Dunedin restaurants face pushback over new server pay model

A Dunedin restaurant’s shift away from tips was supposed to be about “data over drama,” but former employees say it’s definitely been both.

The Black Pearl introduced a new pay model for servers. Instead of taking home tips, waiters will receive a flat 20% commission and $1-an-hour wage. Ahead of the change, the restaurant fired some staff, employees told the Tampa Bay Times. Since then, criticism from hospitality workers and patrons pushed the review website Yelp to disable reviews on the restaurant’s page.

Owners Zachary and Christina Feinstein, under the company called The Feinstein Group, said they restructured tipping protocols to offer better pay for support staffers like bussers and food runners. The Feinstein Group implemented the pay structure months ago in their two other Dunedin restaurants: the Living Room and Sonder Social Club.

Instead of guests choosing the tip amount on receipts, every customer will have a 20% service fee added onto the bill. A server keeps 15% while support staff get the remaining 5%, Zachary Feinstein said. Guests can still add a tip on top of the fee, which would only go to servers.

They lowered hourly wages from $8 to $1 an hour for servers to raise kitchen staff pay to at least $15 an hour, Feinstein said.

Under the new structure, servers at the Feinstein Group’s restaurants are no longer considered tipped employees under Florida law. Their wages will primarily come from a percentage of sales, making them commission-based workers, like real estate agents and car salespeople.

But before switching to the new pay model on Aug. 26, the Black Pearl fired two servers and two hosts, the Feinsteins confirmed. They said they made the changes as part of a larger restructuring to make room for new positions like sommeliers. Some were fired for creating a “hostile work environment,” the Feinsteins said.

But Tabitha Crewe and Zachary Benson said they believe they were fired because they had questions about the new pay structure. The Feinsteins denied those claims.

“We knew they were going to implement a commission model and it was never clearly defined what the structure was going to be specific to that restaurant,” said Crewe, who worked as a server at the Black Pearl for about a year and a half. “This isn’t a model that’s implemented in many of the restaurants that I’ve ever worked at, so I had no idea what to expect.”

Crewe said she got a phone call from a manager telling her she was fired because she wasn’t “a right fit anymore,” about a week before the commission structure went into effect.

Some former employees spoke against the model and posted on Reddit and Facebook claiming the owners lacked transparency about how the pay structure would affect them. Crewe and another fired employee protested outside the restaurant Aug. 26. They said $1 an hour is unfair.

The restaurant review site Yelp blocked adding new reviews on the Black Pearl’s page due to “unusual activity” and had an alert

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