An East Lawrence bistro closes; a couple of restaurants test the trend of a hospitality fee in lieu of tipping
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World File Photo
It used to be that a bonbon fix in Lawrence meant a box of fancy chocolates, a pair of stretchy pants and at least an hour’s suspension of all shame. Then along came the East Lawrence restaurant Bon Bon, which brought new meaning to the idea. Now — find the stretchy pants — we are back to where we started. Bon Bon has closed with no plans to reopen.
Simon Bates, co-owner of Bon Bon, confirmed the small restaurant that served mainly American bistro-style dishes closed earlier this month. In its nearly four years of existence, the bistro at 804 Pennsylvania St. had become a mainstay in the Warehouse Arts District.
Bates didn’t go into a lot of detail on the decision to close the restaurant, but said it wasn’t merely a temporary decision while the restaurant industry deals with the pandemic. While the slowdown in business related to COVID-19 definitely played a major role in the decision to close, he said simply reopening Bon Bon after the shutdown passes wasn’t in the cards.
Bates, however, said he and Codi Bates haven’t ruled out doing something else with the space. The couple own the property, along with the Cider Gallery Building next door. (UPDATE: A previous version of this article had wrong information about the ownership of the property.)
What they may want to do there, though, is really up in the air. Bates said now doesn’t seem like the time to figure it out.
“There are more important things to be focused on right now with everything that is going on in the world,” Bates said.
The business location is very small, especially the number of indoor seats it can offer. Any reduction in capacity to accommodate social distancing seemingly would make a business plan for the location even more challenging.
As we reported early in the pandemic, Lawrence restaurant consultant Rick Martin estimated that 40% of all Lawrence restaurants may not survive the pandemic shutdown. We are still early in the reopening process, so it is hard to gauge how close that estimate will be to the truth. It will be interesting to watch whether small restaurant spaces, especially those without drive-thrus, will be able to adapt to the new environment. If you are looking for an investment tip from me (I have an art collection of dogs playing pool that suggests that’s a terrible idea,) invest in commercial property that can accommodate a drive-thru. Based on what we’ve been through, what new restaurant isn’t going to want to have the safety net of a drive-thru?
Bates didn’t get into all of that when I briefly caught up with him, but he said trying to figure out how to make people feel safe in a small space has been part of what he and Codi are thinking about.
“We are just trying to figure out what the next chapter is, because there are a lot of possibilities,” he said.
The Bateses continue to own and operate The Burger Stand, which has locations in downtown Lawrence and Topeka. Bates said business is starting to resume at those locations, with both restarting dine-in service this week.
But there is something else interesting going on at The Burger Stand. It no longer is expecting its guests to tip. Instead, it has gotten in on what could be a new trend in the restaurant industry: a hospitality fee.
The restaurant now automatically adds a 15% hospitality fee to the check of each diner. With that fee, leaving a tip for the servers and staff is no longer expected. The restaurant is pledging to use the 15% fee to pay all of the restaurant’s staff — dishwashers, waiters, cooks and everybody else — at least a $15 per hour wage.
“If this pandemic has brought to light anything, it is that our essential workers aren’t taken care of as well as they should be,” Bates said.
The restaurant industry long has had a tradition of making its waitstaff earn the bulk of it wages via tips rather than via a guaranteed hourly wage. That means servers may well have been earning $15 an hour or more at times, but the income stream was very uncertain.
“It is nice to have some certainty in your income,” Bates said of the thinking behind the move.
The change has been in place for more than a month now, and Bates said he’s been pleased with the reaction.
“I’d say 98% positive,” Bates said. “There have been some people confused at first, but that is a very small portion.”
Is this a new trend we should look for in the Lawrence restaurant industry? It is too early to say. But I am aware of at least one other restaurant that has adopted the model. RPG (Restaurant, Pub & Games) in downtown Lawrence also adds a 15% hospitality fee.
Nate Morsches, co-founder and president of RPG, noted that state law exempts servers from the standard minimum wage requirements due to their being considered “tipped employees.” Those tipped employees can make as little as $2.13 an hour under state law, he said.
“It was a moral and ethical decision for us,” Morsches said. He said the issue became more apparent as he saw multiple restaurant employees struggle after losing their jobs due to the pandemic.
Like Bates, he said the reaction from the public has been generally good. But he also said RPG’s owners recognized the risk in the decision. Any time you force consumers to pay more for a good or service, it can be risky.
“But we believe that when you do good, generally, good is done back to you,” Morsches said.
Bates said he has had other restaurants and bars in the area reach out to him about how the hospitality fee is working. Whether some of those businesses end up moving to the system remains to be seen.