Yvonne’s supper club in downtown Boston calls it a “kitchen appreciation charge.” Centre Street Cafe in Jamaica Plain says it’s a “hospitality fee.” But no matter what they call it, it will add another 3 percent to customers’ tabs.
Restaurant owners, facing labor shortages and concerns about the plight of low-wage workers, are adding surcharges to customer bills to boost the pay of kitchen workers. It’s a risky strategy in a competitive industry fearful of alienating customers, but it also may be the way of the future.
“Everybody used to say, ‘I’ll never pay for baggage on an airline,’ ” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, “and now it’s just part of what we do.”
Restaurants from Los Angeles to New York to Boston are adding surcharges and experimenting with other ways to increase wages for so-called back-of-the-house workers and reduce the inequality of a two-tier wage system that allows waiters and waitresses to earn far more than their behind-the-scenes counterparts.
In New York, restaurateur Danny Meyer, owner of the Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, has eliminated tipping at some of his restaurants in favor of folding the total cost of dining into one check, much as is done in Europe. The goal is to raise hourly pay for all workers and keep kitchen workers from leaving for better-paying jobs.
Restaurant owners in Boston point out that the hospitality fees are not in lieu of tipping but are a way of addressing the same issue — holding onto workers.
Cooking staff shortages have grown severe enough that some restaurant owners — including at Deuxave in the Back Bay — offer to pay $1,000 a month toward a chef’s culinary school loans. Others help employees find affordable housing (Pastoral in Fort Point).
Chris Jamison, managing partner of Yvonne’s, which opened last year in the former Locke-Ober space, said he unveiled a 3 percent “kitchen appreciation charge” in September because he wanted to reduce employee turnover and bridge the wage gap among servers, bartenders, and bussers, who earn tips, and kitchen workers paid only by the hour.
Kitchen workers receive more than $11-an-hour minimum wage, he said, but their take-home pay is nowhere close to what a server can pull down in tips.
“It probably would have been easier to raise menu prices 3 to 5 percent and pay employees more,” he said. “But I wanted to make it clear this is a priority for us.”
Jamison said he got the idea last year in Los Angeles. He spent time with friends at their Los Angeles restaurant, Bestia, which added the 3 percent surcharge and didn’t see a drop in customers.
Yvonne’s pools the surcharges collected at the end of each night and divides the money evenly into the paychecks of kitchen workers, from chef to dishwashers.
He declined to say how much workers’ pay increased but said he will soon roll out a similar 3 percent surcharge at his Back Bay restaurant, Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar.
At Tres Gatos and Centre Street Cafe, a 3 percent hospitality fee took effect Dec. 1. On a recent weeknight at Tres Gatos, the fee added $3.69 to Jason St. Pierre and Maya McNamara’s check. St. Pierre, a product manager for Twitter in Boston, said he wasn’t fazed by it, although it might lead him to tip a server slightly less.
“I’ve worked in kitchens before,” he said, “and I feel like these folks work hard.”
At Centre Street Cafe, which, like Tres Gatos, is owned by Keith Harmon, Maricely Perez-Alers, and David Doyle, the owners explain to guests their rationale for the fee in a page-long open letter on the menu.
“We’re tired of feeling like our kitchen staff are second-class citizens,” the owners wrote. “We’re tired of knowing that they would be financially better off busing tables or working at a chain restaurant.”
Doyle said kitchen workers would make about 15 percent more under the surcharge plan, which pools the fee and distributes it monthly among employees based on the number of hours each has worked. That added $2.39 an hour to workers’ paychecks in December and $2.33 to paychecks in January, Doyle said.
Complaints have been very few, he said, and he and his partners will soon open a third restaurant on Centre Street, called Casa Verde, that will include surcharges.
Doyle, who lives with his family above Tres Gatos, said he sees firsthand that kitchen staff are the first to arrive at the restaurant and the last to leave on most shifts. And he said he’s hoping kitchen staff will stay longer; the restaurant has had three head chefs in the last five years.
“There’s this idea that restaurants are sitting on huge piles of cash,” Doyle said. “But we’re putting our life savings into this.”
Bryan Barton, a dishwasher at Centre Street Cafe, said he moved among half a dozen dishwasher jobs on the West Coast in recent years before landing at Centre Street Cafe two weeks before the new fee was announced.
He said the news came as a surprise, a very happy one.
Without wanting to disclose his pay, the 27-year-old said the fee will add thousands to his take home pay annually and help him afford an apartment in a city where rents have soared.
“It was the best feeling I’ve had in Boston,” Barton said. “It made me feel really hopeful, because I’m just getting my feet under me.”
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misattributed a quote spoken by David Doyle. It also misidentified which of the restrurant owners lives about Tres Gatos.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.