Restaurants cut staff hours after tipped wage hike

John Finneran takes a customer's order while working at Friede’s Diner on Court Street. The minimum wage for tipped workers increased from $5 to $7.50 an hour on Dec. 31, impacting waiters, waitresses, bartenders and other hospitality workers that take home tips. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

John Finneran takes a customer’s order while working at Friede’s Diner on Court Street. The minimum wage for tipped workers increased from $5 to $7.50 an hour on Dec. 31, impacting waiters, waitresses, bartenders and other hospitality workers that take home tips. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

WATERTOWN — Longway’s Diner, a popular stop among truck drivers that opened in 1966, underwent a painful change Monday as a consequence of a $2.50-an-hour increase to the state’s tipped minimum wage.

Previously open 24/7, hours at the diner on Route 342 in the town of Pamelia were shaved in response to the higher tipped wage. The wage increased from $5 to $7.50 an hour on Dec. 31, impacting waiters, waitresses, bartenders and other hospitality workers who bring home tips.

Longway’s — now open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week — is among many restaurants that have been compelled to cut costs to cover higher payroll expenses.

“I cut out one shift,” owner Lawrence C. Longway said Wednesday, declining to further comment. His late father, G. Douglas Longway, opened the diner 50 years ago as Longway’s Truck Stop.

Leon R. Walts, manager of the diner, said two part-time servers were recently laid off because of the higher tipped wage. The diner, which has not increased menu prices, employs 18 servers.

Some servers at restaurants, meanwhile, said Wednesday that they’re concerned the tipped wage increase will cause customers to justify not tipping as much. And some customers confirmed they plan to cut back on tips.

End of the tip

It is possible that Mo’s Place, a 24/7 diner on Factory Street in the city, could cut out its overnight shift because of the higher tipped wage, owner Monika L. “Mo” Harra said. Ms. Harra, who also owns Friede’s Diner on Court Street, said menu prices have been slightly increased at both establishments to help cover the increased payroll expense.

If the overnight shift was cut at Mo’s Place, she said, one server and two cooks would be laid off.

“Our late shift has already slowed down due to people getting DWIs and new franchises opening in the area. And now this wage increase is hurting me more,” Ms. Harra said. “It’s going to hurt the diners the most because we get the people who don’t tip as much. And I think they’ll tip less when they figure this out.”

Jamie S. Charbonneau, a waitress at Mo’s Place for six years, said the $2.50-an-hour increase is chump change compared to the tips she rakes in. She is skeptical that the higher wage will make customers less generous.

“I make anywhere from $100 to more than $200 on a normal day, and I don’t normally have a day below $100,” she said. “I would rather make $5 an hour and still get good tips.”

At about noon on Wednesday, several regular customers weighed in on the matter at Friede’s, which is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Some said they now don’t plan to tip as much because they know servers are getting paid more, pointing out they’re paying higher prices for food to cover that expense. Among them was Andrew T. Mannigan of Gouverneur, who is a regular at Freide’s and Mo’s Place.

“It’s the beginning of the end of the tip,” the 59-year-old said. “A lot of my tips are what’s left in change. If the price of a meal goes up from $8 to $9.25, I might still pay with a $10 bill on that for the tip.”

The higher tipped wage has led some restaurants in the state to increase the pay of servers to the regular minimum wage of $9, enabling them to adopt a no-tipping policy by doing so. The goal is to improve staff turnover and improve service.

But for her part, Ms. Harra said she would never consider such a policy. “I don’t think any waitress would want to wait tables without tips,” she said. “They wouldn’t make any money, and the quality of service would decline.”

Small margins

The Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery on Arsenal Street has five bartenders and 13 servers impacted by the higher tipped wage. Restaurant co-owners Jody C. and Doreen A. Garrett recently laid off a manager to compensate for the restaurant’s increased payroll, but no more staff cuts are expected, Mrs. Garrett said. Menu prices, however, were recently increased.

She said the couple has considered eventually increasing the starting wage for servers — called “entertainers” at the restaurant — to $15 an hour, plus tips. They could be prompted to do so if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to increase the regular minimum wage to $15 is approved for employees statewide.

“We’ve toyed with the idea … I think you could get great servers and entertainers with that kind of wage, and customers would benefit. It’s very typical of the European model, where they’re schooled to be a server and can keep those jobs the rest of their life,” Mrs. Garrett said, adding the restaurant has faced high staff turnover since it opened about five years ago.

Michael J. Cavallario, owner of Shorty’s Place on Coffeen Street, said he employs 15 servers. He hasn’t been impacted much by the wage increase yet,because the restaurant was closed on Sunday for renovations. It will reopen on Jan. 14.

To help swallow a payroll increase this year of nearly $70,000, Mr. Cavallario said menu prices will be increased this month. But he doesn’t plan to make any layoffs at the restaurant, which he’s owned for 11 years.

“I will try to keep my prices in line for what I need to survive. We operate on small margins and high volume,” he said, adding that servers are concerned that customers will become stingy tippers because of the higher tipped wage.

 

By Ted Booker, Times Staff Writer