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.
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.”