INTERVIEW: Asheville’s Blue Dream Curry House Owners Speak About New No-Tipping Policy

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LIVIN’ THE DREAM! Blue Dream Curry House Makes Bold Move in Effort to Combat Pay Inequities in the Restaurant Industry

If you listen to AVL Food Fans, you might recall that Chef Joe and I have talked about a trend — a very small trend — towards a no-tipping system in restaurants. Now there’s a restaurant right here in Asheville that’s going for it. The folks at Blue Dream Curry House announced recently that they are switching from a tipping to a no-tipping system at their relatively new venue, located right downtown on Patton Ave. I was curious, and I figured that you guys probably are too, so I wrote to Blue Dream, and the three co-owners, Chris Cunningham, James Sutherland and Sean Park got back to me right away.

I know Chris and James, just a little bit, and I’ve met Sean just once, and they are really nice guys, so I knew that they would have some thoughtful reasons behind their move to a no-tipping system. They are young, first-time restaurateurs, and their hearts are in the right place. They try to deny it in the interview below, but they’re hippies, and they love people, which happens to include their staff members and diners. They confirmed in their answers to me that they’re dedicated to making Blue Dream a great workplace for every worker there. Like the good hippy commie socialist pinkos they claim not to be. I mean, just look at these photos from their FaceBook page

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“The lights, the colors, the curry…” James, you’re a hippy.

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Short hair or not, the hat, facial hair, and “I feel sad for the animals who died for this delicious curry” expression say it all: Chris, you’re a hippy too.

I rest my case. I couldn’t find a picture of Sean, but if he’s hanging out with these two… Yeah. Anyhoo, here’s the interview…

STU HELM – How did you arrive at the decision to ditch the tipping system, and have a no-tipping restaurant? Did you hear and read about the movement afoot in NYC and other areas of the country? Did you have a company meeting? Were the servers, kitchen, and support staff brought in on the decision making process?

JAMES and CHRIS – We had been considering something like this even as we conceptualized the restaurant many months ago.  We ran a bunch of numbers, many different scenarios, and then after a few staff meetings as well as “straw polling” regular customers and watching other business attempting this move away from the antiquated tipping model, we arrived at the current system we are using.

Originally we were conceived as a counter service restaurant, and as we evolved into full service, the huge discrepancy in pay between our $10/hr FOH plus tips and our $12.50/hr BOH became glaringly apparent, but we weren’t willing to cut anyone’s pay to achieve a parity between the two. So we decided on equal pay across the board and GUARANTEED bonuses paid to the whole staff based on total sales (with no special hoops to jump through to achieve it) (and this bonus will be paid even if the restaurant isn’t profitable). If sales increase so will the bonus compensation. Along with regular raises and other benefits like shift meals and discounts for their families and eventually, even more tangible benefits, we feel like this is a total package that works

And also: we don’t consider anyone here “support staff;” that is also part of the system we are leaving behind. It takes an entire team to provide great food and great service, and we here don’t make distinctions like that. You need a floor mopped? Give any of us owners the mop and we got that.

STU HELM – Do you see this as an “experiment?” Or more like trail-blazing? In other words: How committed to the concept are you? I could imagine some growing pains along the way. Have there been some already, ie: unhappy staff, or even staffers leaving because of the policy change?

JAMES and CHRIS – We are totally committed to the concept.  But we are not committed to stagnation; we will continue to evolve as we see how it unfolds, and will continue to act in the best interests of our entire staff.  Also, just to clarify, our staff has full access to our books, to all the numbers, and can say anything they want to any of us any time about anything.  We are just a bunch of guys who work in a restaurant and are trying to do something good for everyone involved, from dishwasher to guest at the table.  And no, everyone is willing to jump into the deep end of the pool with us and help us make some waves; with our open dialogue and hearing all the continuing opinions of staff, we will make this work together.  Nobody has abandoned ship.

STU HELM – The general public seems to be split down the middle on this issue. What has the feedback from your loyal customers been?  Your repeat customers are the people who support you day-to-day, week after week, have they expressed an opinion yet?

JAMES and CHRIS – So far the response has been 95% positive. High fives from regulars who know our staff, excitement from other business owners, in fact we’ve been asked by some well known folks in town how they too can make this work at their establishment. Everyone likes the idea that everyone here is well taken care of and that we are acting in the best interests of the whole BDCH team.

STU HELM – Okay, James, here’s the hard question: I’ve met you guys. I know a hippie when I see one. You’re a bunch of hippies over there at Blue Dream Curry House. Are you also a bunch of commies? This reeks of socialism, which is the gateway drug to communism. Oh, wait a minute, this actually smells like capitalism. Spicy, delicious capitalism. Is the no-tipping policy at Blue Dream Curry House a political move on your part, or is it strictly doing business in a fair and ethical way? Or, is doing business ethically always a political move, and what does that say about our society? Whoa. You can skip that last part if you want to.<

JAMES and CHRIS – Hippies? Us? Huh? This comes as news to us. Only James has long hair and Chris is the only dead head, and we only want to redistribute all the wealth among the proletariat….wait…not that. We are not making any sort of political statement other than a business has got to have another bottom line apart from the financial and that is the people who work there, and the local economy also. We love Asheville, we love our staff, we love our food, and we insist they be paid well enough to live here and that goes for everyone.

Why is it that in these conversations about no tipping restaurants, Is the conversation solely about server pay? No one has mentioned anything about the compensation for the BOH which is invariably less than the FOH because of tips. BOH’s wages do not change based upon how busy the restaurant is, unlike FOH.

The structure we created allows us to pay our FOH a similar wage to what they’ve been making with tips AND to give our BOH an equal incentive.

Additionally, cooks and chefs make this work their lives, their careers, while too often FOH servers are working between other gigs, some not even food service based, and we are attempting to make the entire restaurant a career for everyone, with steady pay and benefits. The BOH cooks for all of our guests, and the FOH takes care of our guests, so the WHOLE TEAM should be well compensated for that difficult and rewarding job.

Our system is designed to incentivize the whole team to perform at their peak, to do their best all the time, to be great. And also serve up some of that tasty, spicy communist socialist capitalism.

STU HELM – If I know the public at all, they will have one question first and foremost on their minds, so I’d better ask: Will your prices go up?

JAMES and CHRIS – Yes. Slightly. But still less overall than most tipping scenarios.  And still lower than the average restaurant bill in downtown Asheville. For instance, it’s been our experience that with tax included, a five dollar taco costs $5.35; most people leave seven or eight bucks.  That taco now costs you $6.50, and you keep the tip for yourself.  And leave staff compensation up to us.  Y’all just come on in and enjoy yourselves.

When you go buy a tv, the payroll of staff is included in the cost of the product. It’s now no different here. Our prices reflect what it costs to pay a great wage and benefits to our amazing staff.

In the end, nobody gets to walk into a retail establishment and set the pay of the clerk based on their perception of service.  Even commissioned jobs have that percentage set by the owners, not the consumer.  It’s the same here, except our “product” is great thoughtful and locally sourced food brought to you by well compensated servers who provide incredible service because they love it.

And there you have it.. Blue Dream Curry House is now a tip free zone. No tipping. Keep your change. Gratuity included. It’s a new world. Run by hippies. I’ll check in with Jame and Chris on a regular basis to see what’s up and how it’s going.

Come to find out from one of the good readers of Ashvegas, Firestorm Books & Coffee is also a tip-fee venue, so I’ll try to get the a statement or two from them at some point too. This is a very interesting development in our little food town, where Wages vs Cost of Living is a constant topic of conversation and debate. ‪#‎staytuned‬

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That looks like some damn good curry, Yo.

— END —

IMG_0273Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.

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2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Asheville’s Blue Dream Curry House Owners Speak About New No-Tipping Policy

  1. Pingback: How Many Restaurants in Downtown Asheville? Officially: An Assload. I made a list. | Stu Helm: Food Fan

  2. Just tried Blue Dream Saturday night. Yummy! I also felt like it was a local hidden gem because we got seated right away!!! No wait. I felt like I was pulling the wool over those tourists eyes!! Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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