Adding health care to the menu

Every restaurant server knows the verbal tipper—the customer who doles out extravagant praise and leaves behind a measly 15 percent. In the food-and-beverage biz, such stinginess isn’t just an aggravation: It makes it significantly harder for a server, who’s typically paid less than $3 an hour, to afford flu shots, prescription drugs and annual checkups.

To their health: Tupelo Honey Café has launched a new product line in an effort to fund a worker-HMO program. Here employees model T-shirts from the collection. At left is Avery Duncan (wearing a shirt sporting his own design); at right is Samantha Meyer. photo by Jonathan Welch.>

The vast majority of American restaurants don’t offer any sort of health-care plan, which means most servers—along with bartenders, sommeliers, chefs, prep cooks and dishwashers—are forced to foot the bill for their medical expenses. Not surprisingly, many of them aggressively avoid seeing a doctor.

Never mind that a sick server or cook can be a public-health hazard: The current health-care system is heartbreakingly tough on small businesses.

“I tried to get insurance, but the providers didn’t want to play ball,” says Anthony Cerato, owner of Fiore’s Ristaurante Tuscana, who tried to arrange pooled coverage for Asheville Independent Restaurant Association member restaurants. “As a small business owner, I don’t even have health-care coverage myself. I know for me, personally, I don’t smoke, I have no medical history, and insurance would still cost me $350 a month. And that’s not including dental.”

Cerato is keenly aware of the importance of worker health: He even offered gift certificates for massages as a holiday bonus this year, recognizing that there’s no such thing as a sit-down restaurant job. “These people are on their feet all the time,” Cerato says. “If our sales increase, I’d want to provide insurance for all my employees.”

Cerato isn’t the only local restaurant owner who’s put employee benefits on his to-do list. Taking a cue from elementary schools that host bake sales to raise money for school supplies, Tupelo Honey Café recently unveiled a new retail program intended to fund a worker-HMO program. Café owner Stephen Frabitore hopes customers will buy enough hoodies, travel mugs and jams to cover the cost of health care for his 47 employees.

“With 62 seats, it’s not like we can just sell more food. We’re pretty much full all the time,” Frabitore explains. “What we’re attempting to do is create a new cash flow to buy an HMO plan.”

The café has shoved aside some furniture to create an attractive in-store merchandise area, and ramped up its e-commerce offerings so folks from Denver to Delaware can place orders for branded souvenirs such as t-shirts and pint glasses. The insurance plan will kick off as soon as retail sales generate $60,000 in profits. Employees who work at least 25 hours a week will be eligible for coverage.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a program like this,” says Tupelo Honey executive chef Brian Sonofkus, a 24-year veteran of the restaurant industry. “Especially in an independent restaurant, it’s just kind of unheard of.”

A few local restaurants offer health plans similar to the current system at Tupelo Honey, in which employees are reimbursed for 50 percent of their monthly premiums. Joan Eckert, co-owner of The Laughing Seed Café and Jack of the Wood, believes her eateries were the first independent restaurants in Asheville to offer a co-pay plan.

“We’ve seen the cost go up and up, but are committed to retaining it,” Eckert says of the 10-year old plan. “Hopefully it pays off through employee loyalty and security.”

At Westville Pub, where five employees are enrolled in the optional health-insurance plan, co-owner Lu Young has also had to deal with the rising costs of health care. While the pub’s share of an employee’s coverage is typically about $60 a month, the price varies according to the employee’s age, gender and medical history. “Of course, women pay more, which is very discriminatory and, in fact, I am sure discourages some businesses from hiring women,” Young writes in an e-mail.

Frabitore recalls when one of his sous chefs, whose coverage cost $150 monthly, got sick: “Her deductible was so high, she couldn’t afford it. It’s such a burden. We want a health-care plan people can use.”

Restaurant-worker health care has been a much-discussed topic in San Francisco, which this year began requiring businesses with more than 20 employees to provide health care to all staff members working at least 10 hours a week. Restaurant owners cringed publicly, with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association taking the city to court. A federal panel upheld the law, and the association is now awaiting word whether their case will be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But some Bay Area diners have already issued their verdict on restaurants’ handling of the program: Distasteful.

Many restaurants decided to pass along the cost of employee health care to their patrons in the form of a service charge. While a few restaurants tacked surcharges of $1 to $3 to their bills, other high-end eateries added 2 to 5 percent fees. “With the prices they charge, I think they make enough money to afford health care for their employees,” one angry diner wrote on the blog of San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, who predicts surcharges will eventually vanish as restaurateurs fold their health-care costs into menu prices. “I was offended and won’t go back.”

  Sonofkus says Tupelo’s opt-in system of supporting employee health care has been well received by customers.

“We’ve definitely had some feedback, and folks think it’s great,” Sonofkus says. “They feel it’s something they can get behind. We really want to care for our employees.”

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4 thoughts on “Adding health care to the menu

  1. Dionysis

    A timely article. The only question is: 15% tip is considered “measly?” That used to be the norm for adequate service, with 20% for superior service (and tips should be for service, not pegged to the quality of the food produced by the kitchen).
    Maybe it’s just inflation.

  2. Fred

    I wonder what the profits are this restaurant? I bet they could afford it if the owner would make less.

  3. Rob Close

    Uhm yeah, calling 15% is rubbish. If every waiter got 15% consistently in Asheville, they’d all be doing fine. Even if they just handled 4 $20 tables an hour, that’s an extra $12/hr on top of wages – that’s $14/hr, which is way better than a lot of skilled labor, let alone unskilled.

    Here’s how I tip. How well they stuck up for me + the time I spent at their table + how much trouble my order was for them.

    For example – I go out for a $35 meal, the waiter treats me like dirt, vs going out for a $5 meal and I get treated great. Am I really supposed to drop $10 and have it be considered measly, while I’m allowed to drop $1 and have it be 20% and considered fair. No way! It’s about effort, not a sense of entitlement. They can each have a $2-3 tip, and too bad if you think one of them deserved more simply because he/she works at a more expensive venue.

    So what I really don’t understand is this – do people really believe that a waiter deserves more money for their time simply because their restaurant costs more to eat at? If their performance parallels the prices, I understand, but for the same effort/time, am I really supposed to tip that snobby yuppie at the lobster restaurant MORE than the poor working mother at the diner? Does that really help society? Is that really fair? I don’t think so.

    So take your 15$ rule and throw it out the window. We live in a meritocracy, so live in the moment, and don’t be afraid to tip what your heart feels is appropriate, and not what society tells you to. Or else that poor mother is getting 75 cents and that whiney douche will keep getting $10 a table and report less than half of that to the IRS.

  4. Dionysis

    Rob Close makes a darned good point, I think. As for experiencing a wait person that “treats me like dirt,” my response is simple: I just ask them, point blank: ‘have I done something to anger or offend you? If not, why are you being so rude?’ If that does not compel them to act like a service worker should (cordial and polite), then I go immediately to the management and complain while I am still in the restaurant. This hasn’t happened many times, but it has happened.

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