By JEFF GORDINIER
NOVEMBER 16, 2015
Thanksgiving came early this year to the Modern. Not the holiday of turkey and cranberry sauce, but the custom of family members lovingly and contentiously coming together to talk (and talk) about the things that unite and divide them.
In a relentless series of meetings and temperature takings last week, leaders of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group gathered waiters and cooks and bartenders and porters at the Modern — the company’s elegant restaurant attached to the Museum of Modern Art — to field questions and concerns about its new “hospitality included” policy. That is the company’s preferred, accentuate the positive, classically Meyerish phrase for “no tipping.”
Mr. Meyer, in a move that he said would make the dining experience smoother for customers and more equitable for employees, announced a month ago that he would phase out the time honored American practice of tipping at 13 of his restaurants and bars in New York City. That experiment starts rolling on Thursday at the Modern.
But more than a week earlier, on Nov. 10, three successive meetings (one in Spanish, another in English and a third partly conducted via anonymous text messaging) showcased an uneasy mix of go for broke exuberance and I don’t want to go broke jitters as the Modern’s employees found themselves suddenly in the midst of what could become a huge cultural shift.
“I just wanted to talk about being brave,” Michaël Engelmann, the restaurant’s wine director, said as a crosssection of employees gathered in a circle of chairs in a conference room overlooking the museum’s sculpture garden. “I have anxiety, too. All of us do.”
Simon King, the general manager, expressed what everyone seemed to be confronting in one way or another: “The truth of the matter is, this is a big deal.”
As is customary at all such meetings in America, there were heaps of pastries, but Mr. King and his comrades sought to provide comfort in a different form: as many answers as possible. “What is the impact on you?” is how he summed it up.
Will the people who cook the food, wash the dishes and carry boxes of vegetables from the loading dock see more money in their paychecks? Yes. Will waiters and bartenders see their base pay rise? Yes, and they will reap the benefits of revenue sharing as well.
Will those servers make as much money as they normally would from tips on a wildly busy Saturday night? That remains to be seen, but at least into February, the company is promising to match the average wage by position
from the same time last year.
Taking questions and holding hands were executives and managers, including Erin Moran, the company’s chief culture officer; Chip Huffman, the director of internal communications; and Dino Lavorini, the Modern’s director of operations.
Typical of Mr. Meyer’s corporate philosophy, which puts employees first (even above customers), the scene called to mind a large format version of group therapy. No trust falls or drum circles were observed, but the nonstop flow of communication suggested that Mr. Meyer, largely viewed as the family’s benevolent patriarch, wanted no server left behind.
Customers, for their part, don’t seem particularly distressed, if the experience of Ashleigh Crisena Ricci is any indication. As a reservationist at the Modern, Ms. Ricci calls up hundreds of diners to confirm the times of their coming meals and inform them about the new policy. “Most of the time they just ask, ‘What does that mean for me?’” she said.
What it means is that prices of certain menu items will go up. Lobster sausage, now selling for $33, will cost $44. The king crab fritters with avocado and lime are $17, and are going up to $18. Oddly enough, the price of a dish centered around white truffles will go down, to $40 from $50, to help coax customers into opting for luxury.
But the final bill should stay more or less what it would have been before, company officials say. No tips will be accepted at the bar, either, or even at the coat check station. “I haven’t heard a single complaint, which is fascinating,” Ms. Ricci said.
One of the chief worries at the Modern has to do with generosity: New York is full of life of theparty types who can’t restrain themselves from doling out random currency wherever they go, but a mere $20 bill left on a bar at the Modern will create an instant quagmire for the staff, since the sum will then, by state law, have to be broken down to tiny increments and distributed to a network of eligible employees.
“We really want to strongly dissuade guests from leaving any extra gratuity,” Ms. Moran said. “We really hope that we don’t have to deal with it. “
Abram Bissell, the restaurant’s executive chef, is enthusiastic about the change because it means he will be able to pay his cooks something closer to a living wage, and retain talent. “The food’s going to get better,” he said. “The longer somebody is at their position, the more they have mastered their skill set.”
But he admitted that cooks are not necessarily wired for sitting through long meetings. “Nobody’s had a single question,” he said. “All they want to know is, ‘When can I get back to work?’”
For others, though, the dialogues seemed like a crucial source of reassurance. As Mr. King told the group gathered in a circle, “We could talk about this all day long, to be honest.”
Had lunch service not intervened, they may have. There was talk about being authentic. There was talk about the impending minimum wage increase. There was talk about keeping the talking going.
“That awkward silence is really the worst,” Mr. Lavorini told the group. “Put pins in those balloons and pop them and let it out. Speak your truth. Now is that time.”
Danny Meyer’s Team Faces a No-Tipping World
By JEFF GORDINIER