You don’t have to tip at this North Side restaurant

“Once you get to looking deeply at tipping, you see all these negative effects of it,” said Casellula @ Alphabet City owner Brian Keyser.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

It’s a recent Friday at Casellula @ Alphabet City, about a week after the North Side restaurant opened, and the dining room is crowded but not too packed to get a table without a reservation.

A cocktail and a beer delivered, my dining companion and I get to the business of ordering. We skip the marquee cheese and end up splitting the pancetta and white bean soup with a pecorino mousse crostino ($10, really good), eggplant meatballs ($16, very good), crispy artichokes with a hazelnut crumble ($13, so good) and beef cheeks polenta ($15, the best).

With drinks, the total is less than $40 for each of us — gratuity included.

Casellula’s location inside City of Asylum’s new headquarters on North Avenue will feel familiar to diners in Pittsburgh: local craft beers and cocktails, curated cheese plates, shared dishes.

But like only two other restaurants in Pittsburgh, Casellula’s servers don’t accept tips. It’s something owner Brian Keyser feels passionately about.

“Once you get to looking deeply at tipping, you see all these negative effects of it,” he told The Incline.

It’s a system that prioritizes front-of-house workers over those in the back, Keyser said, even though dishwashers work harder. One that “encourages sexual harassment” and is a form of “institutional racism,” he said. One that unfairly favors conventionally attractive people over those who aren’t, white servers over servers of color, thin servers over servers who are fat — the list goes on.

“It’s a system that encourages everyone … to pander to their guests in any way necessary,” he said. “We stay with this system, because people don’t like change.”

Tipping also makes life difficult for restaurant owners, Keyser said. Because of federal wage laws, restaurant owners are supposed to closely track the amount of time employees spend doing the work they get tipped for (it should be at least 80 percent of their shift).

That provision, called the tip credit, allows employers to pay a lower base minimum wage and is the subject of a class-action lawsuit against Primanti Bros.

“Most people just don’t follow the law,” Keyser said. “I’ve never heard of a restaurant that has a system in place to actually monitor this.”

Allowing servers to accept tips also relinquishes some of the control an owner has over his employees’ activities, Keyser said. You can’t ask them to set up the dining room or fold napkins “if you want to follow those rules.”

“Every industry in this country except servers and strippers gets paid an hourly wage or a salary that they agree to when they are hired,” he said.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Casellula is currently one of three restaurants in Pittsburgh that doesn’t accept gratuities. Bar Marco in the Strip District and The Livermore in East Liberty, both under the same ownership, passed the one-year mark with the policy in summer 2016.

Both eateries’ websites read, “Our kitchen and front of house teams are paid a salary. Our prices reflect this.”

Tip-free establishments are scattered across the country and range from little guys to behemoths. Several restaurants in New York City, most notably those in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, have instituted gratuity-free systems over the past few years. Some have switched back, including ones owned by David Chang of Momofuku and Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio.

“We continue to be supportive of the no-tipping movement,” Colicchio told the New York Times, “but we’ve heard from our customers and team that they just aren’t ready for it yet.”

Keyser knows this problem well. He tried to implement a tip-free policy at his New York restaurant, Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe, and “discovered, which should not have been a surprise, that change is hard.”

“Getting my employees there, who are doing very well, to take the risk of changing to a no-tipping policy, which in their eyes meant that we were going to raise our prices so that we were no longer competitive,” he said, “they really resisted it.”

As the Times reported, the 2016 wave of no-tip policies in New York preceded an increase in the minimum wage to $11 an hour on Dec. 31 — a gradual change to $15 an hour that excluded tipped workersA similar conversation happened in D.C. last year as the District’s Council considered a proposal to raise the tipped minimum from $2.77 an hour to $7.50 by 2022.

Keyser said he was “vehemently against the idea of raising the tipped minimum,” a separate hourly wage for tipped employees that business owners are supposed to (but sometimes don’t) supplement. He reasoned that it would only really benefit his front-of-house workers, who already do very well, while causing him to raise prices. 

He doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Keyser’s awakening came at the hands of Saru Jayaraman from Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national nonprofit that advocates for eliminating the tipped minimum wage. She told Keyser about tipping’s roots in slavery and about how a wage that has been stuck on the federal level at $2.13 for 26 years is a serious problem for people who work at low-tip chains like Denny’s.

“She totally changed my mind to the point that I’ve been to Albany and D.C. with her lobbying legislators to get rid of the tip credit,” Keyser said.

For now, Keyser’s restaurants will operate in two different realities: the way it should be and the way it is.

In the weeks since Casellula opened for dinner on Jan. 20, Keyser said he hasn’t felt any pushback from customers about prices.

“Most people are surprised when they get their check that they’re not expected to pay more for what they got,” he said.

The staff, likewise, is on board, getting paid a “fair” wage, made possible in part by the lower cost of living in Pittsburgh. Keyser said he didn’t interview a single person who turned down the job because of the policy.

“We polled a bunch of servers on what they were making overall to get an idea to get a fair hourly wage,” Keyser said.

The hourly rate he would need to pay in New York to get rid of tips “scared the tar out of me,” he said. In Pittsburgh, it’s a “whole lot less.”

Really, the success of a tip-free policy comes down to one thing, he said: a “complete staff buy-in.” Because if a server can’t sell the idea of no-tipping to customers, why should they buy it?

“When a customer asks, the server says, ‘It’s great. We’re getting paid a regular wage.’ You don’t have to do the math after a couple glasses of wine,” Keyser said. “It’s great for everybody.”

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline