Tupelo Bartender Says Wage Campaign a Success

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Alia Todd has tended bar at the original downtown Asheville location of Tupelo Honey Cafe for 5 years, and worked in the service industry for much of the past 20 years.

Last fall, she began a campaign to raise wages for server support staff at Tupelo. Months before in early 2015, the company had lowered wages and changed the job description for those workers, originally called 'backservers', from $5.15 an hour to $2.13. She said the campaign was a success, and that wages for those workers have been re-raised to $5.15.

"I'm really happy to see it," Todd said. "I've been able to confirm those wages have gone up at the Asheville locations, in Raleigh, and in Virginia Beach."

Restaurant employees can be paid as low as $2.13 an hour -- well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 -- as long as tips make up enough of their income to get them to the minimum wage. In the United States, servers and bartenders are typically tipped between 15-20 percent for good service. Server assistants -- often shortened to "SAs" in the restaurant industry -- often do not directly service customers, but help servers with tasks like running food, pre-bussing glassware and other items, and cleaning and turning tables after customers leave. They are typically paid a higher hourly wage than servers, then get "tipped out" a percentage of servers' sales at the end of their shift.

At Tupelo, these support staff personnel get tipped out 1.6 percent of servers' food sales. That amount is then divided between however many support staff are working the shift -- and that is where Tupelo says the change originated.

"We could allow our 'backservers' [as they were called] at the time to not only be support personnel, but at that $2.13 level we could also work them into serving roles," Caroline Skinner said, vice president of human resources for Tupelo Honey. "So they would get the opportunity to be trained. They'd get the opportunity to learn a new skill set. It was intended to be a promotion incentive."

The Asheville-based restaurant chain has been growing quickly across the Southeast in the past few years, and Skinner said after initially making the move across its now 12 locations, it now gives locations the option whether to pay support staff $2.13 or $5.15 based on the needs of the restaurant, and the level of customer service it delivers.

The restaurant said it guarantees employees a "Fair Start Wage" of at least $10 an hour across the entire chain, a level it hopes to raise to $11 an hour by June 2016.

Todd's campaign got the attention of President Barack Obama, who answered a question from Todd during a White House Summit on Worker Voice.

She said she was never made aware of that wage guarantee before her campaign started, but she's happy to see it in place.

"I'm glad they do that now," said Todd. "I think that's really great."