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Meal surcharge at Tappo is different approach to bolstering kitchen pay

Inside American restaurants, the most dangerous work pays the least.

Servers get to keep their share of tips, without which they would make less than minimum wage. That usually brings them out ahead of kitchen workers, often by a sizable margin.

At Tappo, the Italian-American restaurant on Buffalo's Ellicott Street, management is trying something new: asking customers to join the business in addressing the inequity.

This month, there’s been a 50-cent surcharge on every meal. That’s matched by 50 cents from the business. The resulting $1 per meal is pooled, then split each week among kitchen workers, said Tappo owner Rocco Termini.

“Kitchen folks are traditionally paid lower than anyone else in the restaurant industry,” Termini said. “What I’m saying is give 50 cents, we’ll put another 50 cents in, and we’ll give them a dollar.”

Customers can opt out by informing their server, he said. “It’s a voluntary program. It’s not mandatory. If you don’t want to do this, let your server know.”

In an average week, the kitchen puts out about 2,000 meals, he said. That will mean about $100 or more for each kitchen worker, he said. “When you’re making very little in wages, $100 is a lot of money.”

[Related: Read 9-plate review of Tappo | Why Tappo's a candidate for pre-theater dining]

Tappo owner Rocco Termini. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Wage laws prohibit server tips from being used to compensate workers who don't interact with customers.

So why not just increase kitchen worker wages?

Termini said it’s not that simple. “If you pay them more, you have to increase prices,” he said. “We think this is a better way.”

The pay gap between "back of the house" – cooks, dishwashers, expediters – and "front of the house" – servers, hosts, bartenders – commonly occurs in restaurants because of the way American restaurant labor is compensated.

Cooks are paid hourly wages, at minimum wage or more, or sometimes fixed salaries, if they're leading kitchens. Servers and bartenders get sub-minimum hourly wages, and a share of customer tips.

Food prep workers across Western New York make hourly wages that averaged between $12 and $12.50 an hour – roughly $2 an hour over the $10.40 minimum wage at the time, according to worker pay data from 2018 compiled by the State Labor Department.

At a time when unemployment locally is at a nearly 30-year low and the number of workers who are actively looking for a job has plunged by 56% over the last seven years, the competition for workers is intense. Even at the lower end of the wage scale, that competition is intensified by the state’s higher minimum wage for fast food workers, which currently is $12.75 an hour.

[Related: From cooks to dishwashers, Buffalo restaurants struggle to find the help they need]

Meanwhile, tipped workers in New York can be paid a reduced minimum wage, currently $7.50 an hour. The tips that those workers receive are meant to make up for the difference between their lower minimum wage and the minimum wage for other workers, now $11.10 an hour. If tipped workers fall short of the $11.10-an-hour minimum, employers have to make up the difference.

At a busy restaurant, servers will earn more from the extra volume, while the cooks' pay will remain the same, said Roy Bakos, who was a bartender and manager for 17 years at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery. Cooks can rely on the steady pay, even on slow nights, while a thin crowd could leave a bartender with little to show at the end of the night.

But when Pearl Street was filled for sporting events or weekend crowds, bartenders and servers "can make a lot of money," he said.

Now director of hospitality at Buffalo Distilling Co., Bakos said he's been able to avoid the gap so far because its relatively small operation doesn't have dedicated kitchen staff. The establishment's seven employees all cook and serve drinks. "My bartenders cook," he said. "Everybody who works gets a cut. The only reason we can do it that way is because we have a small staff."

[Read more: NY considers raising minimum wage for tipped workers | Editorial: Keep the tip credit]

If the establishment expands, it'll try to figure out how to address the gap, Bakos said. Looking at the Tappo idea, he said, "I'd probably raise the food prices and pay the cooks more, but everyone has to address this in their own way." At least Tappo is trying to do something about it, Bakos said.

Termini said that if the $.50/$.50 arrangement works well, it may be extended to other places he owns, including both Thin Man Brewery locations, The Terrace at Delaware Park and Lafayette Brewing Co. “I’m rolling this out (at Tappo) first to see what the reaction is.”

So far, Termini said, customers have offered only compliments, not complaints.

News Deputy Business Editor David Robinson contributed to this report.

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