Comal Mexican restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland are bringing back traditional tips, or at least tip pooling, confirmed owner John Paluska for Eater SF. Comal has been recognized as one of the leading voices for the no-tipping movement in the Bay Area for the past seven years. The independent restaurant canceled tips for the first time in 2014 when it introduced a service fee because it wanted to pay employees fair wages in front of and behind the house. Now that Paluska has grown into a group of three restaurants with a few fast-casual counters and has prepared for the reopening with a completely different business model, the no-tipping model was no longer feasible.
“We don’t feel better about tips,” says Paluska. And he says it’s not about the model failing. “We felt that our move to a service fee was successful. We’re not moving away from this model because it’s broken. But … the landscape is different now and we have to work in it. “
Before the pandemic, Comal had a 20 percent service charge in lieu of tips. During the pandemic, service-inclusive prices for take-out and delivery were switched to. And now for the reopening, it is bringing tips back and planning to pool tips in each of its restaurants, a change they made a week ago on May 12th. Comal has quickly grown to three locations including the original Comal in Berkeley-casual spin-off Comal Next Door nearby and more of a mix of the two styles of service at Comal Next Door in Oakland, which opened during the pandemic. Paluska also confirmed that he has separated from his long-time partner Andrew Hoffman, who works with Water2Table, the sustainable seafood supplier that works with many star restaurants.
Paluska said he still believes in all the reasons for the no-tipping model, but he now faced an entirely different scenario, both as part of his restaurant group and during the city’s reopening after the pandemic. Adding a service fee was a different decision for a standalone sit-down restaurant in 2014 compared to splitting that decision into three different restaurants with more counter service, not to mention a pandemic-triggered takeover and delivery. “Between all the different business models, we strive for consistency in all the different restaurants,” says Paluska. “… and we finally came to the conclusion that a service charge for counter service did not work.”
Comal was one of half a dozen restaurants that made headlines around 2014 for switching to a tip-free model around the same time as Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco and Camino and Duende in the East Bay. Bar Agricole and Trou Normand returned to their tips in less than a year and have since closed during the pandemic, Camino closed in 2018 and Duende is the only one to reopen this spring. “We were one of the few places that are still standing,” says Paluska. “Whatever wave there was [in no-tipping restaurants]it quickly dissolved. We thought there was strength in numbers, but it didn’t work out. ”
That announcement comes just two weeks after Zuni Cafe, the groundbreaking California eatery on Market Street, announced it would be eliminating tips and pissing off its legendary servers for life. Stay tuned for more information on the tip-free debate, which is clearly continuing as the Bay Area reopens.