Zuni Cafe got rid of tipping. Now the waiters at the San Francisco restaurant want them back

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Many hands touch Zuni Cafe’s famous roast chicken before it reaches a restaurant table: the cook breaking down the birds, the sous chef watching over them as they brown in the wood-fired oven rustic brick, the waiter who brings the large plates to the dining room.

When the legendary San Francisco restaurant made headlines last year with its decision to replace tipping with an automatic 20% “fair wage” surcharge, the aim was to raise the wages of the workers lowest pay from the kitchen – a recognition that every employee who helps make Zuni chicken deserves to earn enough to live in the Bay Area. Although hailed by many as an optimistic shift in the industry, the move has sparked tension within the restaurant.

Zuni servers, while supporting the philosophy of the new model – to balance historic inequalities between kitchen and waiter staff – now say they are struggling to make ends meet without bringing in more tips. Their frustration reached the point of discussing a walkout or unionization to put pressure on Zuni. Due to the waiter’s pushback, the restaurant is discussing potential changes to the model, owner Gilbert Pilgram said. But going back to tips is “not on the table,” he said.

The Zuni Cafe bill includes a 25% fair wage charge, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle / The Chronicle
Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.

Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle


Top photo: Kate Sachen serves customers at the Zuni Cafe. Above: Bills at the Zuni Cafe (left) come with a 25% surcharge: the 20% “fair wage” fee plus the 5% health mandate fee in San Francisco. Diners enjoy a meal in the restaurant (right). Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

“It’s not in any restaurateur’s interest to have a system that keeps any part of the restaurant unhappy,” Pilgram said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The tipping debate is not new in the industry. Making changes to the typical system usually sparks controversy among servers, who fear a pay cut, and customers, who may feel deprived of their perceived right to reward staff. Some Bay Area restaurants have proven it can be a sustainable practice, like Zazie in Cole Valley and Berkeley institution Chez Panisse. Meanwhile, other major companies ended their no-tip experiments, like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group At New York.

The pandemic brought new urgency to the issue when it plunged restaurants into unprecedented staff shortages. Many owners have seized the opportunity to reinvent their compensation structures. The tip, which was demonstrated that it creates wage inequalities and encourage racism and sexism, has been reviewed on a larger scale.

This is the latest in a four-part series examining how Bay Area restaurants are working to transform the industry, from eliminating tips and raising wages to establishing restaurant ownership. workers. Read the first three stories on Good Good Culture Club, Che Fico and understory at SFChronicle.com.


Given Zuni’s stature in the industry, many restaurateurs have been watching his progress closely amid what appears to be a turning point for fairness and change in restaurants. The friction serves as a reminder that it’s not that easy to accomplish.

“I agree that the back house deserves to have more money. We servers suffer a lot from it,” waitress Kate Sachen said. “A lot of us would like him to just go back to the old system.”

The success of Zuni’s model depends on who you ask. Thanks to the surcharge, hourly kitchen staff saw their wages increase by 35% to 58%. Turnover is low in the kitchen despite an ongoing labor shortage, head chef Nate Norris said. Fewer cooks and dishwashers are working second jobs, he said.

Cook prep and dishwasher Carlos Garcia, who has worked at Zuni since 1989 and prepares all the chickens, has directly benefited. The 63-year-old Mexico City native can finally start saving for retirement.

Server Richard Wade talks to customers at the Zuni Cafe.  It has long been one of Wade's favorite restaurants, but now he feels conflicted about working there.

Server Richard Wade talks to customers at the Zuni Cafe. It has long been one of Wade’s favorite restaurants, but now he feels conflicted about working there.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

“I’m getting older and I have to take care of myself,” Garcia said.

Norris, who is Zuni’s spokesperson, has worked hard to break the ingrained belief that the kitchen and dining room are separate entities and that tips should be distributed as such. But servers “still see that money as their own,” he said, “and not just that they earned it, but they earned it exclusively.”

When Pride Weekend brought a crowd of customers to Zuni in late June, server Richard Wade worked long hours that took a toll on his body, he said. They didn’t end with the usual reward of cash tips in his pocket.

“Normally working with that kind of audience you would make a lot of money,” he said. “In this tipping system, I just made exactly the same amount as if I had sold $800 instead of $3,000.”

Carlos Garcia stores meat at Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.

Carlos Garcia stores meat at Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle
Carlos Garcia holds up a to-do list for work at the Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.

Carlos Garcia holds up a to-do list for work at the Zuni Cafe, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle


Cook preparer and dishwasher Carlos Garcia carries a platter of meat (left). Thanks to Zuni’s new model, he can finally save for his retirement. It maintains a to-do list (on the right) of daily tasks. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Sachen has relied on tips as part of his income for more than a decade at restaurants in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and Minneapolis. She loves working at Zuni but struggles with the pay. At $32 an hour, plus a hustle as a voice coach, she said, it’s hard to be able to afford to live in San Francisco — the exact problem the model was supposed to solve for staff at kitchen.

Wade, Sachen and other servers in particular take issue with how Zuni distributes tips charged to credit cards, 36% of which goes to the server and the rest to bartenders, bussers and support staff. Whether a server shares cash tips with other staff is at their discretion. (Zuni has also retained an optional tip line, meaning diners can choose to tip on top of the 20% surcharge).

“It seems like a car salesman’s commission to me, and then the car salesman only gets 36% of the commission and the rest goes to the manufacturer,” Sachen said.

Most diners accept the service charge, in addition to the occasional confusion or sticker shock, employees said. Some ask why Zuni doesn’t raise prices instead. Restaurant owners are often concerned that raises will put off diners, and the goal of the Fair Wage Surcharge is also to be explicit about where the money goes. “I didn’t want to add to the cost of the salmon the cost of paying the employees a good salary,” Pilgram said.

Many diners order the famous roast chicken dish at Zuni Cafe.

Many diners order the famous roast chicken dish at Zuni Cafe.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The restaurant is far from the first to try a model without peaks. Nor is the discord inside Zuni unique. Tipping-free restaurants often meet resistance from veteran servers who are used to earning more. This is partly why San Francisco’s Bar Agricole reinstated tipping in 2016.

Zuni has retained fewer servers than cooks during the pandemic, though it’s unclear whether that’s due to the overcharge or other factors such as people leaving the industry or leaving the area, Norris said. While nine of 20 cooks who worked there before the pandemic remain, only three of 23 servers have remained, according to Norris.

Although servers’ salaries are lower, they now receive additional benefits such as paid health insurance premiums and paid time off. Norris isn’t sure Zuni’s model means fewer servers applying to work there. The restaurant is fully booked, Norris said, although new servers tend to be less experienced than usual.

Zuni’s light-filled dining room, where platters of sparkling oysters and little mountains of thin fries have graced the tables since 1979, feels like a second home to many. Before Wade was a Zuni employee, he had been a loyal customer for 40 years. Eating there, he said, has always been special, inclusive and exceptional.

Wade wants to be part of what looks like a major “social experiment” at a historic restaurant. But he feels conflicted.

“They ask the servers to give and give and give the tips they would have received,” he said, “but they don’t get much in return.”

Elena Kadvany (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ekadvany

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