San Francisco restaurants are moving away from tips, but it's a challenge

At a few San Francisco restaurants, you won't be allowed to leave a tip. Instead, restaurants have raised prices or added a flat surcharge to a final bill.

The change is meant to help make wages higher for lower-paid kitchen staff who are integral to the dining experience. It's also meant to make pay more equitable across a restaurant's staff, and to eliminate the financial uncertainty shared by customers over how much to tip, and servers over how much they anticipate making from a given table. 

For some restaurants, changing payment models away from tipping has been more complicated than expected.

Zuni Café in San Francisco switched away from tipping in May 2021, when it was reopening after COVID lockdowns. Instead of including a tip with your meal, you'll pay a 20% fair wage charge, and a 5% San Francisco health mandate fee with your bill. That extra 20% charge trickles into the pay for everyone that has a hand in your dining experience, not just the server.

Zuni's executive chef, Nate Norris, said that under the current payment model, members of the kitchen staff, who comprise close to half of the restaurant's 75-person team, are taking home significantly more money than they were before. The model also includes employee benefits like health insurance and paid time off, another plus that traditional restaurants don't provide to all staff.

However, Norris has heard from servers at Zuni who are unhappy with the new model and would prefer to go back to collecting tips. He said he wouldn't be surprised if some are considering quitting, though he hopes the restaurant can come to a compromise they'll be satisfied with.

"We see it as a change that we're committed to making where there's a specific goal of the change," Norris said, noting that the goal is to empower workers through equitable and fair wages.

"Maybe parts of the structure, or specific numbers or percentages need to get adjusted, so we end up in a place that everyone's satisfied with, and that works for the business," Norris added.

Over at Zazie, a French bistro in San Francisco that eliminated tipping seven years ago, the payment model is different, and servers like Tessa Carter, who's been working there for three years, love it. 

Carter makes upwards of $80,000 a year, and gets a benefits package that includes health insurance, 401k, and paid time off.

"What it comes down to is, they care about us as the employees," Carter said.

Zazie's recipe for determining worker wages is unique and still tied to the quality of service, similar to a tip, according to Jennifer Bennett, a part-owner of the restaurant.

To achieve this, Bennett raised prices on the menu by 20% and allocates 12% of individual sales to each server. The back of the house gets 12% of sales as well, divided amongst all of them, depending on their individual responsibilities, Bennett said.

"It's the right thing to do, I personally feel that way, and I hope to see more restaurants do that," Sarah Anderson, a first-time customer at Zazie said.

Bennett hopes so too. Just last month, Lovina, a restaurant in Calistoga she also owns, moved away from tipping and followed the model Bennett began at Zazie. 

Bennett added that she's open to providing free consultations on how it works, and things places like Zuni could benefit from that kind of tip.