St. Helena, Ca – July 8, 2018

My husband and I came into the cool of the restaurant from the heat of a Napa Valley afternoon, searching for a cool cocktail and a little snack to tide us over. I hadn’t been in this particular space since it’s new incarnation as The Charter Oak Restaurant but it was unmistakably the same space with a new vibe. This is to me, the quintessential Napa Valley restaurant with outdoor seating on the patio outside, grape vines everywhere, a brick structure with high high ceilings and a long wide bar that faced out to the patio. I used to sit and nurse my daughter on that patio while sipping a glass of beer.

I never miss an opportunity to talk with servers and bartenders. This was no exception. We usually identify ourselves as long-time restaurant folks, as my husband is still a chef and I love to write about restaurant finance and human resources.

This restaurant tacks on a service charge instead of requesting a discretionary tip. I think I’ve written about this in the past, and I have yet to hear from anyone on the finance side about how it is effecting the bottom line, or labor costs, or employee turn over. That is my next step.

But listening to Zach, I asked if this policy deterred him from taking the position there. After all it occurred to me that there are lots of other restaurants in the Valley that don’t have this policy and he could be making money in tips. “No,” he replied, “I knew I wanted to work here because of their bar program.” A professional restaurant staff…that builds retention. A well-treated staff, everyone believing that they are making a contribution and they see the results.

I had another conversation with a restaurateur this week. And her concern was how, with rising costs all around, particularly real estate and labor, could she still provide her customers with a great value at the prices she was charging. Would she have to raise her prices, or provide less service? What are the trade-offs that areĀ  being discussed – reduced service models, or higher prices?

It almost feels like the income inequality that we are seeing in our economy is playing out in the way restaurants are redefining themselves…

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