I charge more to pay restaurant staff a living wage

Melissa Martin is chef-owner of the Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans. She is a finalist for the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Southern Chef, and her first cookbook, named after the restaurant, won Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She plans to spend her summer traveling through France to write her second.

When I opened Mosquito Supper Club, I took the mockup of the restaurant and threw it against the wall, and let it smash on the floor. I only chose the pieces that I liked. Anything I didn’t like about restaurants I tried to drop and start over.

From the very first day I opened, it was always prepaid, and there were no service charges built in. So people prepaid, and they showed up for dinner, they ate, and no one tipped. We raced like that for a few years. And then I signed with Tock, and I was able to add a service fee.

Our service fee is 25%, and it is charged at all levels. We use this number to be able to increase the hourly rate of all our employees. A server elsewhere can earn between $2.13, $5 and $7 per hour, but we can start a server at $14, $16 or $18 per hour. The same goes for the people in the back. Our dishwasher makes $20 an hour. Everyone works behind our backs, no one makes less than $18 an hour. We played with the number during COVID – we increased the service charge from 20% to 25%. And we started offering health insurance to full-time employees.

We still have a bar where you can come in and have a drink, and our a la carte menu. For these tickets, I don’t apply a service charge there, so people tip on these tickets. And people tip on their drinks at night. You can prepay for wine pairing etc, but if you don’t and just order drinks a la carte in the evening, people will also tip. So it’s a combination of service charge and tip.

Because we are a prepaid restaurant and have so little seating, we couldn’t leave the choice up to the customer. I’ve had this experience before – they won’t tip on what they pay. And we see it at private parties. Someone will have a wedding, and then they’ll pay for their drinks on the night of the wedding, and you know their drink bill will be around $2,000, and they’ll leave a $100 tip. Some people just don’t get it.

We had to add the service charge to run the business. So you can do two things: you can decide to make your food more expensive or you can charge a higher service charge. It’s very, very expensive to run a restaurant. The margins are so, so small. It costs $105 to come to our tasting menu. And even with these margins, it’s still very difficult.

We are a team of 11 people. It’s a small business, but when the business grows, that means everyone is going to make more money because that’s how I want it. The other ways we want to run the business – the best possible quality of food we can buy, composting, recycling, health insurance, days off, work-life balance. All of these things are why it’s so expensive to eat at my restaurant.

We just did a huge study with our business coach to try to get everyone on the salary. But it’s a learning curve. When you change anything, it’s a painful learning curve.

I think some of the staff think that if they provide good service at the bar, by putting in place a service charge, maybe they will cap what they could get from tips. But on a Thursday our average tip was 17%, on Friday our average tip was 20%. It’s reality, you choose what you want.

The same person who would shout that they want equal pay for everyone is the same one who will complain that their checks are not high enough. You can’t really win with a lot of people. They will complain: “If I worked in this restaurant, I could earn $250, $300 in tips. I’m like, “Okay, but maybe ask this restaurant what they’re paying for their dishwasher.”

But there are a lot of people who think it’s great. For example, one of my managers was in nursing school and she knew exactly how much she was going to earn. She didn’t have to worry about tips because she knew she would definitely make $20 an hour. For people who are serving life sentences in the service industry and who want to earn more than $60,000 a year in tips, it will be a little more difficult here.

Maybe because I grew up very poor and my dad had four jobs, I was going to do my best to be able to change a system I thought was flawed. In a perfect world, I would pay everyone $65,000 a year. It’s unattainable for a small restaurant like me, but there is no one in our restaurant who is below anyone else. Everyone does the same work to get there.

I think the restaurant industry model is just broken and tipping was due to servitude. I’m amazed that it even became legal to pay a server $2.13 per hour. That beats me. How did it happen? How is it legal?

But we’re looking at ways to increase revenue and different abilities so we can try to pay everyone more. We tried to get more subscribers to our bar program. We added another service at the start, a gardening service, which is like a fixed price at 5:30. Usually we only did one service at 7:30 so we are trying to expand and build a little oyster bar on our property. I mean, I wrote a cookbook so we would have another source of income. I’m writing another cookbook. You bring income streams in different ways.

I often say that we are on teachers’ salaries, and teachers do so much more work than us. There may be a socialist model, but I think there are a lot of people who are happy to know that our dishwasher – who has worked with me for over 13 years, does a very hard job and is very important to our business — earns a living wage to support their family. They know the money is distributed so that we can try to end some wage disparity.

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