For HS & her daughter O.
Upon opening Maison May 5 months ago, I decided to remove tipping from both of my establishments. I know this is the right decision and yet it has been anything but easy so far.
So why did I remove tipping?
For me, as it stands now, the system of not paying servers more than a minimum wage & having them rely on tips, feels utterly broken, unfair, outdated & simply wrong.
This practice has created a monster of an industry where the employers feel no responsibility for their workers and where workers treat their jobs as disposable. The investment of both parties in the game is biased from the get-go because relying on the traditional structure of tipping and minimum hourly wages means also there can not be pay equity among employees: some (like the servers and the bartenders) make much more per hour than other employee (like the events manager and the dishwasher). In this structure, there can never be steps towards economic justice or equity among staff members.
By removing tipping, I am shaking the dominant structure of how a restaurant is run, impacting all major poles: its employees, its customers (looking at pricing including service & grasping the reality of what has not been talked about) & its financial balance & impact on individuals.
I know this is the right decision and yet it has been anything but easy so far.
And like a few other major decisions I’ve made in my life, now that I have come to a certain realization of what is fair & needs to happen, there is no turning back.
Looking back at what I achieved 12 years ago upon opening Maison May Dekalb (formerly called ICI), as one of the first farm to table restaurant in Brooklyn, I can see some similarities with what I am doing now.
The process then was genuine, and truly motivated by the sheer desire to serve food that was ethical, in season, locally produced, whose origins could be traced.
It was incredibly avant-garde & yet absolutely naïve.
Avant-garde because very few restaurants in New York were doing it and even less in Brooklyn.
And naïve, because it was truly not motivated by anything other than a deep re-awakening of ancestral instincts for me. I was returning to my roots, having being fed real, fresh, local food all my youth, I wasn’t even aware that I was at the helm of a revolution, ahead of the curve, a fer de lance.
The success and the hardship that came with that decision are now history and to see how much people’s perception, understanding and acceptance has changed is simply mind-blowing. I recall countless conversations with customers around seasonality of food, local versus global, sustainable agriculture, organic versus local, etc. over the years.
Then, I was in it with zero perspective, a sense of excitement but no consciousness of the implications & my position in the huge puzzle of this movement. I did not even grasp what the the impact could be.
And this year, once again, it is by re-connecting with something deeper & very personal around leadership and what it truly means to be an entrepreneur, not just from a creative or business, point of view, but from a deeply human one, that I embarked into yet another revolution.
And this time around, I realize fully how avant-garde I am once again & how incredibly personal & intimate my motivation for this change is. There is nothing naive anymore about it.
There was not a real outside factor that triggered it but a sheer evolution & an epiphany one morning (yes, I know, another epiphany- I am definitely not a linear person). It took shape with a very simple notion: how could I have been so focused on sourcing the right food, produced the right way by the right people to feed my customers and be oblivious to the fact that half of my employees were depending on people’s good will, and not my investment, for their salary? How could I care more about grass-fed beef than one of my workers. Some people say they do not trust people who don’t care about animals. I would like to state that I do not trust people who care more about animals than people, and by extension, the ones who actually care about a radish more than a person.
So here I am sitting in my office a couple weeks ago, preparing a staff meeting where I aim to anchor that process for my staff. How could I convey what it means to me, to them, and how could I have them embark in the (r)evolution with me?
I visualize them. I see their faces.
Five short months after the opening, there is just one, just one person left from the original team of servers I had before the opening on April 23rd.
Only one who came through the transition from ICI to Maison May, from tipping to no tipping.
Picturing them sitting in the café, all of them, from 7 months to 7 days on my payroll, there is only one word that comes to my head to initiate that meeting: impact.
What will come to their mind in 2 years, 10, 15, 30 when they will think about their time at Maison May?
Will anything come at all?
Will they remember their time here?
And if so, what will they remember?
And if they don’t, what does it mean to me?
And why do I even care about what my employees could possibly think about Maison May in 30 years?
Is that vanity?
A desire of legacy for myself, my name?
I honestly do not think so.
It comes from a place where, after 8 years of an always ever evolving leadership, I can see how I can impact someone’s life by the work that I create for them & how I care about doing that.
A bit like the way I look at my children & raise them, not for me, but for them, and letting that process feeds my soul.
But how do you foster that for your servers?
How can you possibly foster that if you do not put the first dollar on the table?
Isn’t it up to the employer to model behavior?
It became very obvious in the past months that by removing the tips I am once again digging into something that is deeply engrained in me and that I had somehow, not completely explored: I care about people. I care about nurturing, feeding, growing and empowering people.
In my team, my beloved executive chef started with me 10 years ago as a dishwasher & my event manager who was for a long time my operation manager before she went back to school, started off as a coffee girl 8 years ago. So even though I think I am doing pretty well, I realized I had left part of the team (the servers) dependent on the customers generosity, never questioning the actual system, ignoring the precarity it involves.
I was not raised like this. I was born in a family that ran a small company in the 70’s and although they were not an absolute model of compassion for their employees, the fact that it was in France meant there was already a structure of laws that was framing the process around what an employer could allow himself to do with an employee. There was a sense of accountability, a sense of responsibility, a sense of duty. And certainly not a sense that the workers were actual disposable commodities.
Though I wasn’t raised socialist at all, by French standards, it is funny to me to think that in the light of the year 2016 in America, some of my views could have me put on a modern McCarthy list…
My understanding of entrepreneurship & its duties were shaped in a culture that was different, the way my approach to food was rooted there as well.
By removing the tipping, I am bridging a gap, extending the care that I have had for the back of the house to the front, and reconnecting with them all.
And what I realized was that this act in essence is very simple.
But in all practicality from a business point of view, incredibly challenging, financially utterly dangerous & no matter what, freaking expensive.
From a social point of view, it is a complete revolution for the workers, and like any revolution, it involves changes. And who likes changes, really, when you could be cruising along, even if the ship is sinking.
And from the customer point of view, it involves a sticker shock that shines light on the realities they have then to face to acknowledge the broken reality of labor value in our country…
But most importantly, from an entrepreneur point of view, by removing tipping & giving them a salary, I came to realize how it allows me to be more fully engaged with my people & giving them something beyond a salary, because I invest in them at a very different level.
And how do you define that?
As always, my business is my life. My life is my business.
And everything is intertwined. And my boys come to mind to help me shape what that could mean.
I am raising two beautiful, strapping teenage boys.
It is a constant pull of pain & joy. A pain of seeing them experience incredible hard realities of life, seeing them understand prejudice, experience distorted love, getting burned with toxic relationships, and facing deep, messy ugliness of human behavior. Each of those episodes are heart breaking, leaving me breathless, with a such an incredible physical pain in my heart but as well with a wave of incredible joy to see them picking themselves up, figuring out, trying, grabbing a tool that I carefully built along the years with them, seeing them experiencing grief & managing it, seeing them figuring their shit out with me simply holding on tight not to them, but next to them so they know that if they fall, they will land somewhere and not in the waste of an empty world.
And somehow what the act of removing the tips enlarged for me is the connection to the people who are truly building the business with me & in a way, allowing me to apply the same principles around basic life values for my employees. This is what I am marching towards. This is what motivates me to jump out of bed every morning. This is what makes me excited to sit to yet in another interview with a potential employee, it is what feeds me. I am building something and I am not doing it alone. I need every single one of my employees, and I feed them as they feed me back and this is why I am paying every single one of them.
We are building something together & I wish that in that process all of them will find something that they can carry beyond the walls of Maison May & into their life, the way my boys will when they leave my house. Something that will make each of them stronger, or happier, or healthier, or simply safer, and if nothing else, something that they will make them feel valued for what they are doing for Maison May & therefore with me for my children, for the community we cater to, and for the world we live in.
There are no parameters to measure such value.
On top of that, it has to be a selfless act because there is no guarantee. There is no guarantee that anything that I will give to any of them will bounce back at me or at my business with the magnitude that one could wish for. Or should I say that one would want to gauge with the measuring stick of success or wealth.
How can one define happiness or growth or success for someone else?
And this is why upon sitting into that meeting, I will think about that: What Maison May will have meant in each of my employee’s life when they will look back at it in a couple of decades?
And if they can each find something good alongside a steady salary, I will feel that I will have succeeded.
And I am ready to accept that I might never know.
Because, in the end, it is not about me.