Comal Mexican restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland are bringing back traditional tips, or at least tip pooling, owner John Paluska confirmed for Eater SF. Comal has been acclaimed as one of the leading voices for the no-tipping movement in the Bay Area over the past seven years. The standalone restaurant first eliminated tips in 2014, when it introduced a service charge because it wanted to pay workers fair wages across front- and back-of-house. But now, having grown to a group of three restaurants with a couple of fast-casual counters, and preparing to reopen with a very different business model, Paluska says the no-tipping model was no longer viable.
“We don’t feel any better about tips,” Paluska says. And he says it’s not a question of the model failing. “We felt like our move to a service charge was successful. We aren’t moving away from that model because it’s broken. But … the landscape is different now, and we have to work within that.”
Pre-pandemic, Comal had a 20 percent service fee, in lieu of tips. During the pandemic, it switched to service-inclusive pricing for takeout and delivery. And now for reopening, it’s bringing back tips and planning to pool tips within each of its restaurants, a change they already made a week ago, as of May 12. Comal has grown to include three locations, including the original Comal in Berkeley, fast-casual spin-off Comal Next Door nearby, and more of a hybrid of the two service styles at Comal Next Door in Oakland, which opened during the pandemic. Paluska also confirmed that he has parted ways with longtime partner Andrew Hoffman, who is heading over to work with Water2Table, the sustainable seafood supplier that works with many star restaurants.
Paluska said he still believes in all of the reasons for the no-tipping model, but he was faced with a very different scenario now, both in the scope of his restaurant group, and as the city moves into reopening post-pandemic. Adding a service charge was a different decision for a standalone, sit-down restaurant in 2014, compared to rolling that decision across three different restaurants with more counter service, not to mention pandemic-pushed takeout and delivery. “Between all of the different business models, we’re striving for consistency across all the different restaurants,” says Paluska. “ … and we ultimately concluded that a service charge for counter service doesn’t work.”
Comal was one of half a dozen restaurants that made headlines around 2014, for switching to a no-tipping model, around the same time as Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco, as well as Camino and Duende in the East Bay. Bar Agricole and Trou Normand returned to tips after less than a year, and have since closed during the pandemic, Camino closed in 2018, and Duende is the only one remaining to reopen this spring. “We were one of the few places left standing,” Paluska says. “Whatever wave there was [in no-tipping restaurants], it dissipated quickly. We thought there would be strength in numbers, but it didn’t happen.”
However, this announcement comes only two weeks after Zuni Cafe, the groundbreaking Californian restaurant on Market Street, announced that it would be eliminating tips, upsetting its legendary lifetime servers. Stay tuned for more updates on the no-tipping debate, which clearly wages on as the Bay Area moves into reopening.