Bridging the Gap

By ensuring a fair wage for all, one chef redefines equality

Kiki Louya, chef and co-owner of Folk and the Farmer’s Hand in Detroit, knows wage inequity is a problem. Consider tipping, which she says is rooted in racism and sexism. When the 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865, tipping wasn’t favored in this country. But employers preferred it because it allowed them to pay lower wages, which discriminated against people of color. Today, it’s still happening. When Louya and her business partner, Rohani Foulkes, compared gratuities among servers, they noticed that their highly-skilled black women servers earned lower tips than their white male counterparts. To address the problem, a small wave of independent chefs and restaurateurs, including Louya and Foulkes, are including the gratuity in the check, a movement that New York restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group pioneered in 2015 as a way to close the wage gap between the front and back of the house. Change isn’t easy – as evidenced by the challenges Meyer has had with his tipping policies – but Louya and Foulkes believe it’s worth the effort.

Q. Besides the inequality piece, which is huge, what motivated you and Foulkes to end tipping?

A. There can be a lot of resentment. You see people who are bartenders and servers taking home $400 a night, hundreds of dollars in tips. In the back of the house, you work in a kitchen that’s very hot – not always in the ideal conditions. I’ve worked in basements with no windows when you don’t know the time of day, when you’re making $10 an hour and your dishwasher $8 . There is something wrong with that. How is that working as a team?

Q. Pardon the pun, but what was the tipping point?

A. Tipping doesn’t guarantee a steady wage. We started to think of ways to counteract it – and the only way is to take it away from the customer. It’s now a hospitality charge: 18% added to the bill to ensure that all the staff is on a level playing field.

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Q. Why not raise prices a buck here or there to ensure a livable wage for lower paid workers?

A. Tipping actively discriminates. We’re all in this together. This is why the tip pooling is really a beneficial practice. It makes everyone feel respected and that our work matters.

Q. If a server can make more money at a restaurant across the street that doesn’t pool tips for everyone, why would they work at Folk?

A. You have to believe in our values. At other places, there can be so much infighting and resentment. The wage is steady here, not unpredictable. Because of our size, and Detroit in general and its income per capita, it’s easier here than a larger city with a high cost of living.

Q. Are there incentives?

A. We offer the ability to buy into a health care plan. We might bring in a financial expert to talk about money management or offer a super discount in the restaurant. There can be creative ways we can structure the business, so our employees have a better standard of living. I am for sure not saying that we have the whole picture figured out or all the answers. As restaurateurs, we are always thinking about how to retain employees and how to level the playing field.

Q. What’s the next challenge?

A. Because we are a brunch-focused restaurant, people aren’t working crazy nights – they’re looking for more balance. It will be interesting to see what happens when we add dinner service and alcohol (this summer). We’re still trying to figure this out, especially for bartenders who are used to making a lot of money. How do we balance that? What kind of people will we attract to work nighttime at Folk?

Q. This all plays into a bigger picture for the restaurant industry?

A. The traditional kitchen hierarchy isn’t respectful to everyone. You have servers barking orders at the kitchen and cooks working a marathon each night under rough conditions within a system of pay inequity. To feel valued and respected, there has to be a trajectory for pay and advancement. (Ending) the pay inequity is a start. I’m excited to hear more ideas.


More About Louya

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  1. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, she was expected to go to law school.
  2. Completed culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago instead. Worked at various restaurants, front and back of the house, in Chicago and New York.
  3. In 2015, she met business partner Rohani Foulkes, who had similar goals and opened the Farmer’s Hand, a 300-square-foot counter café and market stocked with local produce and product.
  4. Won 2017 Eater Award for Best Market-Cafe Combo of the Year.
  5. Opened Folk, a 24-seat, globally inspired breakfast and lunch restaurant next door. Dinner service begins this summer.