PHILADELPHIA – Customers to Girard Brasserie and Bruncherie might be in for a surprise when they read the note attached to their bills: "Tipping is not necessary."
That's food for thought in an industry where servers depend on gratuities for the bulk of their pay. Yet staff at the French-inspired restaurant earn about $13 an hour, and they get sick time, vacation days and health insurance.
The economics aren't easy, said Girard co-owner Brian Oliveira. Ideally, though, the provisions make for more loyal and content employees, who then create a better experience for customers, he said.
"We had to make less money as owners and sacrifice some of that, but in the end, it created a better environment and everyone's happier," said Oliveira, who is also the chef.
The unusual model highlights a debate about pay and conditions in an industry that employs 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group doesn't track the number of no-tip models among the nation's nearly 1 million eateries, but examples have popped up over the past year in Pittsburgh, New York, Los Angeles and near Cincinnati.
The federal hourly minimum wage for non-tipped workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, is $7.25; the minimum for tipped workers like waiters and bartenders is $2.13. Paid time off and medical benefits are almost unheard of in the high-turnover business.
Congress hasn't raised the tipped wage in nearly 25 years. The restaurant association, which has fought increased minimums, argues that requiring higher wages will force owners to lay off servers, cut workers' hours or raise prices.
Some cities and states, acting to address growing income inequality, have raised the tipping wage on their own. Among the highest: $10.74 an hour in San Francisco, $9.47 an hour in Washington state and $9.25 an hour in Oregon.
The state minimum for tipped employees in Pennsylvania is $2.83 hourly. After taking tips into account, that translates into a median wage of $8.25 an hour, or just over $17,000 per year for a full-time employee, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization seeking to improve conditions in the field.
But tips offer the potential to earn a lot more — and sometimes much more quickly — than even a higher hourly wage might allow, said Geoff Bowman, a longtime bartender in Philadelphia.
Currently in between bar gigs, he earns $2.83 plus tips as a server at Dottie's Dinette, just few blocks from Girard in the city's Fishtown section. Bowman acknowledged the lack of time off and health insurance have been "speed bumps and challenges" in a career he otherwise enjoys.
At Girard, the menu and checks explain that "dishes are priced accordingly" to provide staff with higher wages and benefits. A fixed price, three-course dinner ranges from $31 to $42.
Kelly Cinquegrana visited Girard shortly after its debut in late November, in part to support the idea of a better working environment. The cost of the meal was reasonable — "equal to giving a tip, anyway" — and she gave the food and service a glowing review on Yelp.
"I think it's pretty important to want to treat waitstaff well," Cinquegrana said.
So far, only one employee, a dishwasher, has used a paid sick day, said Girard co-owner Cristian Mora. Scheduling is harder than he imagined and margins are tight; the new approach is "not for everyone," he said.
"A lot of people do make a very good living with the model as it is now, with the guest leaving a tip," he said.
But Mora, who also didn't have health insurance for most of his 15-year restaurant career, said he's glad to be among the vanguard.
He noted about half the customers are leaving tips of 5 percent to 10 percent for a job well done — what Mora calls "a true gratuity," akin to the European custom of leaving a token amount for servers, who generally earn a living wage and have national health care.
Girard waitress Katie Breen, 31, says she's been able to work almost full-time as the restaurant's business has increased, yielding a decent paycheck on top of about $250 weekly in tips. She's making less money than at past serving jobs, but the overall quality of life is better for her and her 3-year-old daughter.
"I have a better schedule, I have health insurance," Breen said. "I think that this is the best job that I have ever had."