ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — When Brant Baldanza started to reopen his restaurants for dine-in service, he was not sure whether all of his employees would come back to work.
"A lot of our challenge was a lot of our staff was getting paid more unemployed," said Baldanza, co-owner and managing member of the OG Restaurant Group, which manages seven locations of The Shack Breakfast and Lunch across the state, three locations of the Corner Pub and Grill and The Tavern Kitchen and Bar in St. Louis County.
"We wanted to guarantee them money and feel safe to get off unemployment."
Baldanza said the OG Restaraunt Group decided to add an automatic gratuity of 20% to every bill at all of the restaurants except The Tavern.
The gratuity is split evenly among all of the restaurant workers, including servers, bussers and kitchen staff. And, the restaurant group increased the pay to $10 per hour. Every employee at each location earns the same hourly rate "whether you’re a busboy who works two days or a cook who works a full 40-hour week," Baldanza said.
The restaurant shared its new policy on the back of its menus.
"This transition is aimed at creating a work environment consisting of wage equality, conquering the divide inside our walls, and producing teamwork to achieve our top priority of providing the best guest experience for you," the policy reads.
Baldanza said, for the most part, customers have been positive about the change, but he has seen criticism and push-back online.
"Any type of change is hard to take on," Baldanza said. "There have been several guests, more than not, who have said, 'This is great.' There are others, that whether on social media or Yelp, they bash us."
Customers can leave more than the 20%, which will also be split equally among staff.
Another restaurant group Mission Taco Joint is also experimenting with automatic gratuity. With the goal of limiting contact, the restaurant encouraged customers to order at a counter instead of at the table. It was part of a reopening model the restaurant dubbed "Mission Taco Lite."
"We didn’t know what business would be like and we wanted to guarantee that our staff would make money," co-owner Adam Tilford said.
Tilford said servers are earning $10 per hour, more than double the minimum for workers who receive tips. An automatic 20% gratuity helped the restaurant make up for the higher hourly wages and also increased earnings for front-of-house staff, kitchen staff and servers.
The restaurant will do away with the automatic gratuity in the coming weeks, Tilford said, because table service has resumed.
"We let the staff lead the way to how we move back to normal service and they're ready to take orders at the table," Tilford said. "Business is good enough now.”
Meanwhile, Baldanza said he plans to keep the model.
Employees have a more steady income instead of having to "spin the roulette wheel" and guess how much money they will take home."
And, like many circumstances surrounding the pandemic, Baldanza said it has fostered more unity.
"You say to yourself, 'We are going to do this together, and at the end, we are going to have restaurants to go back to,'" Baldanza said. "It’s all going to work if we all go through it together."