So we've been beating you guys over the head with this event, and, hey, it's not even a fundraiser! Confusing, I know. As it were, this is a fiery issue that brings out the strongest of opinions in our vibrant community, and it's one that is extremely important to Ashley and I both personally and professionally.
It's not a secret to some of you that we had originally planned to host this event at the now-closed The Pines (a project by Bar Marco) in East Liberty, and really, that's where this idea was born.
I struck up a conversation with one of their amiable bartenders about Tipped Off and he suggested the roundtable idea, as it was his assertion that there was a lack of understanding about the realities of the salary model, both by patrons and by industry-workers.
During our conversation, I realized that while I had very strong opinions about the best way to compensate servers and bartenders, I had never actually spoken to someone who had worked in a salaried server/bartender position. I'm a reasonable person, I like to check sources but in this instance I hadn't. It stood to reason that perhaps other reasonable people had never heard about the salaried experience straight from the horse's mouth, either. Or, you guys have, and I am, quite literally, The Last to Know. Either way, it struck us both as a conversation worth planning.
He spoke about how he felt influential and safe simultaneously in his workplace, of the harmony between co-workers, who trusted each other to continuously give their best efforts because they truly wanted each other and the business to succeed. He marveled curiously at the varied responses from patrons, as they were often aggressive and even offended at the prospect of not being "allowed" to tip (tips were in fact accepted upon insistence, but went to a community jar that bought staff coffee).
In an unforeseen (by me, anyway) and unfortunate turn of events, The Pines closed on short notice, as restaurants and bars tend to do, and the event was abruptly cancelled.
Local drag performer Moon Baby, crassly celebrated the closure and nastily noted:
"When the Pines opened, they offered me a weekly show that would pay my rent and I thought, great, the opportunity to watch something go down in flames from the inside while giving my friends a cheap inclusive space one night a week somewhere other than the Blue Moon. When the Pines closed, I mostly laughed."
Whatever your feelings on the space that used to house Shadow Lounge, it seemed particularly tone deaf to celebrate the demise of a space that went out of its way to be inclusive and generous to its community and provide a space that was affordable and welcoming in a rapidly gentrifying area. The Pines' closure isn't going to stop East Liberty gentrification; all that's happened is that thoughtful and caring people are out of a job. And the chances that the next resident will be as interested in hearing from locals and preserving a welcoming space is unlikely.
The Pines described its space on Facebook,
"The Pines : Experiences + People are what matter to us. It's as simple as our menu, easy spirits priced to be partnered with easy beers. We don't complicate our space or what we offer. We aren't interested in the hottest new trend of high tech brewing and serving said "brew" in an avocado. If that's what you're looking for, well, don't come here. Our evenings are filled with variety, open for local artist performances and story sharing. Our staff are makers, and if there isn't a neighbor making something or sharing, than they are. We are proud to say we are a safe space, and work to protect that everyday. From conception, to design, to staff and programming, unapologetically queer and inviting to all of our neighbors and beyond that are looking for a place to enjoy themselves and those around them."
I feel so welcomed by that post that I'm going to take an unplanned nap in it and not even be embarrassed when I wake up.
Some viewed their closing as proof that the model didn't work; what I lamented was the closing of a bar where the employees seemed supported and empowered, who were socially active and aware of the history and meaning of the space they were occupying.
Part of Tipped Off's philosophy, a part that is so essential to our goals as a company, is that we believe that when employees feel valued, they effortlessly provide great service. So, say what you will about the space and the salary model -- the service at The Pines was great because the employees loved The Pines. They believed in it.
So, really, what is this post? I don't know, a belated eulogy for The Pines, a place that was (quite literally and figuratively) filled with light, and aspirations to make this industry better. And sure, it didn't "work", but there's certainly a great deal to be said about valuing the fact that someone is trying.
Trying to find a way to make the industry healthier, more fair, more respected. And that should be valued by us, people fighting the same fight but not quite knowing how to achieve what we want -- a "good" work environment (whatever that means), a consistent, living wage, a job where you can call in sick and not fear getting fired....among so many other things.
The Pines tried. And I loved them for it.
That's what this conversation is about -- how do we achieve the seemingly unachievable?
We can start by examining our weaknesses -- what's working? What's not? Why?
By opening a dialogue and truly seeing each other. The restaurant owner is not a faceless miser, your server doesn't simply have a "bad attitude", and your customer might be more gracious and know more about your industry than you think.
On Monday we'll be hosting some very seasoned and insightful people in Pittsburgh's restaurant industry. I hope to spark new ideas, and to inspire passion and unity in a community that is growing so quickly in this city that it needs some of its members to be acting with intention and awareness.
I hope you join us.