Andy Ricker's Pok Pok in Chinatown opened earlier this fall with two uncommon policies. First, any diner making a reservation had to put down a $20 non-refundable deposit via Tock, a step that would cut down on business-killing no shows and ensure that the people who really wanted to get in could secure seats in advance. Second: the restaurant levied a five percent charge designed to raise the pay of cooks and other staffers who typically make less than waiters because they can't collect tips. These were bold steps toward making Pok Pok a more accessible place for guests and a more fostering environment for staffers. Both of those policies have been scrapped.
Unfortunately, the policy was met with misunderstanding, confusion, and resistance
Ricker pulled the plug on the service charge late last week. He tells Eater about the decision to backtrack via email: "Unfortunately, the policy was met (unsurprisingly) with misunderstanding, confusion, and resistance from many of our customers and employees alike. Some of the problems we encountered: customers being confused as to how much they should tip; customers thinking that the five percent included the gratuity and then not tipping at all; and servers feeling like they were getting less in tip income (they were, and that is the nature of trying to redistribute some of the windfall that tips bring to front-of-the-house employees)." Ricker also said customers objecting to the charge "because they felt we were doing it to rip off the staff."
Los Angeles waiters, according to a Payscale survey, make about $16.20/hour, with bartenders earning $20.20/hour. Cooks, according to that survey, earn $13.30/hour on average, though the California Employment Development Department puts that number a bit lower, at $11.27, with the bottom quarter of cooks earning as little as $9.30. Ricker says he pays cooks, of which there is a noted shortage, higher than the entry-level market rate.
Those salaries will soon go up. The city's minimum wage will rise to $15 by 2019, starting with an increase to $10.50 in July. Restaurants will cope with those regulations by raising prices, and that's precisely what Pok Pok is doing to make up for the loss of the service charge. "The price hikes are not huge, between $0.25-$1.00 per menu item that is affected," Ricker says. "This will work for a while, but as the minimum wage goes up, we will have to reassess and see if we can continue to raise prices or whether we will have to reintroduce a service charge model of some sort."
Ricker went on about what went wrong with the service charge:
"We were trying to get out in front of the changes that are just around the corner, hiring cooks at a higher minimum wage than the market standard but I felt there were already too many strikes against us to try to be early adaptors: new to the market, ahead of the curve location in Chinatown LA, a relatively high price point compared to other Thai restaurants in LA (we are not going to be able to shake the comparisons even though we are using a lot of product that costs a lot more than the commodity stuff normally used in this sector and our labor is a lot more expensive), having a huge build out cost to recoup (no financial partners, just self-financing and bank loans), extremely burdensome California labor laws and a few other things."
Ricker said he dropped Tock because some diners mistakenly believed that "they could only eat at Pok if they purchased a ticket," as well as because servers were forgetting to apply Tock payments to bills, and because customers were not informing Pok Pok they made Tock reservations.
"I think it is a good system, just not built for large scale, casual, mid-priced restaurants with almost unlimited seating (we have 230 chairs!). We still use it in Portland as we are only using it to manage about 24 seats and the demand is huge." Pok Pok now relies on OpenTable in Los Angles, Ricker says, adding that with Tock, "only the young tech and food-savvy crowd seem to get it."