Brian Keyser is the owner of Casellula, a restaurant with a location in New York City and in Pittsburgh's North Side. Casellula recently changed its wage model from hourly wage ($18/hr for servers) to a classic tipped model ($2.83/hr + tips). After a recent negative review submitted to Tipped Off by a former employee, Tipped Off contacted Brian for a chance to respond. Below is a short interview with Brian followed by his personal response to the review.
Brian will be one of three panelists at our roundtable event tonight at Scratch, "The Tipping Point: Views on the Best Way to Pay in the Restaurant Industry". For more information on the goals and origins of this event, click here.
Tipped Off: Why didn't the hourly wage model work at Casellula?
Brian Keyser: It didn’t work because of multiple reasons. Business was inconsistent, the space we are in with City of Asylum is inefficient. The biggest issue is that our staff wasn’t very good and they were being paid more than their work deserved. We needed too many servers for the number of guests we served, so the economics of paying them real hourly wages just didn’t make sense. (New York has always been a tipping restaurant and servers are paid the tipped employee minimum wage.)
TO: What made you decide to pay hourly wages in this location?
BK: I have long believed that the tipping model is bad for restaurants, but servers are usually resistant to give up the racket they have going. I hoped that opening a restaurant with a no-tipping policy from the start would work better than changing to it. If you want to get into the details of why tipping is bad, let me know.
TO: How could some of the problems cited in the review have been prevented (whether by ownership, management, or staff)?
BK: The biggest thing that could have been different is that staff could have made me aware of their frustrations with the GM. After he left, the floodgates opened and I learned about a bunch of things I could have fixed had I known about them.
TO: What was surprising to you about the review? What did you already know was a problem?
BK: Nothing was surprising about the review. The author blames their own shortcomings on everyone else. That’s a theme I’ve observed with staff in both restaurants lately. The GM the writer complained about, as I said above, was flawed in ways I was made aware of after he left, so that wasn’t new.
TO: What changes can be made in Pittsburgh's restaurant culture to foster better quality of service?
BK: Service can only be as good as the people providing it. Getting people who grew up with sub-par service to understand what good service is can be a challenge. I think it would take a big investment in training on the part of owners. I don’t know if Pittsburgh restaurants can afford that investment. There are some great servers in Pittsburgh, just not enough.
TO: How have your policies changed since the submission and why?
BK: Well, we are now a tipping restaurant. We have a new GM with whom I am working to create a better work environment. But there are no changes that resulted from this review, if that’s what you mean.
TO: What I was getting at is whether or not you've done anything to encourage more open communication from staff about issues they're having, rather than keeping it to themselves? if so, how? If not, why?
BK: I have always encouraged open communication. My experience everywhere, not just here, is that most employees don’t tell management what they are thinking even when asked directly. It’s frustrating. I was always the employee who went to management. I don’t understand people who are afraid to do that.
TO: What's it like to work at Casellula now? What kind of culture are you aiming to create?
BK: You would have to ask my employees what it’s like to work here now. But my goal is to create a mutually supportive environment free of harassment, where people can learn and grow as professionals and as people while making enough money.
TO: What's the biggest problem with the restaurant industry in Pittsburgh right now?
BK: The talent is spread waaaaaaaaayyyyyyy too thin. There is some great stuff happening in kitchens, but there will be no truly great Pittsburgh restaurant as long as half of the staff members in every restaurant don’t have the chops. This is one of the downsides of a good economy; all the best people have real jobs. That may just be a reality that Pittsburgh has to live with.
Below is Brian Keyser's unedited response to this review of working at Casellula.
I’ll start by saying that this review gives me a lot to think about as there is truth to some of what is said. Opening a restaurant is hard, stressful, frustrating work, for owners, managers and staff and I don’t always handle it well. I’ve done it multiple times, both as an owner and as a server for some of the biggest and most respected names in the industry, and it is never smooth or easy. Even at its best, a restaurant opening can be awful. There will always be employees who choose not to stay.
I opened Casellula @ Alphabet City with great optimism and high ideals. Unfortunately, those ideals bumped up against reality; my idealism turned into a simple fight for survival. The biggest issue is that Pittsburgh’s restaurant boom has thinned out the pool of experienced restaurant workers to the point that we could not attract good employees to our Northside location. Our opening staff was too small and had almost no fine-dining or casual-fine-dining experience.
Worse, they were for the most part untrainable. With a few exceptions, they couldn’t follow directions, couldn’t learn menu items, couldn’t handle more than a couple tables at a time, didn’t understand the concept of multi-tasking, and moved at the pace of molasses going uphill in the wintertime. We had servers who bitched about coworkers to guests, talked to guests about their drug problems, and otherwise exercised horrible judgement.
Multiple servers, including, the server I believe wrote this, called off from work because of “anxiety.” I don’t want to be insensitive to real mental health issues, and I have worked with multiple employees to get them through their real issues while also keeping their jobs, but in the real world “anxiety” isn’t a get-out-of-work-free card. You either put your anxiety aside and work, or you don’t get to keep your job. It was impossible, early on, to run this restaurant as I wanted to because we didn’t have the right people.
This server complains that I was not helpful with the situation, but I don’’t remember being made aware of the situation until the day they quit. I made a point of meeting with them a week or so later because I cared about this person personally and wanted to hear what was wrong with the work environment. While this person made a couple of valid points about the GM and his attitude, my takeaway was that they just didn’t want to take on the responsibilities of having a real job. It was like talking to a seventh grader who just didn’t want to do their homework.
Did I yell at a bartender in front of guests? Absolutely. Am I proud of that? Absolutely not. I should lead by example and be professional no matter how much stress I am under. That bartender, however, was amongst the worst employees I’ve ever worked with. He never once did all of his setup work correctly and on the night in question, I discovered fifteen minutes before a tasting class that the rosé wine that he was supposed to keep stocked in the refrigerator was at room temp in storage. I was livid, for good reason, but that isn’t an excuse for losing my temper in public. I’m sorry for that.
I don’t understand what the problem is with me sitting on my iPad. I am running two restaurants in different cities. I am on my iPad working any time I can be.
The living wage experiment was intended to make servers’ lives better, not worse. In this location at this time it was a failure. I accepted that and changed the way we pay our servers. But to call me a “pro-gentrifying, anti-worker, old white (man) who thinks they're changing the service industry but, just actually perpetuating the cycles of poverty in the interest of their capitalistic goals” is insulting and ridiculous (except for the old, white man part, which I have no control over). I have spent years working to improve the lives of workers. I regularly lobby lawmakers in DC and at statehouses in an effort to increase both the minimum wage and the tipped employee sub-minimum wage. I hire inexperienced people and train them so that they can move up in this industry. I wish I could hire an ethnically diverse staff, but we get almost no applicants of color. I’m working to change that, but I can’t hire people who don’t apply. I welcome any advice on the topic.
I have studied tipping for years and the no-tipping model is part of a larger effort to eliminate workplace harassment, poverty, and segregation. (That’s a whole other essay.) But the model works only if you have hard-working, smart, motivated workers. What we had for the first several months that we were open was a bunch of lazy corner-cutters who milked the clock because they were making $17 to $22 an hour instead of $2.63. Had we been a tipping restaurant at that time, the servers would have made far less, as none of them could handle enough tables to make a living.
A server was considering giving me a document of grievances. Well, I wish they had, because I can’t fix problems that I’m not aware of. Several months ago, two staff members sat with me for an hour or two sharing their grievances and it was a relief to finally know how they felt. I addressed the issues they brought up, successfully, for the most part. It made us a better restaurant and workplace. Unfortunately, most employees would rather complain amongst themselves and write angry letters to Tipped Off than talk to their supervisors. I regularly tell my staff to share these kinds of issues with us. They almost never do; martyrdom is so much more fun.
There is much in this review that is either nonsensical or untrue. I don’t know who was a being paid a “hefty amount more,” nor do I understand what the point of that is. Wouldn’t that be a good thing, to pay my employees well? No one was ever told they would be fired for accepting a tip. Servers were told to tell guests that we were a no-tipping restaurant, but that if someone left cash they could keep it. There’s no way for us to stop someone from leaving a $10 bill on the bar. The GM’s salary had nothing to do with cutting servers. The GM was paid what I had to pay to get an experienced GM. The truth is that we have lost money every day since we opened, largely because of my commitment to pay the staff, including management, fairly.
There are many former employees of mine who love me and many who think I am a world-class asshole. The common thread is that good employees, who show up on time, do their job well and with a good attitude think I am the best boss they’ve ever had; bad employees who take no responsibility for their own actions, come to work late with a bad attitude, and are unable or unwilling to learn think I am a horrible person. I can live with that. I do not suffer fools. Multiple people who have left my employ, in NYC and in Pittsburgh, have returned because they realized how good they had it at my restaurant. I’m not perfect, by a long shot, but I care about my staff and care for them and the ones who are willing to work hard do well.
I take responsibility for being imperfect. I was not at my best in the early months of being open and I never figured out a way to get our early employees to succeed. Maybe that’s because they were untrainable, but maybe it’s because I failed in some ways. I acknowledge that I am not a good teacher of bad students. I hate having to tell someone something three times. Some people are good at that and I admire them. The bottom line is that the server who wrote this (I’m pretty sure I know who it is, but I could be wrong) is someone I liked personally, but who was a horrible employee. Our early staff was full of lazy, entitled, whining, manipulative, time-clock milkers who never took responsibility for their own actions. This review is a reflection of that attitude.
Luckily, we finally have a staff of committed, competent employees and Casellula has become a great place to work. I’m sorry it took so long, but I am reminded of a lesson I learned years ago on the opening staff of Danny Meyer’s The Modern. I went to Danny with complaints that sounded very much like those in this review and Danny said to me, “Brian, it takes two years. I know you want everything to be perfect right away, but it never is. It takes two years.” I hate it, because those two years are always painful, but he’s right and I’ve learned to accept it.
Thanks for the opportunity to respond.