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Arturo Kassel, the owner of Whisknladle Hospitality and a string of local restaurants, says he thinks the practice of tipping servers in restaurants is on its last breath.

But until it dies, his restaurants will soon start to do something extraordinary. Servers will begin to share tips with cooks, dishwashers and others in the back of the house, or what Kassel calls the “heart of the house.”

Kassel said the inequality between servers at nice restaurants like his and the people who prepare the food inspired the move.  He points to a federal case, Cumbie v. Woody Woo and upcoming minimum wage increases — the state’s minimum wage increases to $9 per hour July 1 — which he says will only impact the higher-paid servers.

Tipped servers often make much more than the minimum wage but the tips don’t count toward their hourly pay. So as the minimum wage increases, they’ll get a raise while many lower wage kitchen staff will not be impacted.

That’s just not right, Kassel said in an email to me.

“In light of all this, we took the time to educate our service staff about the widening income inequality and asked them if they were willing to increase their [heart of the house] contribution after their wages go up so that the [heart of the house] are the ones who see the majority of the benefit from the increase in minimum wage,” he wrote.

In a survey, he said, the servers signed off.

“We were thrilled and not the least bit surprised to hear that the overwhelming majority understand it’s the right thing to do and are willing to do so without reservation,” he wrote.

The move comes at an interesting time for the practice of tipping as court battles flare up across the country. The Linkery, a North Park restaurant that prohibited tipping, closed up shop but its owner, Jay Porter, ran a series of provocative essays on the practice and continues to speak out against it.

His decision got him national notoriety when the New York Times profiled The Linkery and his experiment.

Porter later argued, among other things, that tipping is an anti-feminist practice and that it correlates weakly to service quality.

Porter was quoted in this recent Restaurant Business piece that says operators around the country are considering trying to kill the practice of tipping because of regulations and lawsuits. At the heart of many of the tensions about tips are who gets to share in them.

Restaurant Business highlighted one particular fight — the Cumbie case Kassel mentioned — very relevant to Whisknladle’s decision:

In Oregon, tip pools face a different question: Can the kitchen get a cut? Under state law, restaurants aren’t allowed tip credits, and servers make full minimum wage, plus tips. That creates huge income gaps and potential resentments between waitstaff and everyone else, says Christopher Handford, owner of the Davis Street Tavern in Portland, Ore. He narrows those gaps by sharing the wealth. Chefs and dishwashers, on average, get an extra $1.25 an hour from the tip pool. “The way we look at it, customers are tipping the entire staff: the dishwasher, the waiter, the bartender, the person who busses the tables, the hostess,” says Handford.

Under a 2011 rule from the [Department of Labor], his tip pool is illegal because it includes workers who don’t customarily receive tips. But federal courts in the Ninth Circuit (covering nine western states and Guam) have said the rule doesn’t apply to restaurants that don’t take tip credits. Of seven states that outlaw tip credits, six happen to be in the Ninth Circuit.

On NBC7 San Diego’s “Politically Speaking,” Kassel stood next to Richard Barrera, the secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Labor Council, and debated the minimum wage.

Kassel asked Barrera directly why they couldn’t count tips toward the minimum wage. Barrera first cited stats we posted here from the state that show tipped workers average very low wages.

But then he said the money shouldn’t be considered something the restaurants pay servers.

“Tips are defined in California law as the property of the worker. Basically, what the employers are saying is they want to use the workers’ own tips to satisfy their obligations under the minimum wage. It’s illegal in California,” Barrera said.

But it can be much murkier than that in practice. Servers often work in teams and, at the end of the day, they tip out bussers, bartenders and other colleagues who helped make the experience for the customer.

Can they share the tips with those working in the kitchen?

Kassel is going to find out.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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