Casellula_Alphabet_City4
Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

After nine months, Casellula on the North Side will abandon its no-tip policy

“The bottom line is that we will not survive if we don’t get our labor costs down substantially.”

Casellula_Alphabet_City4
Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Nine months after opening on the North Side, Casellula @ Alphabet City is abandoning its no-tip policy.

“The bottom line is that we will not survive if we don’t get our labor costs down substantially,” owner Brian Keyser said in an email addressed to friends this morning.

The change will take effect Sunday, Keyser said, and Casellula will lower menu prices to reflect the new policy.

Casellula is one of just a handful of restaurants in Pittsburgh to attempt a no-tip policy. Dinette in East Liberty announced this summer it would do away with tips, joining Casellula, Bar Marco in the Strip District, The Livermore in East Liberty and Mixtape in Garfield.

The Livermore, which shares ownership with Bar Marco, closed in September. “It was a business decision,” co-owner Kevin Cox told Pittsburgh Magazine. “We could have kept it going, but, at the end of the day, you have to ask, ‘Is the amount of time you’re putting into a business worth it?’ ”

Wine bar Piazza Talarico plans to open this fall in Lawrenceville with a no-tip policy. The eatery, however, will offer counter — as opposed to table-side — service.

For Keyser, the decision to open Casellula @ Alphabet City as a no-tip restaurant was one he was deeply passionate about.

“It’s a system that encourages everyone … to pander to their guests in any way necessary,” he told The Incline in February. “We stay with this system, because people don’t like change.”

In his email Friday, Keyser said his beliefs about tipping have not changed but added that bigger, legislative changes are necessary in order to make a no-tip policy work.

“Frankly, for any small, independent restaurant to lead the pack by eliminating tipping is difficult,” he said. “What we really need is legislative change that eliminates the tipped employee sub-minimum wage so that all restaurants are playing on an even field.”

Reached by phone, Keyser said Casellula @ Alphabet City wasn’t the right test case for this kind of policy for a number of reasons including its location and the type of programming happening in the shared space.

Knowing what he knows now, Keyser said he probably wouldn’t have tried a no-tipping policy at Casellula @ Alphabet City. But he said he would “try again with a different restaurant in a different location.”

He added that it’s hard to imagine “sweeping change” happening in the industry because of no-tip policies at places like Bar Marco and Mixtape — where servers would likely be tipped very well. That won’t force behemoths like Eat’n Park to change their policies.

What will are big changes at the legislative level, like eliminating the separate minimum wage for restaurant workers. But with Pennsylvania’s conservative legislature, it’s unlikely the movement will begin here. Keyser imagines the battle will be similar to one for same-sex marriage, where progressive states will eliminate the tipped minimum and conservative states like Pennsylvania will follow after a certain tipping point.

“It is a long battle,” he said.

Read Keyser’s full email below.

After nine months of operating as a No Tipping restaurant, I have come to the conclusion that we must return to a traditional tipping system at Casellula @ Alphabet City in Pittsburgh. This is in no way an indication that my views about tipping have changed. I still believe that a system where servers are paid fair wages and food and drink prices reflect the actual cost of getting the product to the table is best for employers, servers, and guests.

Unfortunately, the unique quirks of Casellula @ Alphabet City make us the wrong test case. Our isolated location, reliance on private events, and the effects of City of Asylum’s programming on our business have made it impossible to manage staff in a way that is cost effective. Frankly, for any small, independent restaurant to lead the pack by eliminating tipping is difficult. What we really need is legislative change that eliminates the tipped employee sub-minimum wage so that all restaurants are playing on an even field.

The bottom line is that we will not survive if we don’t get our labor costs down substantially. The added tax burden resulting from all money paid to servers being counted as wages is too much for this young restaurant to bear (more legislative change is needed). Returning to tipping is the only way I can see to get our labor costs in line with our revenues, as we have already minimized labor hours as much as possible.

Starting on Sunday, October 15th, Casellula @ Alphabet City will lower our prices to reflect the fact that service will not be included and guests will be expected to tip their servers. I hope that this change is a good thing for all of us.