Dinner is over, the plates are pushed away and the waiter brings the bill. A couple of drinks, a hamburger, a salad, and a 16 percent service fee.
The Bruncheonette on Broadway Avenue, at Monroe Street, added a 16 percent service fee to its bills, angering some customers who believe the fee is nothing but an automatic gratuity.
“There has been some pushback; some people get upset and will not come back,” said Joile Forral, who owns Bruncheonette together with her husband, Allen Skelton. “But we circle the fee on the receipt, and they don’t have to leave another tip.”
Forral said Bruncheonette decided to charge the service fee in anticipation of a federal law change on Dec. 1 that makes it illegal for restaurant owners and managers to collect tip pools and give “tip outs” to kitchen staff. Restaurants that don’t comply with the new law may be subject to reviews and penalties meted out by the Department of Labor.
That leaves those “customarily untipped employees,” as case law calls them, earning far less than waiters even though their contributions are critical to a restaurant’s success.
Forral, for example, said it’s not unusual for servers at Bruncheonette to earn two or three times as much an hour as cooks and kitchen staff.
“We know the struggle of being dedicated to the craft in the back making $10 an hour and never getting tipped,” Forral said. “And for earnings in the front of the house the sky is the limit.”
Why not just raise prices and pay everyone more?
That’s not the point, said Tina Luerssen, a prep cook at Bruncheonette and a server and host at Italia Trattoria in Browne’s Addition.
“Higher prices would just mean that wait staff gets paid even more because they get tipped on the higher price,” Luerssen said. “It wouldn’t help the back of the house.”
Service fees are common in bigger cities, like New York and Seattle, said John Brogna, a former general manager at Luna on the South Hill, who opened the Wandering Table in Kendall Yards together with Adam Hegsted.
But, “I don’t know if Spokane is ready for this,” Brogna said. “Spokane wants value. People say there aren’t enough deals in Spokane. People don’t like anything tagged on to their bill without a prior notice.”
Brogna said restaurants will have to make changes according to the new tip pool rules. He said most restaurants have “a highly suggested tip-out procedure” and if servers refuse to participate, they often don’t last.
“I know we may see more service fees,” Brogna said. “It’s a big change. People are used to tipping.”
The Washington State Hospitality Association was part of a lawsuit seeking to preserve the tip pooling system.
Wendy Hughes, local communications manager for WSHA, said the service fees have become more common as restaurant owners and managers deal with rising minimum wages and, starting in January in Spokane, mandatory paid sick leave.
Hughes said restaurant patrons should get used to the idea of service fees popping up more regularly.
Bethe Bowman, who owns Italia Trattoria together with her partner Ana Vogel, said she’s not sure what to do about what she calls “the big awful gap between the front and the back of the house” when it comes to tip income.
Bowman said she is watching what is happening in Seattle, where prices are going up because of the $15 minimum wage there, and service charges are added on top of that.
“I don’t know what to think about it,” Bowman said. “Restaurants have to pay tax on the service fee. It’s revenue.”
Bowman said servers at Italia Trattoria are upset that they can’t continue to tip out the kitchen. Meanwhile, customers ask her what to do if they are charged a fee but get poor service.
“To me, poor service is a problem with the server and the manager, so you tell someone,” Bowman said.
The bottom line is that patrons must support the small restaurants they say they love, Bowman said.
“If you love my restaurant, put your money where your mouth is,” Bowman said.
Forral said she has no plans to change Bruncheonette’s billing practices and that she’s certain service fees will become more common. She hands out the full 16 percent fee every day to workers based on the number of hours each worked that day.
The restaurant tries to be upfront about the service charge, which is mentioned in small type at the bottom of the menu and is circled on the bill. Patrons don’t have to leave an additional tip, but they can if they want to.
“It sounds good to raise the minimum wage on paper, until people have to actually pay for it,” Forral said. “But I find that once we explain to people what the service fee is, then most of them are fine.”
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