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Paying it Forward with Tip the Kitchen

Paying it Forward with Tip the Kitchen
Written by Hannah Lee Leidy | Courtesy Photos

The pay gap between the wait staff and kitchen staff in restaurants has long been a topic of contention. Back-of-house staff typically makes significantly less per year, due to a salaried pay structure and not earning tips like their front-of-house counterparts.

Since Covid-19 hit, an increasing number of restaurateurs and business owners are taking steps to change the industry. In the southern United States, the 5th Street Group, behind 5Church in Charlotte and Charleston and Church and Union in Nashville, leads a charge with their new Tip the Kitchen Initiative. At each of their five restaurants, they challenge the industry standard by incorporating a second tip line on guests’ checks, giving customers the opportunity to tip the people who prepared their food in addition to the staff taking care of them. From there, the restaurant group provides a nightly match of up to $500 for the kitchen tips at each restaurant.

It’s different, for sure, but CEO Patrick Whalen is excited about the path this model sets for the entire industry. We caught up with Whalen to learn more about how the Tip the Kitchen Initiative operates and how it benefits his establishments.


How Tip the Kitchen Benefits Everyone

Patrick Whalen discusses Tip the Kitchen with The Local Palate

The Local Palate: People have dined out for decades; why do you think practices like tip pooling or tipping the back-of-house staff are so slow to catch on?

Patrick Whalen: This is a really good question . . . It’s complicated. First, you are unintentionally conflating things that are two different conversations: Tip pooling is common and nationwide. It’s been thoroughly litigated. For instance, you cannot tip out back-of-house employees from the front-of-house staffs’ tip pool—legally.

With Tip the Kitchen, the problem is that people don’t understand it yet, and it requires a relatively small increase in operating expenses—for us, it’s been around a three-percent increase that should eventually reduce to around one percent. Coming out of a pandemic, a lot of operators aren’t ready to commit to something so new yet.

TLP: Typically speaking, there’s often a disparity in what kitchen staff and wait staff make per hour. The kitchen staff makes a salary that equates to a higher per-hour wage, but wait staff exceeds that amount in tips. How do you ensure that the pay structure stays as fair as possible at Church and Union?

PW: There’s a disparity because the market allows you to pay less for the kitchen. That’s the issue. It’s been allowed for so long, whether or not it’s right, and it continues to happen. There needs to be an acknowledgment that a server can make $500 working a six-hour shift, and servers work hard—I know, I’ve worked as a server before. But being a line cook is the hardest job I’ve ever seen, next to a dishwasher. When someone is making fifty percent less, that needs to be addressed immediately.

Tip the Kitchen co-incentivizes both the server and the kitchen to put out a good experience so that the guest enjoys it and decides to leave them a tip. The major change with this has been the morale booster throughout the entire staff. It decreases turnover, and it builds trust between both sides.

Tip the Kitchen Initiative at Church and Union

TLP: Restaurants have experienced a nationwide struggle with staffing, especially in the past twenty months. Have you noticed whether the Tip the Kitchen Initiative has made an impact on attracting employees to fill back-of-house positions at Church and Union or other 5Church locations?

PW: One million percent. And it’s not just back of house, it’s everyone. The staffing crisis really hit the restaurants during the first wave of the pandemic. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen: We were doing unprecedented volume, but there was no one to work. We had to find a way to provide an incentive more than a dollar-more-pay per hour. We wanted to change the game completely.

The result has been amazing. We’re running at ninety percent or more staff at all our restaurants, even the new ones we’re opening.

TLP: Have you seen any other restaurants in Nashville or surrounding areas express interest in adopting the Tip the Kitchen initiative? What advice do you have for any owners considering introducing it into their business models?

PW: Yes, quite a few! There are a bunch of restaurants that have added kitchen gratuity, which is different from what we do. No guidance is given by businesses such as how it works or a recommended tip.

I think the underlying value is getting people to understand the nakedness of us. We publish our gross sales because we think it’s important to be honest with people about where we are with everything. Over the last seven months, I’ve run at ninety-percent staff with very little turnover, and we’ve been able to do volume that we wouldn’t have had the means to do otherwise. It increases morale, decreases turnover, and you’re not wasting managers’ time posting classified ads.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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