More than a year after the Zuni Café introduced a mandatory service charge instead of tipping, restaurant owner Gilbert Pilgram said he has no plans to go back to the previous model, despite staff reluctance.
A number of Zuni Cafe employees told the San Francisco Chronicle that the move has made it difficult to make ends meet without the help of tips and that they have “reached the point where they are about to strike or unionize.” discussing to put pressure on Zuni,” the Chronicle reported. (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently.)
While the pressure has prompted Pilgram to re-evaluate the current model, he told the Chronicle that reintroducing tipping is not an option. It is unclear at this time what changes, if any, will be made to the surcharge. SFGATE has reached out to Zuni Café for comment but has not received a response at the time of publication.
“It’s not in a restaurateur’s interest to have a system that keeps part of the restaurant unsatisfied. It’s a recipe for disaster,” owner Gilbert Pilgram told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The no-tipping policy has been controversial for Zuni Cafe staff since it was introduced in 2021. When chef Nate Norris added a 20% service charge to customer tabs to replace tips, his goal, then as now, was to create a system that reduced wage inequality so that both front- and back-of-house workers could benefit be able.
“I would have looked at many of my careers [the pay equality gap] through the lens of a kind of bitterness and injustice, and it had a certain animosity toward those employees who, because of structural injustices, were being paid better than I was,” Norris told SFGATE last year. “…I’m not mad that the servers make a good wage. I’m annoyed that we don’t have a system that makes it easier for the employees in the back of the house to get this good wage as well.”
FILE – The Zuni Cafe is located at 1658 Market St. in San Francisco. Staff are still frustrated by the Zuni Cafe’s no-tipping policy, which was introduced in 2021.
The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im
For his part, Norris has worked hard to break down the separation between servers and back-of-house staff so that tips can be shared fairly. He told the Chronicle that in his experience, he’s seen servers “take that money as theirs.” But waiters at Zuni Cafe told the Chronicle that the current system is taking its toll.
“I agree that the back-of-house deserves to get more money,” Kate Dinger, who works at Zuni Cafe, told the Chronicle. “We, servers, suffer greatly from this. A lot of us wish it just went back to the old system.”
Last year, a former Zuni Cafe employee named Marshall C., who was granted anonymity under Hearst’s ethics policy, told SFGATE that he was offered an hourly rate of $24 per hour under the tipping policy to return to the Zuni Cafe. At the time of the deal, Marshall had been fired from the Zuni Cafe amid the pandemic. He shared that he found the removal of tips stunning and after some thought decided to decline the offer when he reasoned that he would not be able to pay rent or other personal expenses. (Norris later told SFGATE that the $24-hour starting wage was not representative of all offers).
Marshall added that seven front-of-house employees allegedly turned down offers due to tip removal. Additionally, the Chronicle noted that the Zuni Café has retained fewer servers during the pandemic compared to the chefs, with only three of the formerly 23 servers remaining on board.
Norris told the Chronicle he wasn’t sure the drop in waitstaff was a direct result of the no-tipping rule, especially since many people have left the hospitality industry or left the state. He added that the restaurant is currently full.
According to the Chronicle report, Zuni Cafe shared an Instagram post Thursday saying it knew removing tips would create challenges and an opportunity to learn from the change.
“We remain committed to the goals of paying decent wages and benefits that reflect the value of work, and to engaging our community as we work to achieve these goals,” Zuni Café wrote.