to “hospitality-included”. But in the restaurant business at large, the change has yet to be widely adopted, challenging, as it does, restaurant economics and deeply entrenched conventions of hospitality and service in the US.
Others describe hospitality-included as a well-meaning effort to address longstanding inequalities, including wage disparities between kitchen staff and servers but say it adds a level of bureaucracy and bookkeeping to businesses already struggling under increasing real estate and wage costs.
Efforts to rid the industry of its tipping habit have been further complicated by the impending raises in minimum wage in many states, including New York, following a campaign fueled primarily by service industry workers such as food servers. Many restaurants are waiting to see how that plays out on the industry’s stressed economics.
“We found that tipping stood in the way of being able to reward our backhouse staff and our managers,” says Union Square’s chief restaurant officer, Sabato Sagaria. “If we eliminate tipping we can compensate all our workers.”
To accommodate the transition, the group immediately put up prices by 25%, a shock to restaurants less well-supported by the expense account trade. Sagaria says hospitality-included costs brings the restaurant business into line with other, tip-dependent businesses that have been transformed.
“People have seen the convenience with the all-inclusive pricing model of Uber and some of the food-delivery services,” Sagaria says. “Plus customers don’t have to dust off their high school math.”
In addition, says Sagaria, restaurants and waitstaff no longer need to read the appreciation of their performance through tips – the group invites diners to direct their comments directly on a card provided with the check.
Last week, customers said they did not object to hospitality-included since it took the mathematical guesswork out of paying the check – but as veterans of waiting tables, they recalled the disappointment of being tipped badly.
Tori Campbell, a publishing executive who previously worked as a waitress, said it was shameful that the restaurant jobs often pay barely enough for workers to survive in a city such as New York. But waitstaff, she said, are often doing it as a means to an end, while the lower-paid kitchen staff are often learning a career trade, so the inequalities are in some senses justifiable. “It’s the system that works, but unless you’ve been in it, it’s hard to understand,” she said.
Some say hospitality-included is a well-meaning effort to address longstanding inequalities, including wage disparities between kitchen staff and servers. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rival managers say that while everyone would like to pay their staff more, killing the tip doesn’t work under the current model.
Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin told the Daily Meal last year that the “vast majority of my employees prefer tipping and therefore I will not change the policy. The tipping policy is beneficial to everyone in my opinion, including waiters, customers, and owners. Only the government benefits from no tipping.”
Other well-known chefs have experimented with hospitality-included, including New York stars Gabriel Stulman at Fedora and Tom Colicchio at Craft, only to reverse course. Stulman explained to Eater New York he’d have to raise prices or cut wages, neither of which he “felt comfortable” doing.
Sagaria concedes that the transition from a tipping to no-tip model can be fraught.
“There are a lot of subtle nuances that come into play. It requires a big shift, new learning and musculature to operate. But we see the benefits in the long term for our employees, guests and stakeholders. Even the timing makes a difference.”
In addition to a set hourly wage, the Union Square group brought in a revenue-share program that’s distributed to the team according to their position and hours worked. “In the past, only the waitstaff was incentivised by sales. This way, everyone is . one team, one goal, and everyone working together to achieve that.”
Another restaurant that has been successful with hospitality included is Dirt Candy on New York’s Lower East Side.
“It’s tough to go against the flow this way, but it’s the only way to pay my staff a fair wage,” says chef and owner Amanda Cohen, who says she decided to get rid of tipping because she needed to pay her back of house higher wages to keep them.
“There’s a real staffing crisis in New York with kitchen positions, and I wanted to make sure as many people as possible moved with me and stuck around for a long time, so I wanted to pay a better wage.”
Danny Meyer Joins Tom Colicchio by Eliminating Tipping at His Restaurants
The NYC restaurateur follows the #TopChef judge in adopting this new business model.
Following in the footsteps of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, Tom's former partner, Danny Meyer, is taking a radical stance on tipping in his restaurants. In a lengthy letter, the NYC restaurateur confirmed that his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants will eliminate tipping, beginning next month.
"Starting at The Modern in late November, you will no longer find a tip line on your check, and there will be no need to leave additional cash at the table, the coat check, or the bar. Our other New York restaurants will make this change over the course of the next year," wrote Danny, who has appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef Season 10. "Once these changes are implemented, the total cost you pay to dine with us won’t differ much from what you pay now. But for our teams, the change will be significant. We will now have the ability to compensate all of our employees equitably, competitively, and professionally. And by eliminating tipping, our employees who want to grow financially and professionally will be able to earn those opportunities based on the merit of their work."
Back in September, Tom implemented a similar policy for lunchtime service at Craft. "It's time for a change. It's time to pay the servers a salary," he told Eater at the time.
Relive Danny's Top Chef appearance below.
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Joe Biden Makes Tipped Minimum Wage Pledge
Just under 50 days out from the election in the United States, and the Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, has tweeted that he will end the tipped minimum wage, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and end the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, while ensuring that everyone has strong benefits.
The pledge is sure to boost the Democrats’ popularity with the restaurant industry’s millions of workers, who are facing a very uncertain future. If and when restaurants reboot and people get back to work, it is sure to be at a limited capacity, and with a Covid vaccine still some way off, restaurant workers could be facing more than a year with drastically reduced earnings.
In America, the tipped minimum wage is much lower than the basic minimum wage, with the rest, in theory, made up by the customers' tips. However, tipping is a precarious business and some days are better than others. A worker never has the security of counting on their earnings when so much is left to chance.
Any shortfall in earnings from tips is supposed to be made up by the employer with the so-called 'tip credit', but reports suggest that it is mostly ignored. The fact is the tipped minimum wage contributes to uncertainty and disparity between floor workers and management (salaried staff), and while it is the case that some front-of-house workers earn far more than their kitchen colleagues, the system does not promote equality.
Most hospitality workers would prefer to have a decent minimum wage that they can count on, and the practice of tipping has come under fire in recent years.
Industry leaders like Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in New York have abolished the practice. Chef Danny Meyer recently reversed his no-tipping policy (hospitality included) policy in his restaurant group, saying that he did not want to hinder his employees’ chances of earning extra money in uncertain times, but he says he remains committed to a no-tipping culture for the long-term.
As restaurant workers face an immediate future of working with more risk and less benefit, their cause should be front and central in any Presidential campaign.
The US hospitality industry employs 16.78 million people, making it the second-biggest employer in the country after the state. That’s a lot of votes. Biden recognises the value of courting that vote in what may yet prove to be a tight run election come November.
Year of Upheaval for Restaurants That Ended Tipping
The owners of Huertas, a cheerful Spanish small-plates restaurant in the East Village, knew they would have to raise prices when they abolished tipping last December. But when the octopus plate rose to $21 from $16, they looked at the plate and realized another adjustment was needed.
“We decided to add a tentacle,” an owner, Nate Adler, said. The extra limb costs about a dollar, but the more substantial dish eased the sting of the $5 price increase.
“Ultimately it’s not about the numbers on the check, but about whether the balance and the value feels right to people as they leave the restaurant,” Mr. Adler said. “It’s not an entirely rational system.”
A rational system is exactly what he was hoping for when Huertas joined several restaurants in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group — Maialino, Marta, the Modern, North End Grill and (as of last week) Gramercy Tavern and the newly reopened Union Square Café — that have stopped accepting tips. The switch is part of an effort to bring the nation’s roughly $800 billion restaurant business, with its frequently chaotic and unprofessional practices and traditions, in line with modern workplace standards.
Instead of expecting customers to tip the people who wait on them, tip-free restaurants pay all employees wages that reflect their skill and seniority. The customer pays a fixed amount, stated in writing (in menu prices), as in virtually every other kind of consumer business, from Nordstrom to Netflix to The New York Times.
This service-included system — also called gratuity-free, tipless and, within the Union Square group, Hospitality Included — has been in place for several years at expensive restaurants like Per Se and the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. But this year, influential restaurants up and down the price scale and around the country signed on, including Le Pigeon and Park Kitchen in Portland, Ore. Dahlia Lounge and Canlis in Seattle and Comal, Cala and Petit Crenn in the Bay Area.
It is too soon to tell whether the no-tipping model will become the standard, or simply an option for a few restaurants that can make it work. What is clear after about a year is that it has forced a number of unforeseen changes, large and small, in the places that have embraced it.
To manage costs without inflicting sticker shock on customers, restaurants have to hunt down every possible savings. At Huertas, where the octopus grew another leg, the kitchen staff has shrunk from six cooks to four or five per shift. At Roman’s in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the bar is no longer always stocked with organic lemons.
The Union Square group, with its deep pockets, has begun buying more items in bulk, like paper towels, laundry services and software. Its chefs are coordinating menus so they will be able to share whole animals, like holistically raised lambs from Elysian Fields Sheep Farm in Pennsylvania, instead of buying individual cuts.
Because restaurants have for so long relied on tips as an important financial element — essentially subsidizing the entire payroll for the service staff — what sounds like a simple policy decision can require a complete overhaul.
“This is more like opening a new restaurant,” said Dino Lavorini, the director of operations at the Modern, which ended tipping in November 2015, the first restaurant in the Union Square group to do so. In the year since, the restaurant’s profits have slipped, company officials said they would not say by how much, but added that they had anticipated the drop and expect it will correct itself.
But some restaurants that adopted a no-tipping policy in 2016 have already revoked it: The New York restaurateurs David Chang, Tom Colicchio and Gabe Stulman all found it unworkable in the small-scale experiments they tried. “We continue to be supportive of the no-tipping movement,” Mr. Colicchio said, “but we’ve heard from our customers and team that they just aren’t ready for it yet.”
Mr. Adler of Huertas, and others, say that one big reason to end tipping is the need for more equity between those who work in kitchens, who earn straight wages, and those who work in dining rooms, who receive tips.
A more immediate motivation, local restaurateurs said, was the approach of the $15 minimum wage in 2018, proceeding in New York City on Dec. 31 with a raise to $11 an hour (from $9) for nontipped workers. “Labor is just going to cost more and more, and all restaurants will need to rethink how their people get paid,” Mr. Lavorini said.
What to Cook Right Now
Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the week. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.
- Memorial Day is a chance to celebrate with friends and family. It’s time to grill some chicken, or will hamburgers be on the docket?
- Melissa Clark has a fine new recipe for grilled merguez on a bed of minty, lemony couscous.
- Try this spicy red pesto pasta, a pantry dish inspired by pesto alla Siciliana.
- You could make this terrific crisp tofu katsu with lemon-tahini sauce.
- And it’s never not a good time to make quick ragù with ricotta and lemon.
As the dining business, especially at the high end, attracts more educated and skilled workers, there is increased pressure to treat them fairly, professionally and predictably.
With tipping, chaos is a consequence. Servers compete ruthlessly for Saturday night shifts, when tips run high, but many are no-shows for Monday lunch. An experienced line cook who carries $40,000 in debt from years of culinary school earns $12 an hour, while a new server can reap three times that much.
Tipping can also prompt servers to nudge customers into ordering more expensive food and wine. And, at its most malign, it encourages servers to accept harassment, whether verbal, sexual or professional.
“There’s no reason a restaurant should feel like an unsafe workplace,” said Andrew Tarlow, the owner of Roman’s and four other Brooklyn restaurants. To encourage other restaurateurs, Mr. Tarlow created an open-source “Gratuity Free” logo and a website that explains the model.
The “automatic service charge” imposed at many restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Alinea in Chicago, can redistribute money the same way a no-tipping policy does, although states treat that revenue in different ways.
Tips are also handled differently in different states, but in New York, by law, they can be pooled and distributed only to “front of house” employees: those who work in the dining room, like waiters, bartenders and backwaiters (formerly known as busboys).
“There was regularly a 500 percent deficit between the back of the house and the front of the house,” said Abram Bissell, the executive chef of the Modern. “Like every kitchen in New York, we were having trouble attracting and retaining talent at that pay grade.”
Retaining expensively trained staff members is a major concern at the Modern. Along with the new Hospitality Included system, the restaurant started a separate revenue sharing program for the front-of-house staff, so that raises for the other workers would not cost them money. Some left nonetheless, believing that they could earn more in tips than the restaurant could compensate them for. (The Union Square group acknowledged that there had been “some attrition” but would not give specific numbers.)
James Napolitano, 25, a bartender, said that most of the bartenders senior to him had left. “You can’t blame them,” he said. “They have strong skills that they can take anywhere.” But for him, the benefits of a regular schedule and steady income — with medical insurance, paid leave and revenue sharing — have proved more valuable.
Restaurateurs have learned to proceed carefully with customers, to soothe the pain of sticker shock. “We didn’t want to just raise prices 20 percent across the board,” Mr. Lavorini said. The Union Square Hospitality Group analyzes ordering patterns, solicits feedback from customers about pricing and shares data with Michael Lynn, a Cornell professor and expert in the psychology and practice of tipping.
One clear lesson: “There are certain fixed items — a glass of wine, a bar snack, a cup of coffee — that affect how guests experience the welcome of the restaurant,” Mr. Lavorini said. The prices of those items stayed where they were, even as others, including those for many bottles of wine, rose by as much as 20 percent.
At the group’s North End Grill, when demand dipped for the $69 aged strip steak (up from $59), the chef Eric Korsh slipped a small $33 sirloin with fries alongside it on the menu to satisfy the restaurant’s steak-loving regulars.
Sticker shock at no-tipping restaurants has affected restaurant owners as well.
From 2015 to 2016, the payroll for the Modern’s two dozen front-of-house employees’ hourly wages rose to as much as $30 an hour from $5, through a combination of the rising tipped minimum wage, paid overtime and revenue sharing.
Also, restaurants pay taxes on their revenue, but not on income from tips. When service is folded into the price of the meal, the restaurant is taxed on that “additional” revenue.
For Mr. Tarlow, who describes his business as “ideal driven,” the challenge has been to maintain those ideals across all aspects of the restaurants in the face of higher costs. As sole owner, “it all comes out of my pocket,” he said, referring not only to higher wages, but also to spending on organic produce, local and artisanal bread, health insurance for employees and other costs that he has decided are nonnegotiable.
“The question is not only, ‘What will the customer’s pain point be?’” he said — whether diners will see the $22 charge for a pasta and vegetable dish, and go elsewhere. The question is also: “What will our pain point be, what do we give up?”
At Huertas, there is more work for everyone now that both front- and back-of-house staffs have been trimmed. But Mr. Adler says that because the cooks and servers that remained have been made full partners in the enterprise, they work harder and better.
Like the Union Square group, which has no plans to revert to tipping, he said his restaurant would stay the course, despite many short-term complications.
“It took hundreds of years to build up the traditions of how things are done in restaurants,” he said. “We can’t expect to change all of that in one year.”
Independent restaurants lobbied hard for targeted economic relief. Now, they’re finally getting it.
While many Americans were enjoying the first Saturday of March, Tom Colicchio was on a Zoom call with about 30 members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. They were watching the Senate vote on the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the $1.9 trillion package to provide economic relief for millions of businesses and individuals, including the ailing restaurant industry.
Shortly after noon, senators passed the bill along party lines, leading to President Biden’s signature on the rescue plan days later and finally giving independent restaurants the targeted relief they wanted, to the tune of $28.6 billion. For the IRC, which formed as the pandemic was just sinking its teeth into the U.S. economy, the vote capped a grueling, year-long effort to seek direct grants for a hospitality industry that in the past 12 months has shed 2 million jobs, lost an estimated $240 billion in revenue and seen 110,000 establishments close.
“The cheers went up” when the Senate passed the bill, said Colicchio, the chef, restaurateur and founder of Crafted Hospitality, a restaurant group based in New York City. “There are so many independent restaurants that are going to get a lifeline and stay open, and that will be great for the economy, for employment.”
When its founding members first started talking in mid-March of last year, the IRC seemed, in some ways, a redundant effort. A fair number of independent restaurateurs already belonged to state restaurant associations that are, in turn, connected to the National Restaurant Association, and the 100-year-old organization says it advocates for every kind of operator: independent, chain and franchisee.
But there have long been tensions between the NRA and independent restaurateurs who say, whether right or wrong, that the national organization cares more for the major players in industry, not the little guys. “Do you trust Big Tobacco?” chef and restaurateur David Chang texted me early in the pandemic. It was a question posed as criticism.
Even before states and cities started to clamp down on indoor dining last March, small operators had an early, street-level glimpse of the future: empty dining rooms, dwindling revenue, mounting debts, laid-off workers and, eventually, closures. The early predictions were ugly: Colicchio suggested a year ago that 75 percent of restaurants in the United States could be history without government intervention. People started referring to an “extinction event” with restaurants, particularly among mom-and-pop operations with no access to bank loans or investment capital.
Survival instincts kicked in among independent restaurateurs. There was a sense among many that they couldn’t sit around and watch their investments and their businesses just shrivel up and die. They wanted to play a role in their survival. With no dues to pay, and with only a 20-member advisory board and consultants providing direction, the IRC provided an immediate way for many to step up and become their own advocates during what will probably be the worst period in their business lives.
“It was very empowering and, for me, one of the most important things that happened this year,” said Sue Bette, owner of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington, Vt. “I felt like I had a role to play, and I could do something. I could serve our industry and be part of a team that was making change in a real grass-roots way.”
Like countless other members of the IRC, Bette conducted a lot of outreach and made calls to political offices. A year ago, she also co-founded Vermont Independent Restaurants, a coalition of more than 180 restaurant and bar owners who advocate for their industry in the Green Mountain State. “I really started to understand that we are really built into our communities in a way that no other business is,” she said.
The IRC didn’t work on targeted restaurant relief alone. The NRA had also been working on the issue from the beginning. On March 18, the NRA sent a letter to the White House and leaders of Congress, urging the Treasury Department to create a $145 billion Restaurant and Foodservice Industry Recovery Fund. But the organization has been working on other pressing issues, too: federally backed business interruption insurance, immigration reform, tax credits, the tip credit, minimum wage increases and other matters.
“We represent the entire industry,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the NRA. “We represent everybody from the corner diner to the steakhouse to the regional chain and everything in between.”
The NRA’s wide range of advocacy issues, in some ways, inspired members of the IRC to take matters into their own hands. The IRC had a singular focus: to “get independent restaurants and bars the support they need to survive,” noted Executive Director Erika Polmar, a food activist. That mission would guide IRC’s actions and decisions, many said.
“We had this one common goal,” said Robert St. John, the Mississippi chef and restaurateur behind Crescent City Grill, Tabella and other establishments. “There weren’t all these balls that we were trying to keep in the air at once. It was, ‘We got to do whatever we can to get some relief to independent restaurants,’ and that was it.”
With some 100,000 members, the IRC was able to draw on expertise and personal relationships from around the country. St. John, for instance, was able to tap into his relationship with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a regular at the chef’s restaurants, to urge him to get behind the Restaurants Act, which would serve as the basis for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund in the American Rescue Plan Act. In fact, Wicker would, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz), introduce the Restaurants Act in the Senate.
With its celebrity chef cache, the IRC would also push for a seat at a May 2020 roundtable on restaurants at the White House, despite the fact the organization had not made the kind of political donations that usually give lobbying groups access to power. The first round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, a percentage of which went to large chains, did give independents some leverage, not just with the White House but also with Congress. Politicians, Colicchio said, were embarrassed by the amount of PPP money that went to large companies and chains.
“We started working with the Portland restaurant community early in the pandemic, and it grew into an essential partnership with the national Independent Restaurant Coalition, the best partner I could have imagined during this year-long effort,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a statement.
The aid “soon heading to local restaurants is a direct outcome of this partnership and the tireless work of our Portland restaurant community, the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the thousands of restaurant workers who joined forces with us to get relief over the finish line,” added Blumenauer, who introduced the Restaurants Act in the House.
The reward for the IRC’s efforts is the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion pool of money that’s restricted to operators with 20 or fewer restaurants (although the NRA successfully lobbied to include chain franchisees among those operators, as long as they own fewer than 20 storefronts). Unlike PPP loans, which required most of the cash to go toward payroll, business owners have more latitude in how they spend revitalization funds. It couldn’t arrive at a better time for many restaurateurs, who have been accumulating debt during the pandemic.
Take Nya Marshall, a commercial real estate developer and restaurateur in Detroit, for example. She owns Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails, as well as a catering operation, and to keep the doors open during a pandemic, Marshall has had to take out loans, refinance a home, ask for extended credit and even hold off on tax payments.
Hometown: Richmond, VA
Current city of residence: Richmond, VA
Occupation/Profession: Chef and Co-Owner of Metzger Bar and Butchery, Brenner Pass, and Black Lodge, Richmond, VA. Leni, Washington, D.C
Two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, Brittanny Anderson is the Chef and Co-Owner of four establishments: Metzger Bar and Butchery, Brenner Pass, and Black Lodge in Richmond, VA and Leni in Washington, D.C. After attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City, Brittanny sought out an apprenticeship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns where she extensively learned about sustainability and local sourcing of true farm-to-table cuisine. She then went on to be a part of the opening team of Northern Spy Food Co. in Manhattan’s East Village where she worked her way up as Sous Chef before returning to her native Virginia to open her own restaurant. In 2014, Brittanny opened Metzger, which focuses on German-influenced dishes with an emphasis on seasonal and sustainable ingredients. She strives to transform classic cuisine with modern presentation and local ingredients. With the success of Metzger, both locally and nationally, Brittanny has expanded her brand with a second chef-driven modern European restaurant, a seafood distribution business, a curated cheese company, coffee shop, and bar. She currently lives outside of Richmond, VA, with her husband, Kjell, and their dog and two cats.
Hometown: Columbus, OH
Current city of residence: Columbus, OH
Occupation/Profession: Executive Chef & GM, Service Bar
Avishar Barua is the Executive Chef and General Manager of Service Bar in Columbus, Ohio. Born in Columbus, Ohio to immigrant parents who left Bangladesh in search of better opportunities in America, Avishar pursued his true passion of cooking after getting bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology at The Ohio State University. After attending culinary school, he went to New York City and trained under Wylie Dufresne at Michelin starred WD
50. He returned to Ohio to open Service Bar for Middle West Spirits, a local grain to glass distiller, where he has since gained national recognition fromFood & Wine Magazine for his signature dish, the Cheesy Brisket Crunch.
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Current city of residence: Houston, TX
Occupation/Profession: Partner/Executive Chef, Lucille’s Hospitality Group
Olympian turned chef, Dawn Burrell’s world travels with USA’s Track & Field team ignited her deep love for food. After competing in the 2000 Summer Olympics, Dawn traded in her track spikes for a full-time culinary career and enrolled in Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of Houston. She cut her teeth with a variety of chefs, including chef Tom Aikens in London and Houston’s Monica Pope, before landing a gig at Tyson Cole's Uchi in Houston. Chef Dawn went on to become the sous chef at Uchi’s award-winning sister restaurant, Uchiko, in Austin. An Executive Chef title at modern Southern restaurant Kulture followed where she honed her signature “global comfort” cooking style and earned her first James Beard nomination for “Best Chef: Texas” in 2020. She departed during the pandemic and recently joined chef Chris Williams’ Lucille’s Hospitality Group as Partner/Executive Chef of her very first proprietary concept exploring Afro-Asian cuisine.
Hometown: El Paso, TX
Current city of residence: Austin, TX
Chef Gabe Erales was born and raised in the culturally rich border town of El Paso, TX. Heavily influenced by his family's Mexican culture, Gabe formed an early appreciation for the food his parents prepared which ignited his passion for cooking. Gabe began working in kitchens at the age of 15 before moving to Austin, TX, to attend college at the University of Texas where he graduated with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. During this time, Gabe realized his true calling remained in the kitchen and concurrently completed culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Austin. As the soul of his cooking lies in Mexican cuisine, he spent time working for some of Austin's most notable chefs such as the late Miguel Ravago at The Fonda San Miguel, Rene Ortiz at La Condesa and Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due. He also draws inspiration from his experience in the kitchen at Noma in both Copenhagen and Mexico. Gabe’s cooking philosophy strives to focus on locality through strength in relationships with local farmers including sourcing unique varieties of landrace corn, chiles, and other ingredients from different regions of Mexico. Most recently, heserved as Executive Chef of Comedor Restaurant, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of downtown Austin, TX, that was voted Best New Restaurant by Esquire Magazine (2019), Austin Monthly (2019), and Texas Monthly (2020). Married with four children, he is currently working on a new restaurant concept that he hopes to announce soon.
Hometown: New York City
Current city of residence: Oakland, CA
Occupation/Profession: Executive Chef/Owner, alaMar Kitchen and Sobre Mesa Afro-Latino cocktail lounge
A Dominican-American hailing from Washington Heights, NY, chef Nelson German is the Executive Chef/Owner of alaMar Kitchen and Sobre Mesa Afro-Latino cocktail lounge, both located in Oakland. He received his culinary training at the NY Art Institute where he learned the foundation of Mediterranean-style cooking incorporating French techniques. He worked his way up from line cook to Executive Chef in New York staples like Gramercy Park Hotel, Jerry’s Café, Joseph’s, and Citarella. He believes in letting his food tell the stories of his journey, derived from childhood memories, inspirational travels, food escapades and his own original ideas. After meeting the love of his life, chef Nelson and his fiancée relocated to her hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area where he joined Supper Club SF and adopted a new-found appreciation for California cuisine. His unorthodox culinary style draws from his Dominican heritage, his African roots, his embrace of Mediterranean cuisine and Asian influence, coupled with his love of sustainable California ingredients.
Hometown: Central Islip, Long Island
Current city of residence: Aspen, CO
Occupation/Profession: Executive Chef at 7908
Born in Costa Rica but raised in New York, chef Byron Gomez is the Executive Chef of 7908, Aspen’s finest supper club. Bryon has trained and worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in Manhattan, under the best chefs and mentors in the industry including Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Daniel Humm, and Ronny Emborg. Despite not having any formal training, he worked hard to be self-taught, advancing his way through the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants, Café Boulud, Atera, and Eleven Madison Park. As Sous Chef at EMP, the restaurant won Top Restaurant in the World by S. Pellegrino. He later traveled with the Eleven Madison Park teams to their pop-up restaurants in the Hamptons and Aspen, before deciding to settle down in the Rocky Mountains. Byron enjoys seasonal activities such as cycling, snowboarding and surfing, but his favorite activity is to cook and break bread, especially on his days off.
Hometown: Newport Beach, CA
Current city of residence: Houston, TX
Occupation/Profession: Executive Chef
Raised in a large Sicilian family where food was the central focus for family gatherings, Sasha Grumman went to the French Culinary Institute in New York and spent her last three months at ALMA culinary school in Parma, Italy. After staging at the Michelin-starred Giuda Ballerino in Rome, she graduated at the top of her class and moved to San Francisco to work at Delfina Restaurant. After cooking for notable chefs, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin, she landed in Houston as the Executive Chef of Rosalie Italian Soul. In Los Angeles, she worked as Top Chef Alum Bruce Kalman’s Chef de Cuisine at Union. During the pandemic, Sasha has started a focaccia business that she hopes to take national.
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Current city of residence: Birmingham, Alabama
Roscoe Hall is not only a chef, but also an accomplished artist who works in a variety of media. He was introduced to fine dining at a young age and immediately wanted to get into the kitchen. He started as a dishwasher at a small local restaurant until he landed a job as a line cook at Chez Panisse, where he trained for two years under Alice Waters. He then moved up the culinary ranks learning various cuisines at multiple restaurants in St. Louis and Portland, before heading to New York City to work under Chef David Chang at Momofuku Saam Bar. He later moved to Birmingham, AL and served as Executive Chef for Rodney Scott’s BBQ. With a kick-ass wife and two hilarious children, Roscoe recently took on a new role as culinary director for Post Office Pies and is working on an exhibition of his latest art.
Hometown: Vista, CA
Current city of residence: Portland, OR
Occupation/Profession: Head Chef, Soter Vineyards
Chef Sara grew up in Vista, CA, a small town in north San Diego County. After graduating high school, Sara moved to the south of Spain where food became an obsession and ultimately fueled her decision to return to the states to attend culinary school. At the age of 22, Sara relocated to San Francisco and worked with Brandon Jew at Bar Agricole which shaped her simple approach to food. In 2013, Sara returned to Spain to work at famed restaurant Asador Etxebarri. This experience propelled Sara into her first head chef position at Huxley in San Francisco where she garnered many accolades and awards, including a 3-star review from the San Francisco Chronicle, Eater Young Guns, Zagat 30 under 30, and a James Beard semi-finalist Rising Star Chef in 2016 and 2017. Chef Sara was also named Rising Star Chef for the San Francisco Chronicle while working as chef de cuisine under Melissa Perello at one-Michelin starred restaurant Octavia and also reconnected with Brandon Jew at one-Michelin starred restaurant Mister Jiu’s. She currently works as the head chef at Soter Vineyards in Carlton, OR, and resides in Portland.
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Current city of residence: Detroit, MI
Occupation/Profession: Chef / Consultant
Detroit native Kiki Louya is a chef, writer, food activist and restaurant consultant. The New York Times named her one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” because of her pursuit for social justice, use of local agriculture, and fight for fair wages at her restaurants. Kiki received critical acclaim for her work as Chef/Owner of Detroit’s Folk & The Farmer’s Hand, two award winning restaurants, before eventually stepping down from leadership in March 2020. The daughter of a Congolese immigrant, Kiki draws inspiration from her own cultural background, often using food as a conduit for deeper discussions around what it means to be Black in America. She is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, as well as The University of Michigan, and has given lectures about her expertise on food, farming and entrepreneurship with students at Yale and Georgetown. When not in the kitchen, Kiki is tending to her wild vegetable garden alongside her husband and two rambunctious rescue pit bulls.
Hometown: Born in Tucson, AZ, Raised in Navojoa, Sonora
Current city of residence: Tucson, AZ
Occupation/Profession: Executive Chef/Owner, BOCA Tacos y Tequila
Chef Maria Mazon is the Executive Chef and Owner of BOCA Tacos y Tequila in Tucson, Arizona. Born in Tucson but raised in Sonora, Mexico, Maria’s cuisine is inspired by both sides of her borderland home. Using the unique flavors and ingredients of the Sonoran Desert, Maria’s experimental take on classic Mexican fare have earned her local and national accolades including The New York Times. She has been pushing the boundaries for years, introducing to people unique flavors and exotic ingredients. In 2020, Maria became a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southwest Region. When not at the restaurant, Maria loves cooking for her wife, Lilly, and their 12-year-old son.
Hometown: Tokyo, Japan & Seattle, WA
Current city of residence: Seattle, WA
Occupation/Profession: Chef/Owner, Taku
Born in Japan and raised in Seattle, Shota Nakajima began his culinary journey at age 16 working for a highly acclaimed sushi restaurant. At age 18 he moved to Osaka, Japan to learn the art of Japanese cuisine from Michelin Star-rated Chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto, an experience that greatly changed Shota’s perspective on hospitality, cooking and his approach to food. Developing his own meticulous and imaginative culinary detail, and a stringent demand for high-quality, Shota set out to expand Japanese cuisine in the United States by bringing a fresh perspective on approachable Japanese comfort food through his two restaurants, Taku and Adana. A James Beard Award semi-finalist for three years running, Shota seizes every opportunity to get outside and forage or fish, taking advantage of the abundance of wild goods in Washington’s mountains and waters.
Hometown: Portland, OR
Current city of residence: Portland, OR
Occupation/Profession: Chef/Owner, Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwich Shop, and Feel Good
Gabriel Pascuzzi is the chef and owner of three restaurants in Portland, Oregon—Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwich Shop and Feel Good. Growing up in an Italian American household, his love of food started at a young age. He grew up visiting his uncle’s acclaimed restaurant in Big Fork, Montana washing lettuce and peeling shrimp in exchange for a slice of pie. After apprenticing for his uncle during high school, he went on to Johnson & Wales University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts. Gabriel then cut his teeth in New York City working for Daniel Boulud and head judge Tom Colicchio at Colicchio & Sons. He later staged at the world-renowned and two Michelin star restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. Returning home, he helmed several kitchens before opening his first restaurant, Stacked Sandwich Shop in 2017. Stacked has been named on Thrillist’s Top 31 Sandwich Shops in America. Gabriel also took home Eater Portland’s Chef of the Year in 2017. In 2019, he opened Mama Bird six months before the pandemic hit.
Hometown: Stockton, CA
Current city of residence: Las Vegas, NV
Occupation/Profession: Chef/Owner, The Black Sheep
Jamie Tran is the chef and owner of Las Vegas’ The Black Sheep, where she serves her original take on casual modern Vietnamese American food in an elevated neighborhood environment. The name is an homage to Jamie’s playfully rebellious spirit and her drive to break through a male-dominated industry.
Jamie’s cooking journey began when she was only four years old. She made her first dish standing on top of a milk crate to cook fried rice with her mother. After graduating from San Francisco State with a business degree and then Le Cordon Bleu, Jamie saw the emerging food scene in Las Vegas and moved there to be a part-time line-cook at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole. She honed her craft under Executive Chef Vincent Pouessel, climbing the ranks to executive Sous Chef. She then went to the banquets department at The Venetian, before being recruited for the executive chef role at DB Brasserie by Daniel Boulud. After opening The Black Sheep, Eater Las Vegas honored Jamie with Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year.
Hometown: Randolph MA
Current city of residence: Milford, NH
Occupation/Profession: Chef/Owner of Greenleaf and Culture
Chris Viaud is the Chef and Owner of Greenleaf and Culture, both located in Milford, New Hampshire. Raised in the Boston suburb of Randolph with his parents who immigrated from Haiti, Chris moved to Londonderry, NH and upon graduating high school attended Johnson & Wales University where he received a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts & Food Service Management. After completing culinary school, he returned to Boston where he spent three of his most formative years at Modern French restaurant, Deuxave, where he worked his way through the ranks alongside Executive Chef and Owner Chris Coombs, Top Chef alum Adrienne Mosier and acclaimed Chef Stefanie Bui. Since Deuxave, he has been an essential part of four restaurant openings in the Massachusetts and New Hampshire area. At 28 years old, Chris opened his own restaurant Greenleaf in Milford, NH. His approach to food is rustic yet refined by classic techniques and his menus are driven by locally grown seasonal products. A year later, he opened Culture, a from-scratch bakery producing artisanal breads, sandwiches, and pastries while supporting local farms. His strength and motivation build from the support of his family, friends, and staff and he continues to push himself every day, especially now that he has a young daughter named Madeleine.
As for what to expect this season, as usual, Top Chef will showcase the best ingredients and experiences its location has to offer. Take a look at the teaser for season 18 below.
"During a time of extreme hardship in the restaurant industry, these chefs have more on the line than ever before," the show&aposs official announcement said. "From working with foraged mushrooms and picking produce at the famous Hood River Fruit Loop to visiting the Tillamook Creamery, the chefs are tasked with cooking with Oregon&aposs natural bounty of ingredients. With Padma, Tom and Gail and a table full of alums to impress, the expectations have never been higher, especially in this year&aposs unique Restaurant Wars where the teams must perfectly execute on a micro-restaurant concept with a cohesive seven-course tasting menu that rivals the best in the world."
"To stay in the game, the chefs must cook at their best while contending with a Quickfire using ingredients used on the Oregon Trail andਊ surf and turf elimination challenge honoring theonfederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation," it continued. "While in the &aposCity of Roses,"&aposthe judges definitely don&apost hold back their thorns as they narrow it down to find this season&aposs &aposTop Chef.&apos"