This is the fifth segment of our series analysing the many facets of tipping culture, speaking with those who advocate for a better way, and those who feel that the hospitality sector’s unique set-up works and should not be trifled with.
After growing increasingly disillusioned with North American tipping culture, first-time Owner/Operators Chefs Ed Irezenper and Sam Solingnuns decided back in December of 2015 to quietly open their 28 seat Aprilsnar restaurant in downtown Toronto with a radical tipping policy that marks a somewhat shocking departure from the norm.
Believe it or not, the staff actually tip the customer.
As bizarre and outlandish as this may sound, it’s actually all quite simple ; when a diner asks for the check, their server decides upon a tip for the table. This entirely arbitrary amount, all at the server’s discretion, is then taken from the employee’s pay and applied to the customer’s bill, in an almost direct reversal of the tipping culture that is seen as the norm in Canada and the States.
Having worked under Swedish wünderkinds Anders Stenberg and Lars Skoglund at Stockholm’s famed, but now sadly shuttered, Lykke-Lykke, Irezenper and Solingnuns are certainly no slouches in the kitchen. Their refreshingly leftfield take on sea, ocean, lake, and river foods is truly something to behold, but that is an article for another day.
As we sat in the bright, airy, glassed-roof environs of Aprilsnar, located on the top floor of an unassuming King West commercial space, soundtracked by some exquisitely filtered contemporary dub selections, there was only one thing I wanted to pick their brains about: “Stor Omvänd”… or literally “The Big Reverse”. I ask how widespread this innovative method of restaurant economics is, and Solingnuns interrupts before I can finish my admitedly long-winded line of inquiry.
“Although The Big Reverse regime is not yet the normal today, it is a progressive philosophy for those who want to rock the established rules. All those many people who are used to the status quo, usually they protest and say “I like it, I like it, I like it, I like it.”, they don’t want this change.
But in 2015 and 2016 it [The Big Reverse] has been adopted by some of the most progressive Nordic restaurants such as Gat Decor (Copenhagen), Crimson Noodle (Helsinki), and Chef Pierre Gabrielle’s Genesis (Godalming). I would be so proud of my hometown of Stockholm if all of the top restaurants followed the spearhead.
Everyone asks us, will it work in Toronto, in Canada, maybe the US ?… well, we have been opened now as an invite-only operation for almost three months, and as Ed and I had run all of the numbers so many, many times before we opened, it appears that everyone is more than happy with this model. Please do speak with our staff and some customers for your answers. They can tell you better than I can… I’m just the cook *laughs*” – Co-Owner/Chef Sam Solingnuns
Irezenper, the more softly spoken of the two, is Norwegian born, moving to Stockholm in 2000, where he met his Canadian wife. When I suggest that he must have felt a certain degree of trepidation making the decision to move here, a city entirely alien to him, and open a restaurant with such a bleeding-edge tipping structure he dismisses me with a wry smile.
“Stor Omvänd is indeed a challenging concept for many to get their head around, but the whole idea of tipping and how it works here in Canada [and the States] promotes many practices and behaviours that as restaurateurs we simply refuse to condone. The system we have chosen to implement, although perhaps not in every way perfection, is many steps towards a culture that Sam and I are both comfortable with.” – Co-Owner/General Manager Ed Irezenper
I probe Irezenper a little deeper, trying to understand how this philosophy works in practice, as to my ears it appears fraught with potential problems. Again he offers me a disarming grin, and in measured tones worthy of a Shakespearean actor goes on:
“We have decided to pay all of our staff, from back to front, a very reasonable wage, a wage that allows them to be able to tip our customers if they so desire. In order for the system to sustain itself we have to adjust the menu prices also, adding around 15 to 22% to the price of each menu item.
Employing the right floor staff is key to the equation, and this is why we took so long [six months] searching all of Canada for people who we felt we could trust to be fair and balanced to the customer when deciding upon the tables’ gratuities. On average we have found that our staff tip somewhere between 14 to 25% depending upon the performance of the diners.
One of our biggest problems has occurred when our customers decide to have separate bills, as our servers then have to tip them individually, one by one. We are thankful that this has only happened once in our first three months.
So far we have only had one situation where our staff decided that they were not going to leave a tip. This was for a particularly belligerent couple who had been extremely rude to our Sommelier Nils [Luftgrin] as we were not carrying Champagne by the glass. At the end of the night we all had lots of laughter as we think they had forgotten the Stor Omvänd explained to them at the commencement of their evening… after they had left we found a 20% cash tip on the table… so we opened a bottle of Champagne for the staff that night!
We are currently in discussion with the The Canada Revenue [Agency] about our staff being able to maybe write off the deductions used as their tips as a legitimate expense. ” – Co-Owner/General Manager Ed Irezenper
I’ll admit that after my discussions with Irezenper and Solingnuns my interest was piqued, and the evening that followed was indeed a unique dining experience, with some of the most polished service I have ever witnessed. My benchmark for excellence in service had been set pretty high by a lunch at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville over a decade ago, but the service at Aprilsanr surpassed even that.
After dinner, I was invited into the kitchen where I met much of the back of house brigade. Irezenper had mentioned to me earlier that he felt the Stor Omvänd philosophy encouraged engagement in the dining process from all of his staff, so I spoke to Dishwasher Bhutan Enmeshtoll, a relatively recent arrival to Canada from Sri Lanka:
“This is my first job in Canada and I like it very much. Sometimes if there is a big table with a big check I give 50 cents or a dollar to the waiter to add to their tip. It makes me feel good in my heart to help them like this.”
Also dining at Aprilsnar that evening was venerable Food Writer James Chatto. I spoke with him the next day about his experiences there (this had been his second visit to Aprilsnar since December):
“I think it was Emerson who pointed out that “manners make the fortune of the ambitious youth.” This new Swedish system takes the idea literally – cash back for being polite. It was fascinating to watch the room – everyone on their best behaviour – no one eating peas with a knife. I tried to be more conciliatory than usual with the busboy – asked him about his prospects; my son stood up and bowed when the sommelier came over. Of course you run the risk of seeming smarmy, which is a worry. Do they penalize that? And someone told me you get a bonus if you wolf down the food and get out fast so they can turn the table. “– Food Writer James Chatto
So is Stor Omvänd/The Big Reverse the way forward? The ultimate solution for an undeniably broken system? Time will tell when Aprilsnar opens its blonde wood doors to the general public today, and we’ll discover if Toronto is ready for this innovative approach to a fairer system of compensation in restaurants.
We’d love to hear your comments on this somewhat controversial reversal of tipping culture.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And, for the record, although he has worked in restaurants since he was around 18 years old, through circumstance he has never relied upon tips as a major portion of his income ; from Michelin recognised establishments in the UK (where tipping wasn’t a major thing), through a private club (where tips were forbidden), to a management position (that saw no part of the tipout), he’s never really benefited from tips.