The tipping point: Is Blue Dream Curry paving the way for no-tip restaurants in Asheville?

CHANGING TIMES: Server Deena Jackson brings food out at Blue Dream Curry House. Blue Dream recently converted to a no-tipping system, opting to pay servers and other employees a living wage rather than the industry standard of $2.13 per hour plus gratuity.
CHANGING TIMES: Server Deena Jackson brings food out at Blue Dream Curry House. Blue Dream recently converted to a no-tipping system, opting to pay servers and other employees a living wage rather than the industry standard of $2.13 per hour plus gratuity. Photo by Pat Barcas

Tipping at restaurants is a practice so deeply ingrained in our culture, that it’s hard to imagine enjoying a meal out without calculating that 20 percent. But the times might be a’ changing in Asheville.

Blue Dream Curry owners James Sutherland, Chris Cunningham and Sean Park recently made a surprising move when they eliminated tipping from their downtown restaurant. While rare, the decision isn’t unprecedented. The concept of a no-tip restaurant gained national attention in October when Danny Meyers of the Union Square Hospitality group in New York City, decided to eliminate tipping from over a dozen of his restaurants.

While the idea of a no-tip restaurant doesn’t yet qualify as the next big thing, other local restaurant owners are considering the move, and almost everyone in the industry seems to have an opinion about it. For Sutherland, Cunningham and Park, it’s partly a matter of principle.

“For a very long time, servers have been paid $2.13 per hour plus tips. This means it’s up to the guest to subsidize the server’s pay,” explain the owners in an email exchange. “We believe it is our responsibility to compensate our team and not our guests’ responsibility.”

Base pay for all staff at Blue Dream Curry is now $12.50 per hour, which is the living wage in Asheville as certified by Just Economics. Staff will also receive a guaranteed bonus based on a percentage of total sales. The owners anticipate that with a sales increase, employees should receive a pay range of around $17-$25 per hour.  “Along with regular raises, paid time off and other benefits like shift meals and discounts for their families, we feel like this is a total package that works,” say the owners.

Taelin Frasier has been working at Blue Dream Curry since it opened in May and has worked in the restaurant industry for much longer. “It’s definitely different than I’m used to. I’ve worked in the restaurant business most of my life,” says Frasier. With the previous system, he says, his paychecks were “next to nothing” after taxes. “So, I think in the long run, it will be better for me. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a slow day or a busy day; I’m still going to make the same amount of money.”

The owners say responses from other employees have been similarly positive. No one has quit in reaction to the new arrangement, and they say they have experienced an increase in applicants for all positions.

BLUE DREAM TEAM: "Tips benefit only individuals, for the most part, while our tipless system is designed to benefit our whole staff, as well as continue to incentivize excellent performance by tying the bonus to our sales," says Blue Dream co-owner Chris Cunningham. "This issue is not just about servers not getting tipped but also about cooks not getting paid enough to live. It's about a living wage for a restaurant team.” Pictured from left to right: James Sutherland, owner; Robert Brotzman, cook; Deena Jackson, server; Andrew Morgandorffer, cook; Nicole Goram, server; Sean Park, chef and owner; Chris Cunningham, general manager and owner. Photo by Pat Barcas
BLUE DREAM TEAM: “Tips benefit only individuals, for the most part, while our tipless system is designed to benefit our whole staff, as well as continue to incentivize excellent performance by tying the bonus to our sales,” says Blue Dream co-owner Chris Cunningham. “This issue is not just about servers not getting tipped but also about cooks not getting paid enough to live. It’s about a living wage for a restaurant team.” Pictured from left to right: James Sutherland, owner; Robert Brotzman, cook; Deena Jackson, server; Andrew Morgandorffer, cook; Nicole Goram, server; Sean Park, chef and owner; Chris Cunningham, general manager and owner. Photo by Pat Barcas

The no-tip restaurant model still seems like a fringe movement, but other local restaurant owners have been paying close attention. Katie Button, co-owner of Curate and Nightbell, says that while she has no immediate plans to change her restaurants’ tipping policy, it’s a possibility for the future. “Certainly Danny Myers taking that step was a big indicator of the direction that people are headed,” says Button. “I do think that if [eliminating tipping] allows restaurants to offer benefits, pay their staff — both back of the house and front of the house — fair wages and have direct control over performance reviews of their staff and promotions and incentives and things like that, then I am all for it.”

Button recently began offering employees health insurance, and she says that offering paid time off is in the works. “We’re moving into creating the restaurant industry to be more like the way a general business is run,” she says. “I think it is just going to take a little bit of time for people to make that adjustment and figure out how that is going to work.”

Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani, says the decision to eliminate tips isn’t a trend. Instead, he says, “It’s a response to some serious issues in the restaurant industry that are calling into question the way we handle compensation and benefits for staff.” The solution, however, isn’t so cut and dried, he says. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘Well, why don’t restaurants pay their staff better and give them benefits?’ The simple answer is that most independent restaurants can’t afford to. Whether it’s  fine dining or fast casual, margins are wafer thin.”

He adds that Chai Pani is in the middle of figuring out how to combat these issues. Like Button, he started offering health care to the restaurant’s 30 full-time employees this year. “We pay a premium for high-quality ingredients, we regularly give raises to match the cost of living, we offer paid vacation time to our salaried employees, we promote to management from within, and we’re continuing to look at ways to improve the quality of life for our team,” says Irani. “But it’s incredibly hard to do all that in a casual restaurant where the most expensive thing on the regular menu is $10.99. And we agonize over raising the price on anything by even 50 cents, worrying that people may think we’re getting too expensive.”

Customer reaction is one concern with eliminating tipping, but so is the reaction from servers. Malcolm Knighten has been working in the restaurant industry for 15 years. He currently works at Sovereign Remedies and says, like most servers, he never sees a paycheck. “My paycheck goes completely toward paying taxes, and I will still probably owe money at the end of the year,” he says. “So I live totally off tips.” He’s fine with relying on the generosity of customers for his income, as he doesn’t feel confident that his employers could match the income that he makes from tips. “Nobody wants to take a pay cut,” he says.

He also says the the tipping system (and the amount of money that goes along with it) is the major appeal of the service industry. “Every time someone comes in and gives a tip, they give it willingly,” says Knighten. “And that’s kind of a good feeling. … People are giving me money because they respect and appreciate what I’m doing.”

Taken all together, it appears that restaurant owners and employees want the same thing — to work in an environment that is supportive and professional and where everyone is making good money. Irani says that for major changes to happen and for those goals to be met, the community must also get on board. “Kudos to Blue Dream and other restaurants looking for a different approach,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s the customer that will have to decide whether they want to pay for a change or not.”

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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16 thoughts on “The tipping point: Is Blue Dream Curry paving the way for no-tip restaurants in Asheville?

  1. boatrocker

    Hell yeah, I’ll eat at any local Asheville restaurant that does not encourage tipping.

    As long as said restaurant pays its’ staff with at least a livable wage.

    I’ll say it again. Livable wage.

    If anyone object to a livable wage, please post here why local workers do not deserve to live.
    I’m waiting. Please change your names to MarieAntionette@screwthepoors.

  2. James Dycus

    I think employers should pay everyone an honest pay. Tips should not be paid by people buying things just because employers want pay their workers enough money to survive on.

  3. Lulz

    LOL, when servers and bartenders are making 200 a night, they’d be stupid to change it lulz.

    • The Real World

      I’m all for a businesses pursuing any model they want to. As with any type of strategy, time will tell if it succeeds or not.
      Some potential pitfalls with this one:
      1 – As mentioned above, the dreaded “Laws of Unintended Consequences”(LUC) might actually cause the workers to wind up with less take home pay than the way it is now.
      2 – The necessary prices of food/beverage might be high enough to cause customers to say “ouch” and not dine there often. Which creates the possibility that the place goes under b/c they were priced out of the market. Oops, now we have unemployed workers with $0 income, Another LUC.
      3 – Plenty will chafe at this but it’s b/c they’re being reactionary rather than thinking about the reality of it. Minimum wage jobs are not meant to be a careers. They are starter or fill-in-the-gap jobs. The fact that they don’t pay quite enough is the exact motivator for people to strive to learn more so that they move upward in their work life. For many, if they could live well enough on a higher minimum wage, they would remain in a minimalrut and maybe for a very long time. Another LUC.

      • luther blissett

        “Minimum wage jobs are not meant to be a careers.”

        Where is this written down? The idea that minimum wage = spotty teenage Ingles bagger is just plain deluded.

        “The fact that they don’t pay quite enough is the exact motivator for people to strive to learn more so that they move upward in their work life.”

        Well, that’s a large pile of perverse pseudo-Calvinistic sloganeering BS. The beatings will continue until morale improves, right?

        • Lulz

          LOL, you’re so dense lulz. Has it not occurred to you that the busiest restaurants are usually the one’s where the front staff make the most money? Why are you not bringing up the real wage slaves and it’s those that are in the back that work for low wages while the servers and bartenders make bank LOL. It shows your complete lack of how foodservice really works lulz. Front staff is transient by nature especially here in Asheville where the make up is usually early 20 somethings. It’s the school taught chefs that make careers out of it that are underpaid lulz.

    • Big Al

      I could NEVER see myself working a job that paid less than minimum wage and forced me to pander for tips to make up the difference, so I always assumed that everyone else felt the same way and only did the work because they HAD TO. Then I dated a woman who gave up a job as a CNA with salary and benefits to work 6 nights a week as a server. I asked her why she felt the NEED (poor assumption on my part) to do this and she said she got paid MORE than the CNA job and liked it better, so I guess for SOME people, this is the way to go.

      I personally feel that tipping should have stayed where it started, in high-end restaurants where tips (To Insure Prompt Service) were paid to every staff member the diner encountered, from the doorman, valet and hostess to the waiter and sommelier. Since these diners were the one-percenters of their day, this was understood to be part of the price of their lifestyle. How this got worked into an entitlement for waitresses, bus boys and cooks in middle-class and lower dining establishments I do not understand and would be glad to see it abolished in favor of minimum wages, with Living Wages at the discretion of the employer, NOT the tax whores of Asheville City Council or their whiny socialist hipster constituents.

      • Just an average guy

        The diner will not save any money if this change occurs. Where do you think the extra money for salaries ,paid vacation and insurance will come from. All of the menu items prices will be marked up dramatically. Do you put the money in the hands of the people who are providing you a service or the owners. Either way can work ,but I would prefer to tip the people who are at work for twelve hours a day. If employees are guaranteed a certain wage service will suffer.

        • Big Al

          Who cares whether the diner saves money? Dining out is supposed to be about quality (which should cost more) not savings. If you want that, go to Burger King. No waiters, no tips, no problem.

  4. boatrocker

    I’m so confused. I’ve seen the argument that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be careers before, but could someone please define which jobs are supposed to be careers vs. not? Inquiring minds would like to know.

    • The Real World

      @boatrocker – decent of you to inquire as opposed to Luther who just decided to go off the rails. I think these would be fair descriptions.

      career = work that usually involves some specialized skills or knowledge and for which there is growth potential. Some examples: teacher, lawyer, artist, software developer, hair stylist, nurse and many more.

      minimum wage job = one in which specialized skills aren’t generally required, training requirements are few and should a worker leave or be let go they can fairly easily be replaced. (All of those beings reasons the wages are minimal). And the specific job itself is static and lacks growth potential. Examples: cashier, busboy, receptionist, shelf stocker, fast food restaurant worker and more.

      • boatrocker

        Cool- thanks so much Real World. Now don’t ever diss teachers, lawyers, artists, software developers, hair stylists, nurses, and many more.

        Otherwise you’ll get a bad haircut after being sued for slandering teachers who paint on the weekends and the Geek Squad will refuse to wipe your computer for Tea Party porn and nurses will shun you for performing CPR on a copy of an Ayn Rand novel.

        • The Real World

          @boatrocker – I’m generally pretty good at following drifts but you confused me a bit with your response. Did you have a few drinks? (your comments look like something I might write after a couple of ‘ritas)

          Anyhow, this I can assure you: I diss no one who works….any kind of job. Unless they’re lying, cheating or stealing in the course of it. All work is important and valuable to the flow of other jobs and the economy. (The busboy is a critical function)

          I will diss those who are capable of working but instead decide to game the welfare system, or play the victim, so as to receive income that is provided from taxes paid by working people. Nor do I have much respect for people who stay in their rut and complain, complain….as if the universe owes them something like a better job, more money, etc. No, they owe it to themselves to buck up and make change happen if that’s what they want.

          • boatrocker

            No, drinks were not involved. My specific brand of humor involves the use of ‘ad absurdum’.

            With regard to cheating the tax system, I’d agree with you- as long as it includes pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps ala Wall Street/corporate finance laws, the Military Industrial Complex and churches. All 3 of those groups are so much more guilty of fleecing the American taxpayer than a single white mom with few options.

          • The Real World

            “My specific brand of humor involves the use of ‘ad absurdum’.’ Love it…and kind of figured that’s what you were up to.

            Regarding your second paragraph – totally agree. The problem with the entities you mention is they’re likely legally avoiding or paying minimal taxes. The tax code is so VAST and rich with opportunity — it’s a problem. Couple years ago my accountant told me, while shaking her head, “Real World, the tax code is now so massive, it is beyond repair at this point. It has to be scrapped and a much simplified version put in place”. Now note that came from someone who makes a living b/c the system is complicated!

            I hear Repub politicians refer to tax reform often but, for some reason, I never hear Dem politicians saying the same. Why don’t they want a reformed, simplified tax code, I wonder?

  5. Local Worker

    The horizon for rising wages for restaurant workers not looking super bright, bc unfortunately the one entity who was working for a living wage has unofficially disagreed to stop certifying restaurants because the restaurant owners of this town do not approve of that program extending to them.

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