Can you live without tips?

With Aster, American chef Daniel Patterson opened a new 'tip-less' trend in the US

14-10-2015
Chef Daniel Patterson, originally from Massachuset

Chef Daniel Patterson, originally from Massachusetts, built his fame in California, in particular with restaurant Coi, opened in 2006 in San Francisco, thanks to which he conquered two Michelin stars. In the following years he opened more restaurants, such as Plum and Haven, both in Oakland. And, more recently, Aster in San Francisco (tel. +1.415.875.9810), in collaboration with Brett Cooper, where he experimented the idea of eliminating tips

«In five years’ time, every restaurant in the United States will adopt the same system». This is what Daniel Patterson said little over one year ago, when opening his fourth restaurant in the Bay Area, Aster, in partnership with the ex sous chef at Coi, Brett Cooper. Patterson wasn’t speaking about food but money. About abolishing tips.

We’ll tell this story starting from far behind.

Tips are first of all, for foreign guests, a misunderstanding that starts from the name and ends with a common practice. Besides understanding it is “given” it is a social aspect you need some time to fully interiorize. It is not a prize, it’s a lay and collective guilt feeling that tries to compensate for the fact a dinner for hundreds of dollars with impeccable standards is being served and this service is paid 6.5 dollars per hour before taxes. Tips, moreover – except in terrible places – are divided between all the staff, kitchen and dining room. It doesn’t create a special gratitude bond between giver and receiver.

Given this premise, we can move to November 2013.

Brett Cooper of Aster, the first restaurant in San Francisco to eliminate tips

Brett Cooper of Aster, the first restaurant in San Francisco to eliminate tips

Elections that year brought the guilt feeling to a different level and almost everywhere on the two coasts it was voted for an increase in the minimum wage that would be proportionate to the cost of living. This moved from 8.5 dollars gross on average to 15.50 dollars net, by 2018. In other words, it was decided that it was decent for those who live in a city to be able to afford to live there and we moved from a business model that paid little blaming cheap clients to one that needs to increase prices blaming the expensive staff. We won’t indulge in the social aspects of this affair, but these were horrible months in which all prices were raised by 20% and all restaurants lost 20% of their clients and everyone would complain with waitresses.

Then Daniel Patterson landed in Berkeley, opened two restaurants and a venture capital fund with which he will co-support many more and during a pause between one event and the other he said «let’s abolish tips». The word spread so fast that one hundred and seventy-one restaurants scattered around all the United States have already abolished tips – around sixty nearby, and as many between Seattle and Portland, and then, most of all, since December, four in Manhattan. Together with all of Tom Colicchio’s starting in 2016.

The entrance to Aster

The entrance to Aster

The model is simple: you pay the staff a fix salary, raise prices by 20% and discourage tips. Everyone earns more, clients spend the same and it’s paradise for restaurants before the forbidden fruit and truffle oil. At least this is how owners see it, in ecstasy. In fact the model is more articulated and complex, but it is premature to make any other consideration. The experiment works in different ways in different places, it is not a deal in booming economy areas, it is the exact contrary in economically depressed areas. We’ll see.

The extraordinary consequence of what is still a mini-revolution is the quality of life of the chef de partie.

In an area with 40 restaurants every ten thousand people – as the Bay Area, which leads in the United States in this sense – chefs de partie are an almost Dickensian figure: the position required in such a competitive marketplace makes them even more precarious than those who clear tables. 14-hour shifts, preparation and service, school loans that even for just two years of cooking school can reach one hundred thousand dollars. Moving from 6.5 dollars per hour – without tips as they were never hired as staff – to payroll, is a momentous turning point for a professional figure that perhaps is not the creative engine of the renaissance in North American cuisine, but it is certainly its load-bearing structure.


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