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Melissa Martin: I Charge More To Pay Restaurant Staff A Living Wage

Melissa Martin is chef-owner of Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans. She is a 2022 James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef South, and her first cookbook, named for the restaurant, won Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She plans to spend her summer traveling around France writing her second.

When I opened Mosquito Supper Club, I took the restaurant model and threw it against the wall, and I let it break on the floor. I only picked up the pieces I liked. Everything I didn’t like about restaurants, I tried to leave on the ground and start anew.

Since the very first day I opened, it’s always been prepaid, and there was no service charge built in. So people prepaid, and they showed up for dinner, they ate, and nobody tipped. We ran like that for a couple of years. And then I signed up with Tock, and I was able to add a service charge.

Our service charge is 25 percent, and that is charged across the board. We use that number to be able to raise the hourly rate of all our employees. A server somewhere else might make $2.13 to $5 to $7 an hour, but we can start a server at $14 or $16 or $18 an hour. The same goes for the folks in the back. Our dishwasher makes $20 an hour. Everyone working in our back, no one makes under $18 an hour. We messed with the number during COVID—we raised the service charge from 20 percent to 25 percent. And we’ve started offering full-time employees health insurance.

We still have a bar where you can come in and have a drink, and our à la carte menu. For those tickets, I do not implement a service charge there, so people tip on those tickets. And people tip on their drinks the night of. You can prepay for a wine pairing et cetera, but if you don’t and you’re just ordering à la carte drinks the night of, then people also tip on those. So it’s a combination of service charge and tipping.

Because we’re a prepaid restaurant and we have so few seats, we couldn’t leave it up to the customer. I’ve done this experiment before—they’re not going to tip right on what they pay. And we see it in private parties. Somebody will have a wedding, and then they pay for their drinks the night of for the wedding, and you know their drink bill will be like $2,000, and they’ll tip $100. Some people just don’t get it.

We had to add the service charge to make the business work. So you can do two things—you can decide to make your food more expensive, or you can charge a higher service charge. It’s very, very expensive to run a restaurant. The margins are so, so small. It costs $105 to come to our tasting menu. And even with those margins, it’s still very difficult.

We’re a staff of 11. It’s a small business, but when the business grows, then it means everybody’s going to make more money because that’s how I want it. The other ways we want to run the business—the best possible quality food we can buy, composting, recycling, health insurance, days off, work-life balance. All of those things figure into why it costs so much to eat in my restaurant.

We just did a huge study with our business coach to try to put everybody on salary. But it’s a learning curve. When you change anything about anything, it’s a painful learning curve.

I think some staff believe if they give good service at the bar, that by implementing a service charge, then they are possibly capping what they could make from tips. But on a Thursday our tip average was 17 percent, on Friday our tip average was 20 percent. That’s the reality, you choose what you want.

The same person who would shout out that they want wage equality for everyone is the same person that’s going to complain that their checks are not high enough. You can’t really win with a lot of people. They’ll complain, “If I worked at this restaurant, I could be making $250, $300 in tips.” I’m like, “Okay, but maybe ask that restaurant what they pay their dishwasher.”

But there are a lot of people who think it’s great. For instance, one of my managers was in nursing school, and she knew exactly how much she was going to make. She didn’t have to worry about the tips because she knew she definitely was going to make $20 an hour. For people who are service industry lifers, and who want to pull in over $60,000 a year in tips, it’s going to be a little bit harder at our place.

Maybe because I grew up really poor, and my dad had four jobs, I just was going to try my best to be able to change a system that I believed was broken. In a perfect world, I’d be paying everybody $65,000 a year. It’s unattainable for a tiny restaurant like me, but there’s nobody in our restaurant that is below anyone else. Everybody does the same amount of work to make it happen.

I think that the restaurant industry model is just broken, and tipping was because of servitude. I’m amazed that it ever even became legal to pay a server $2.13 an hour. It boggles my mind. How did this even happen? How is this legal?

But we are figuring out ways to increase revenue, and different capacities so that we can try to pay everybody more. We’ve been trying to get more of a following to our bar program. We added another service early, a garden service, which is like a prix fixe at 5:30. Usually, we would just do one seating at 7:30, so we’re trying to expand and build a little oyster bar on our property. I mean, I wrote a cookbook so we would have another revenue stream. I’m writing another cookbook. You bring in revenue streams in different ways.

I often say we’re on teacher salaries, and teachers do so much more work than we do. Maybe there’s a socialist model to it, but I think that there are a lot of people who are happy to know that our dishwasher—who’s worked with me for over 13 years, and does a very hard job, and is very important to our business—is making a living wage to be able to take care of her family. They know that money gets spread out so that we can try to end some wage disparity.