Food & Drink

Cooks at Ashley Christensen’s new pizzeria will earn a bigger piece of the pie

Chef Ashley Christensen talks about bringing home the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country

Raleigh's Ashley Christensen sees the James Beard Award as an opportunity to push the field to be the best it can possibly be.
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Raleigh's Ashley Christensen sees the James Beard Award as an opportunity to push the field to be the best it can possibly be.

Something experimental is in the works at Poole’side Pies, but it has nothing to do with blistered pizza crusts or a devotion to Aperol spritz.

Chef Ashley Christensen’s latest restaurant will open this month next to her flagship restaurant, Poole’s Diner. As the wood-fired oven is fired up, the James Beard Award-winning chef is trying out a new pay model aimed at closing the wage gap between cooks and servers.

While servers typically make a nominal hourly wage, they historically take home much more in tips. Back-of-the-house employees make higher hourly wages, at least minimum wage, but often less than the tipped front-of-the-house.

Poole’side isn’t doing away with tipping, but it is tipping the wage scales. Cooks at the pizzeria will make at least $11.50 an hour starting out, and servers will make $7.25. But the kitchen will be tipped out of a pool, along with servers, bartenders and hosts. The pool will go 87 percent to servers and bartenders, 10 percent to cooks and 3 percent to hosts.

“Ashley continues to push for how we can holistically make this industry better,” said Kait Goalen, executive director of AC Restaurants, who is also married to Christensen, in an interview earlier this summer.

“Nothing changes on the guest side, which we thought was important,” Goalen said. “One of the biggest gripes with changing gratuity includes changing the experience for the guests. We wanted to start with this investment on the company’s end.”

Some states, including North Carolina, don’t allow traditionally untipped workers, such as cooks, to share in tip pools. But because Poole’side pays all workers at least the minimum wage, the restaurant can tip out all non-managerial employees.

The new pay model will start at Poole’side, but could move to the other AC Restaurants if successful, Goalen said. Fine dining Death & Taxes would be next, before moving on to larger staffs, such as Beasley’s. AC Restaurants also includes Chuck’s, a burger restaurant, Fox Liquor and The Bridge Club event space.

“We thought starting with a clean slate was important, to start from scratch rather than adjusting in real time with a staff,” Goalen said. “We take it very seriously, any change to people’s livelihood. We’re very cognizant of that, and have to be careful about making those changes.”

The wage gap between servers and cooks can make it hard to keep kitchen workers long-term, Goalen said, but it also represents a disconnect in the dining experience, that one part of service is more important than another. In coming closer to a balance, Goalen hopes the entire staff finds more support in one another.

“It’s important to us to unite the service and kitchen team,” Goalen said. “They’re not just accountable to the diners, they’re accountable to each other.”

Goalen anticipates the new model will bump cooks’ wages to more than $14 an hour.

Over the past decade, Ashley Christensen has made her mark on Raleigh through fine dining experiences that evoke a sense of comfort and community. She continues to use her platform as a local restaurateur to foster a food community.

Restaurant industry pay scales

Equitable wages seems to be a question the restaurant industry is grappling with from multiple angles. In the Triangle, many restaurants meet “living wage” standards, paying between $14 and $15 per hour. Monuts in Durham appears to be a local leader, posting on Instagram recently that all employees make at least $15.

Elsewhere, Rose’s Noodles & Dumplings adds a service charge for employees’ retirement accounts, and Panciutto in Hillsborough has a 4 percent service charge for non-tipped workers.

Some restaurants have cut out tipping altogether, most famously Gramercy Tavern in New York, owned by Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer.

Goalen said the tipping question is just one piece of a larger conversation going on in restaurants across the country — the issue of making hospitality a sustainable career, instead of a stopover to something else.

“Kitchen staffing is a crisis in almost every major city I know of,” Goalen said. “That’s an indication that we need to do something about that lifestyle to make this a more sustainable career. Wages are part of that.”

James Beard winner

Earlier this year, Christensen took home the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, arguably the industry’s top annual honor. As the number of eyes looking to the Raleigh chef continues to grow nationally, so will the influence of her restaurants. Christensen already has been recognized using her voice to advocate for equal rights and stopping harassment in the industry.

“I think she (and we, as a company) have felt the responsibility for a long time,” Goalen said in an email. “The more we grow, the more we’ve realized how much opportunity there is to do things a little bit better, a little bit kinder, with an eye for longevity in this industry.

“And we continue to have so many amazing people that work with us — our most important job is figuring out how to make their work more fulfilling. The award has provided the ability to amplify the things that matter to us, but it didn’t light the fire, so to speak.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.