As San Francisco faces yet another minimum-wage hike in the coming months, the three Michelin-starred Saison has become the latest area restaurant to effectively raise prices and consider the elimination of tipping.
Joshua Skenes' acclaimed SoMa spot now offers a single 22-course menu in the main dining room, which remains at its usual price of $398. The move constitutes a de facto $150 hike over the shorter $248 menu that Saison used to actively offer on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. As reported yesterday, Saison will also soon offer a pre-paid chef's counter menu in a separate space at the same prices.
Dinner for two will now cost over $1,000 before wine. That makes Saison, judging by starting price, the most expensive restaurant in California (after Urasawa, at $395), and the second most expensive restaurant in the U.S. (after New York City's Masa, at $450).
Tipping is not required at Saison, as the restaurant has quietly been levying a service charge for the past year and a half—a policy that the restaurant had once employed in its old location in the Mission District. Guests currently have the option of tossing in a few extra quid when paying, though that might change. "There has been a gratuity line, but we have talked amongst the team and think it should be removed. We think [a] service charge is enough," Skenes told Eater via email. In a follow-up note, however, he said removing the option to tip is still under discussion, and that no official decision has been made. "While I think it's a better system, we do not want to take away money from our team that they need to live in an expensive city like SF."
Skenes would not characterize the changeover to a more expensive menu as a price hike. "Saison has not raised its prices," he says. "There has been no change in price for about a year and a half. And unlike many other tasting menu-only restaurants, Skenes says he offers a shorter menu or "something more price sensitive" whenever guests request it. "If they really want to come eat a bowl of Cheerios, [we] would oblige. We want them to simply have a great time."
As of late 2014, Saison's OpenTable page listed the price of dinner at Saison as $248; that page now lists the price as $398.
Switching to a single menu should help any restaurant improve profitability, as fewer choices for the consumer typically means less waste for the restaurant. Improving efficiencies is all the more important for any San Francisco restaurant in 2015 as the city's minimum wage, which rose to $11.01 earlier in January, and will shoot up to $12.25 on May 1. It'll increase again in July 2016 and 2017, finally hitting $15 in 2018. As is the case with any regulation that makes the cost of doing business more expensive, the rising minimum will surely force all of the city's restaurants to raise their prices.
Earlier in January, the two-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn also switched to a single menu and instituted a 20 percent guest experience fee to "help contribute to the costs of providing benefits to [its] employees." And it's likely that even more San Francisco culinary establishments will do the same to better adapt to municipal regulations.
Here's why: California is one of seven states without a tip credit (the others are Nevada, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, Washington, and Oregon). That means waiters in the state earn the full minimum, plus gratuities, instead of the tipped minimum, which can drop to as low as $2.13 in hour in New Jersey and elsewhere. And because it's normally illegal to redistribute tips to cooks and other back-of-the-house workers, California waiters can earn a heck of a lot more than their kitchen counterparts, compared to states with a lower minimum.
That disparity is further aggravated in San Francisco, which now boasts the highest minimum wage in the country. As Eater has previously reported, better pay improves the lives of just about everyone working in a given restaurant, but it also act as a bit of a straight jacket on owners, forcing them to remunerate employees more generously without giving them the freedom to reduce the pay disparity between the front and back of the house. But by going service-included or adding a service charge, restaurants can more liberally redistribute funds that would have otherwise gone toward tipped employees.
Skenes says a service charge is a "more fair system for all, especially to combat the traditionally low wages in kitchens," though he adds that Saison's kitchen staff "is and has been at the top tier of compensation for a couple of years."
In addition to Saison and Atelier Crenn, the other marquee Bay Area restaurants who have effectively eliminated tipping are Coi in San Francisco, Chez Panisse in Berkeley and The French Laundry in Yountville. Another point worth noting: While Saison, Crenn, Panisse and Coi have sidelined gratuities through service charges, which range from 17-20 percent, the Laundry does so though a service-included policy where all prices are higher, to reflect the cost of providing full benefits and wages to its employees.
The anti-tipping movement has been gaining traction across the nation. When New York's Dirt Candy opened in New York this week, chef Amanda Cohen started levying a fee of about 20 percent instead of asking for voluntary gratuities. And in San Francisco's Mission, Patterson's soon-to-open Aster will adopt a French Laundry-style service included policy. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's Girard recently opened with a service-included menu, while Pittsburgh's Bar Marco will try to ban tipping not by raising prices, but by increasing their nightly business.