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Strip District restaurant Bar Marco makes change in tip policy

| Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, 9:05 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bar Marco dining room in the Strip District Saturday, June 21, 2014.

Bar Marco has a tip for its patrons: Don't worry about the gratuity.

The team at the Strip District eatery plans to eliminate tipping and, instead, pay full-time employees a salary along with health care and shares beginning no later than April.

“It makes our full-time team have consistent control of their finances, gives them a consistent schedule, allows them to hire and fire their assistants and gives them a share in the upside of the business, as well,” says co-owner Bobby Fry.

Full-time Bar Marco servers and bartenders are currently paid $5 an hour in addition to their tips, which is higher than the $2.83 state-required minimum wage for tipped employees.

The change will affect 16 employees at Bar Marco. Fry says there are plans to implement a similar pay structure at Bar Marco's sister establishment, The Livermore in East Liberty, later this year.

Alec El of Penn Hills has worked in the food-service industry for seven years, the past 16 months as a bartender at Bar Marco. The recent college graduate says he was starting to think seriously about securing his own health benefits when Fry told him about the new payment plan.

The change likely will provide workers incentive to remain in their jobs longer, despite the notoriously transient nature of the restaurant industry, El says.

“Now, we don't have to worry about if it's slow,” he says. “It all works out.”

El, whose salary will be $35,000 a year, plus benefits and shares, expects his regular customers to be comfortable with the change and anticipates other restaurants will follow suit.

“If it's successful and you can keep good people, other people will pick it up, especially smaller restaurants,” he says.

Plans for the switch started forming a year ago, when Fry and his partners, Kevin Cox and Justin Steel, explored ways to secure health care for themselves and their team. Their research led them to look into several restaurants that no longer accept gratuity in order to establish more regular pay models.

“The light bulb went off,” Fry says. “If we were going to offer health care, why not offer a complete employment contract and do away with gratuity all together?”

Bar Marco, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, saw a 40 percent increase in revenue last year, growth Fry attributes to the employees.

“They deserve to be recognized as the professionals they are and have opportunities to turn what they love into a respectable career with upside potential,” he says.

The change will not require an increase in menu prices, Fry says. Instead, staff is changing the format for the restaurant's popular Wine Room, an intimate, 10-seat space located in the wine cellar where staff prepares an exclusive menu for diners. Fry and his team are making it “a bit less cumbersome to book seats,” by no longer limiting seatings to two per night, he says.

“You'll simply be able to make reservations to dine in the Wine Room, which not only allows more flexibility for seating times, but allows us to host 10 more diners every night without losing the special vibe,” he says.

While nontipped business models are gaining attention across the country, “the vast majority of consumers take a positive view of the practice and custom of tipping for service,” says Christin Fernandez, National Restaurant Association spokeswoman.

“Tipping promotes the spirit of hospitality our industry is known for,” she says. “Along with flexible work schedules, the opportunity to see the direct result of good service and hard work is what makes a restaurant server an attractive profession and makes the restaurant industry an industry of choice for millions of Americans.”

“Every restaurant that has done away with gratuity nationally has done it with a different model,” Fry says. “This is the one that works for us.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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