Tip The Kitchen

Church & Union Owners Hope Other Nashville Restaurants Join New Initiative

Article by Julie Brown Patton

Photography by Courtesy Church & Union Nashville

Originally published in Brentwood Lifestyle

One Nashville restaurant helps balance wage gaps between front-of-house and back-of-house employees through a new initiative called "Tip The Kitchen." 

Fresh to the Nashville restaurant scene as of September 2021, Church & Union Nashville managers are challenging the industry standard of only tipping servers by adding a second tip line to guest checks as part of their Tip the Kitchen initiative. Guests voluntarily can leave a gratuity for essential back-of-kitchen staff not typically seen during dining, such as kitchen managers, prep cooks, sous chefs, line cooks, pastry chefs, kitchen callers and dishwashers. The full amount of guest-donated money goes directly to the employees. In addition to tips left by guests for the back-of-house, Church & Union Nashville matches that amount up to $500 a night.

Church & Union is one of multiple restaurants owned and operated by Charlotte-based, 5th Street Group. Patrick Whalen, 5th Street Group owner, says the goal of their new effort is to make a living wage a reality for all employees working in their dining establishments. 

He says he also wants his employees to be happy and feel valued. 

"Based on average work weeks before the pandemic, a restaurant employee may only make about $22,000 per year. That's living below the U.S. poverty line. When the volume of diners picked back up rafter the initial pandemic shutdowns, we realized there was a staffing crisis. Restaurant employees were being asked to come back to typical hourly wages that were unsustainable to begin with," recalls Patrick. "We didn't want to raise menu prices, and we operate overall on thin margins. Raising per-hour wages by a small amount seemed like a self-defeating approach, like we'd just be treating symptoms rather than solving the challenge."

Then a firsthand development hit Patrick's awareness hard:  an employee asked about a possible loan to buy personal groceries. 

"I felt physically ill thinking that one of our employees may not have enough to eat. I couldn't live with that," he remembers. 

Patrick and his managers brainstormed how to get more money into the pool for their back-of-the-kitchen crews, with the objective to hopefully increase those employees' annual salaries by $15,000 to $20,000 per year. "We're sharing in this increase, and I'd like to help every employee get to middle class wages. It's been a game changer. Out of the company's 315-plus employees, about half of them work in the kitchen," he says. 

Since starting the initiative in April by explaining the program on menus, Patrick says they've noticed a more productive work environment and reduced turnover. Specifically, after being open for 15 days, the kitchen staff at Church & Union Nashville had received $16,000-plus in tips for the kitchen staffers, he says. 

More than $817,245 companywide has gone to the kitchen staff since they launched the initiative earlier this year, Patrick adds. "We project the tally will be at a million dollars by mid-January." 

5th Street Group employees who qualify for Tip The Kitchen are those making less than $70,000 per year. In the spirit of 'partnering' with diners, Patrick is publicly transparent about the status of the initiative by posting the data and financial contributions on the company's social media. He also posts the company's sales information. At press time, 20.7 percent of guests were participating in the optional kitchen effort, with an average of an additional $63 per shift awarded to each kitchen staffer. 

"We hope this action brings insight and compassion into the mix, and that more Nashville restaurants will join this unique initiative to change the way tipping can support every employee supporting restaurants. Having said that, we also believe a kitchen gratuity should only be awarded for experiences that are worthy, so we work together as a team to create great meal services," he says. 

Patrick shares that his main, underlying reason for launching Tip The Kitchen is because he would like the restaurant business to be a viable career for all who especially desire and enjoy working in the hospitality sector. 

Church & Union Nashville, with New-American cuisine, is the 5th Street Group's first in Tennessee and the fifth in their portfolio, which includes Church & Union Charleston, La Belle Helene Charlotte, Church & Union Charleston and Tempest Charleston. The company's local sister venue will be Ophelia's Nashville, which is slated to open this year. 

201 4th Ave. N, Nashville

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