Upon first glance, Austin's Black Star Co-op in Austin looks like any normal hipster restaurant serving craft beers and creative pub food like portobello burgers and redfish po' boys. But as a former waitress, I immediately noticed what was missing: a tip jar. When I inquired, the bartender told me he didn't take tips. Why? Because he makes a living wage.
Black Star Co-op, the first cooperatively owned microbrewery-restaurant in the country, offers their "worker's assembly" a wage of at least $16 a hour. The co-op provides health insurance and bonuses, too. After a yearlong apprenticeship, every worker also has the duties of a manager—they can hire and fire, get access to the books, and make financial decisions. And they've banned tipping on principle. Service workers elsewhere can make more than $16 an hour on a busy night, but their wages are beholden to the whims of strangers, the shifts they're given, the time they start working, even the weather.
"We don't believe in the idea of tipping," says Jeff Young, Black Star's brewer and co-founder. "It's a way for an owner to save money while passing off the cost of the product to the consumer. We would rather the worker get a steady stream of income with benefits, that is not based on whether or not they had a good night." Young says their servers always refuse tips and try to track down the owners of dollar bills surreptitiously stuffed in menus. If money is found with no owner in sight, Young admits they don't throw it away. "We'll buy the group coffee or donuts for the next meeting or something," he says.
After four days of eating and drinking my way through Austin, I noticed Black Star's prices were comparable to the rest of the city's establishments. But if they're like any other mom-and-pop restaurant, their profit margins must be pretty thin. So how can they pay their workers this much without raising prices? "With a co-op, there is no mom or pop trying to maximize the money they're putting in their pockets," says Young. "The money goes back to the members, or back to the business, or to charity. Nobody's going to retire off of this." Young also admits these wages would be difficult to sustain without the restaurant's accompanying microbrewery.
Clearly Black Star is a special case, but that doesn't mean other restaurants can't learn from its model. Most importantly, Young says, employers should expect more from their workers. "The reason we pay more is because everyone has managerial duties. It's not a hierarchy," he says. "If you take better care of your employees, you can get more out of them."
Photos by Aaron Cassara