Sharing the Love Means Everybody Wins

Dinner’s over and it’s time to figure out the tip. Is fifteen percent enough? How about twenty? Twenty five? Step away from the math.

At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, the gratuity equation always adds up to zero. And even though our top notch servers are totally worth it, we politely ask that our guests not tip them, because we firmly believe that is our responsibility.

Legally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor website, the restaurant industry can pay service staff or tipped employees as little as $2.13 an hour.

“They can still make good money, but that’s purely based on tips,” said CVI Chef Jamie Simpson. “So the harder they work, the more tips they get. The more they sell, or upsell, the higher the check average, and the more tips they get. That model pushes employees to raise check averages for a business. That, I kind of understand. But if a business can’t afford to pay an hourly wage to their staff for whatever reason, then the pressure is on the guest to help cover that person’s salary with money, and that’s not fair to the guest. You can’t honestly expect the customer to pay for the salary of the person waiting on them, directly, discretionarily. It’s not a fair model. Because if a cook messed up a hamburger, a server’s not getting tipped or paid today? That’s not fair.”

Sharing the Love

Chef Jamie said the standard hospitality model is flawed because it doesn’t compensate contributions from other members of the restaurant staff who have a hand in serving the customer. So about a year ago, the CVI abandoned the old restaurant model and built a 20 percent service fee into event pricing.

“We decided to try and shape a model where everyone who contributed to the event was paid equitably,” Chef Jamie said. “The idea was, how do we build in a service fee that is equally distributed to the dishwasher and the front of house, maintenance and housekeeper? It’s an opportunity to tell our guests why we have it included, because it’s for the men and women that they don’t see that made a difference in their night.”

CVI Wine Steward Liz Studer echoed Chef Jamie’s thoughts on fair dissemination of the service fee. She calls it “sharing the love.”

“There’s a lot that goes into creating these events that people don’t see behind the scenes,” Studer said. “It’s not just the kitchen putting food on a plate, or a server dropping it off at your table or me pouring wine. It’s housekeepers and people moving tables and people washing dishes and people answering phones and greeting you at the host stand. Having the built-in service charge, we can then take that pool and distribute it between everyone who’s made the magic happen.”

“There’s a huge discrepancy in our business,” Studer continued. “You might have a prep cook working 12-hour days. And then you have a knowledgeable server coming in and working a 6-hour shift and walking away with $300 [in tips]. I think that is what this hospitality included is really trying to fix.”

Longtime CVI server Amy Bogard agreed it was high time to consider the contributions of everyone. “I feel very happy that the kitchen is compensated fairly,” she said. “I never felt good about that, just because of how much they do. All of the servers feel that way. We’ve talked about it. They work so much, and they’re here all week, and they’re invested. It’s something I think needed to be done a long time ago.”

Pros and Cons

Chef Jamie said the “hospitality included” system was a relatively easy sell among members of the CVI team. “It wasn’t hard for people to get behind at all,” he said. “That’s what I thought was going to be the hard part. We were worried about this crazy exodus or something like that. It’s definitely a road less traveled.”

That’s not to say the pay it forward process was completely friction-free, though.

“We’ve had turnover here since we’ve changed things,” Studer admitted. “You’ll have people that definitely leave, seasoned people who are used to getting their income in a certain way. It’s always a difficult thing. It’s hard for a lot of front of house people to swallow, because it’s so different from what you’re used to. You’re used to that   tip on a $  bill. Maybe you’re tipping out the bar or tipping out the bussers, but the rest of that is your tip. It’s yours to keep, legally. With this model, you’re not going to see that same amount. It feels like a pay cut to a lot of people.”

The switch also necessitated upping ticket prices by 20 percent.

“People definitely felt a little bit of sticker shock in the beginning, because you’re not used to seeing that 20 percent already on top of it,” Studer said. “But if you go out to eat you’re paying that 20 percent, if you tip the full 20 percent. It takes getting used to. We’ve been doing it for over a year now, and we’ve only had one or two people we’ve had to explain it to.”

Besides leveling the playing field financially, Chef Jamie said, “Hospitality included” is also meant to enhance the guests’ overall experience.

“The best part is, at the end of the meal, nobody even has to see a check. They just get up and leave,” he said. “They’ve already paid for the event, sometimes weeks or months before. So there’s no bill. There’s no calculating money to put on the table and how much to leave the server because it’s already done. How psychologically great.”

The system is “psychologically great” for CVI servers, as well, according to Amy Bogard. Having the freedom to personally touch base with her table guests before they leave for the evening wasn’t always a luxury.

“For the servers it alleviates the stress,” Bogard said. “I feel like I can be more pleasant. I can take time to talk to them if they have any questions about the dinner. It’s certainly helped the flow and the relationship, I think, on both ends. Before, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t wish them a safe drive or anything like that because I was so concerned about getting everything written up. This alleviates that hurdle.”

Putting a Price on Hospitality

So what can a CVI guest expect in return for their 20 percent up-front service fee?

“You’re here, you’re our guest, just like you’d be a guest in someone’s home,” Studer said. “We want you to feel comfortable, we want to make you feel welcome, like you’re a part of something magical.”

Hospitality is at its most magical when it goes unseen and unnoticed, according to Chef Jamie. “It doesn’t need to be like a show,” he said. “I don’t think hospitality has to be served in your face. It just happens. Somehow the silverware is completely different. I just had six pieces of flatware in front of me. We’ve eaten two courses, and then somehow, there’s more silverware on the table. I don’t need to notice that I’m out of water. And I don’t need to notice that the person is filling the water up. But as long as the water’s never empty – and somehow it’s never empty – that is perfect. That’s like magic. I love those touches like that.”

“I think hospitality doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,” Chef Jamie continued. “Our servers are empowered to do anything they can to make someone’s night more magical.”

Conjuring that kind of magic takes real life practice though, so Studer routinely schedules training sessions to reinforce protocols and etiquette for CVI servers. The sessions include practical things (like which side of the guest to serve from), as well as communications tips to make guests feel welcome and at ease.

Making a guest feel welcome and comfortable is a responsibility that falls squarely on the shoulders of the servers, Studer said. “We’re the face. We’re the first person that the guest sees. A server is the first person that they’ll look to,” she said.

Amy Bogard takes that responsibility seriously. “I try to reassure them,” she said. “You are my table, I am here for you to take care of anything you need. You are my group. We’re a little family tonight. I think that’s another great thing about being here. We’re big enough to provide a big beautiful experience, but small enough to be personal and know our guests.”

 Being as informed and prepared as possible goes a long way in engendering guests’ confidence, Studer said. That’s why CVI servers also convene prior to each event to go over the menu, and to sample the wine pairings for each course.

“Having a staff that’s knowledgeable, that feels supported from the ground up is very important to making people feel comfortable,” Studer said. “We’ll go through the guests at that time, too. Is it anybody’s birthday? What are people’s allergies? We’ll go through the list of people just to kind of know who’s in the dining room. You see a lot of very familiar names. We have a lot of clientele that are coming time and time again.”

No matter who is on the guest list or how many times they’ve visited, server Bogard said there is no hierarchy at the CVI. “Here, everybody is a VIP,” she said. “I always think everybody that comes in here is special. I’m going to treat everybody – that special table, the people that just come in for the first time, the people who’ve been here five times – as VIPs.”

“When people come here, it is a big thing for them,” Bogard continued. “Whether it’s an anniversary, whether there’s a special event that they’re celebrating, whether it’s just two parents with kids who just need to get out of the house for a night and are getting dressed up for the first time in six months. It is a big deal for them, just as much as it is for somebody celebrating their 50th anniversary. I think as a staff, overall, everybody kind of looks at it like that. Every single person that comes in here is important, and we want to give them the best experience possible.”

CVI hospitality even spills out into the parking lot.

“For most events there is a driver at some point in the parking lot, sitting in a limo or bus or something,” Chef Jamie said. “So we always prep up enough to make extra food. And when we see there’s a driver, it goes unsaid , we pack up one of each course in a to-go box and, at the end of the dinner, someone from the kitchen staff runs out with flatware and a bag and gives this person a $150 meal. They have no clue that there’s like, plated dishes in these little flat boxes. They’re beautifully composed and garnished and sauced and there are really nice plates in these things. We don’t do it for the thanks. We do it to say thank you.”