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At Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tenn., everyone gets tips

Owners Amanda and Erik Niel say the system incentivizes all of the staff to work as a team

At first glance the tipping system at Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., appears tricky. Servers get a percentage based on a points system, which increases when they excel in their jobs and stick around for a while, and the back-of-the-house makes a portion of the tips, too. But after two-plus years, owners Amanda and Erik Niel see the benefits of their approach, and so do the employees.

"In all of this we are trying to be as fair as possible to the whole house," said chef Erik Niel. "The kitchen being included in the tip pools is one the greatest things I have done in the business."

The Niel’s tip system started around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Niels shut down Easy Bistro & Bar and its sister spot, Main Street Meats. The time off gave the team time to think about how they wanted to change and make work better for the employees. One thing was clear, said Niel, it was time to balance out the front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house.

Already Main Street Meats had tip pooling in place, but the fast-casual operation and butcher shop only had a couple servers and a bartender in the mix. It was functional and worked well for that place, but for Easy Bistro & Bar, a more formal restaurant with an extensive wine list, the method would have to be a little more complicated.

Niel worked with one of his bar managers to design the new system, which started in 2018 but was refined in 2020 into what it is today. The crux of the design is points. Each employee is paid the federal minimum wage, and on top of that every server starts with eight points, with the opportunity to test into more points based on certain milestones both inside and outside of the restaurant. They also get more points the longer they stay. In the back-of-the-house, everyone starts with 15 points. That means each person working in the kitchen that night, from the dishwasher to the sous chefs, gets paid the same.

"From a staffing perspective, if back-of-house staff averages about $30 a night [from the tip pool], that can add up to about $7,500 a year in additional wages]," said Joe Milenkovich, the chef de cuisine at Easy Bistro’. "This makes a huge difference in trying to retain staff, coupled with the message that tip sharing sends about the restaurant being an inclusive and forward-thinking place to work."

Plus, he added, tip sharing gives the entire house the incentive to work together as a cohesive team, and ultimately do a better job at creating the best guest experience.

"For instance, the dishwasher will care more that the wine glasses are clean and polished, the dishes are sparkling clean, and so on," Milenkovich said. "There is a whole house effort to create the experience we all try to give."

Niel agreed, and said that was a big part of why he included the back-of-the-house in the tip pool.

"This made them accountable to the servers and the servers accountable to them, because in a pooled environment, everyone feels responsible and they have incentive to keep up hospitality," he said. "Having the incentive to have everyone take care of the guest, that's good math to me."

With the tipping system, Niel said he is attracting a different type of worker, professionals rather than kids in school looking for a weekend job. The system also incentivizes servers to stick around and learn the ins and outs of the menu and wine list: The longer someone stays on the floor, the more points they earn and the more value they are to the team. Niel will admit there's a bit of a learning curve at the beginning as servers adjust to the system, but for those who want to excel, a year in they can be within two or three points of the servers who have been with the restaurant for 10 years.

"Is it perfect? No. It's created by humans for humans, but we strive to make it work," he said. "To see the accountability between the front and back of house over the last two years, it's been joyous to me."

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