San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe removed tips a year ago. Despite pushback, it won’t bring them back.

More than a year after Zuni Café implemented a mandatory service surcharge in lieu of tipping, restaurant owner Gilbert Pilgram said that he has no plans to revert to the former model despite employee pushback.

A number of Zuni Café workers told the San Francisco Chronicle that the move has made it challenging to make ends meet without the help of tips and that they have “reached the point of discussing a walkout or unionizing to put pressure on Zuni,” the Chronicle reported. (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another.)

While the pressure has stirred Pilgram to reassess the current model in place, he told the Chronicle that reinstating tips wasn’t an option. At this time, it’s unclear what changes will be made to the surcharge, if any. SFGATE reached out to Zuni Café for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

“It’s in no restaurateur’s interest to have a system that keeps any of the parts of the restaurant unhappy. That’s a recipe for disaster,” owner Gilbert Pilgram told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The no-tip policy has been a source of contention for Zuni Café employees since it was first adopted in 2021. When chef Nate Norris added a 20% service surcharge to customer tabs in order to replace tips, his goal then, and now what to create a system that would alleviate pay inequity so that both front and back of house workers could benefit.

“A lot of my career, I would have viewed [the pay equality gap] through the lens of the kind of bitterness and unfairness, and it had some animosity towards the staff members who were better compensated than I was, because of structural inequities,” Norris told SFGATE last year. “… I’m not mad that the servers have been making a good wage. I am upset that we don’t have a system that makes it easier for the back of the house employees to also have that good wage.”

FILE — Zuni Cafe is located at 1658 Market St. in San Francisco. Staffers are still frustrated over Zuni Cafe’s no-tip rule, which was implemented in 2021.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

For his part, Norris has worked hard to tear down the division between servers and back of house workers so that tips can be distributed fairly. He told the Chronicle that in his experience, he’s observed servers view “that money as theirs.” But Zuni Café waiters told the Chronicle that the current system has taken its toll.

“I do agree that the back-of-house deserves to get more money,” Kate Dinger, who is a Zuni Café server, told the Chronicle. “We, servers, are suffering a lot of the brunt of it. A lot of us wish that it would just go back to the old system.”

Last year, a former Zuni Café employee named Marshall C., who was granted anonymity per Hearst’s ethics policy, told SFGATE that he was offered an hourly wage of $24 under the no-tip policy to return to Zuni Café. At the time of the deal, Marshall had been laid off from Zuni Café amid the pandemic. He shared that he found the removal of tips stunning and, after some thought, decided to turn down the offer when he reasoned that he would not be able to make rent or other personal expenses. (Norris later told SFGATE that the $24 hourly starting wage was not representative of all offers).

Marshall added that seven front-of-house workers had allegedly turned down offers based on the removal of tips. Moreover, the Chronicle found that Zuni Café has retained fewer servers compared with cooks throughout the pandemic, with only three of the former 23 servers staying on board.

Norris told the Chronicle that he’s unsure whether the dip in waiters was a direct result of the no-tip rule, especially since many folks have left the hospitality industry or moved out of the state. He added that the restaurant is currently fully staffed.

Following the Chronicle report, Zuni Café shared an Instagram post on Thursday where it said that it knew that removing tips would create challenges and offer the opportunity to learn from the change.

“We remain committed to the goals of paying dignified wages and benefits that reflect the value of labor and engaging our community as we work to make sure we achieve these goals,” Zuni Café wrote.

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