How this top Brooklyn restaurant is able to pay teams more than industry average

How this top Brooklyn restaurant is able to pay teams more than industry average
D. J. Costantino

By D. J. Costantino

Eric Huang was born into the restaurant industry. His parents owned a Chinese restaurant in Queens, New York, and he felt like it was where he belonged. He started cooking professionally in college in some of New York City's most prestigious restaurants: Cafe Boulud, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison Park. When the pandemic forced restaurant shutdowns, Huang turned his uncle's Fresh Meadows restaurant, Peking House, into a fried chicken popup, also called Pecking House, albeit with a spelling variation. He joined us on the Pre-Shift Podcast to tell us about his new restaurant, paying fair wages, and how he feels about tipping.

"We just were thinking about ways to do something and try to keep the lights on so I started frying chicken, delivering it around the city, and here we are. I never really expected this to be a thing. I worked in fine dining for so long, I thought my career was always going to be in fine dining, and I'm not saying that I'm completely... That I'll never enter that world again, but for now, obviously it's not something I'm terribly focused on. But yeah, I always thought I was going to open a restaurant that was aspiring to have Michelin stars, and obviously we view that entire system very differently now after the pandemic.

But once I saw how meaningful this little fried chicken operation was to people, and I know this sounds cheesy, but for New Yorkers who were locked in their apartments, which is exactly where we're not supposed to be, having a meal that was special and tasty and delivered to you with care and hospitality, the feedback was incredible. Getting messages and emails about how much it meant to them, how much of a morale boost it was for them, how much they enjoyed it. So like I was saying, as cheesy as it sounds, it gets you back to your roots of cooking where you're like, "Oh yeah, cooking is about making people happy." It's about feeding people, nurturing people. So once we really saw how much of an impact this was on people and how fun it was and how rewarding it was, we decided, let's make this a real thing. Let's open a brick and mortar. So yeah, that was probably about six months in, six to eight months in."

During the process of opening the brick and mortar, Huang had the opportunity to start from scratch. He drew on his experience in fine dining, an all too common one of overwork and chasing perfection, and knew that he wanted to create a healthier work environment at Pecking House.

"Well, as we're all aware of now, especially in wake of certain TV shows like The Bear and movies like The Menu, fine dining culture is pretty messed up. It [can be] abusive, it's toxic, it's exploitative. There's a lot of problems with it. But if you rewind to 2009, 2008 when I started cooking, it was heavily glorified and still is in a lot of places, and was seen as the only really meaningful metric to measure your career by, in gastronomy and this obsession with the chef-celebrity, and the chef is God, an artist, and genius. So I worked in that for 10 years, and obviously it comes with a lot of exploitative practices and I talk about it in posts and when I can.

But my first fine dining job in New York City, which was brutal. I mean, I was making $9 an hour and had managers look me in the face, be like, "Okay, it's time to go clock out and then get back to work." And thinking about that now in 2023, that's crazy. It's an immediate lawsuit. No one would ever do that. And just the general intensity, which I craved in a lot of ways, I think I wanted that, but just how abusive and unfair it was. I've worked through many illnesses, many injuries. Just to name a few, I had a heart condition when Eleven Madison Park won Best Restaurant in the World because it was so exacerbated by the stress. When we won Best Restaurant in the World, I was in the hospital with a cardiac, a heart procedure at the age of 30. I burned myself really badly on my arm when we reopened and I worked through it with the second degree burn. And while being on opioids, I still continue to work despite, I lied to my doctor about not working.

So just the entire culture was pretty broken, and I hope, I think we're starting to see that now. So even though I did want to open a fine dining restaurant, I by no means wanted to turn it around and treat people the way I was treated, I think most people have some degree of a sense of empathy where you don't want, I mean non-sociopathic people, at least we hope if you're treated very poorly, you don't want to turn it around and dump it right back onto the people you lead. So the goal was always to do better, to have mentorship and empathy and compassion in what we did. And obviously I'm not in fine dining anymore, but those are still pillars and tenets of what we try to do at Pecking House."

Huang wanted to do things differently. He was inspired by a chef residency that he did, Turntable at Lord Stanley in San Francisco, where he saw the tip sharing model in action.

"[Tipping] is an endless debate that causes a lot of big emotions. So for sure we wanted to treat people better, and there's both a practical and a human side to that. Obviously I wanted to treat people better, pay people better, and just do the right thing and make sure people could survive because as we all know, New York and pretty much everywhere in this country is becoming more and more unlivable by the day, so paying someone minimum wage is just really not realistic. And there's a practical side to it too, we want people to stick around. We don't want to constantly be churning and turning people over just like it is, it's designed that way in fine dining where you're supposed to have this constant influx of, for lack of a better term, naive, indoctrinated young men usually.

So there's a practical side to it too, but the elephant in the room being, there's all these tips here, what do we do with them? And our service model is very low-touch and it's very casual, and it's something that a high school student could do, which we have, we do hire high school students, and it's a good job for them. And obviously by traditional standards, they would get all these tips. And I'm not saying I don't want them to be paid well, but that would be a ridiculous amount of money for someone who's on an iPad and doing low levels of service and does not have a terrible amount of experience or training so we just tried to figure out how to do it differently.

I was very informed by an experience I had in California. I did a chef residency there, and then we were getting crushed. It was hard. It was really, really busy. And then midway through, I'm seeing all the cooks and hourly employees are pretty cheerful about it though, which was not the case in my career. We were so salty about getting crushed at doing 300 covers and seeing zero, not even a penny more for it. And I was like, "What's going on here?" And then I found out they were all tipped, and I was like, "Oh, well." Even if it's not a big portion of the tip pool, just the mentality of you're participating in the holistic success of the restaurant, you're getting some degree of reward for the amount of difficulty and stress you're going through. It's a huge mentality shift and I thought it was really meaningful.

So we stopped to figure out how to do that in New York. And unfortunately, New York is one of the few places in the country that makes it really, really difficult as you can imagine. So there's a lot of workarounds, and it really starts from the very beginning about how you design your restaurant, which is why I talk about this model. And I think it's really worked for us, and I really, really like it. I don't see a world where I would go back to doing it in a traditional way so to speak, but it is not something you can just retrofit onto a traditional restaurant by any means so I'm empathetic to that."

It was that formative experience that helped create the service model at Pecking House, counter-service, where the lines between front and back of house are intentionally blurred.

"So it's a counter-service restaurant. You go up to a counter, there's someone working in a terminal there, they'll take your order, you tap to pay, use your credit card, whatever, and then you grab a seat, there's no reservations. Whoever orders first sits first, we'll bring you drinks, we'll bring you food, we'll answer your questions, we'll help clear your table but that's really it. No one's coming to your table to take your order, to talk to you. We'd obviously talk to our guests and we like that, but there's no heavily invested server-table relationship there is in a traditional restaurant. And then for the most part, the kitchen runs your food and they help clear your table and they help set up the dining room like that.

And the roles are purposely blended and made as maybe, I mean, I don't know what the right term is here, but maybe perhaps ill-defined and breaking traditional front of house, back of house rules as much as possible to foster a team culture and then make it clear that no one person is responsible for this guest experience, so that's a huge part of it. And obviously there are critics, there are people who don't like it, and there are people who don't think it deserves any gratuity whatsoever. And obviously we're a low-price point restaurant, so there's that as well. But some people really enjoy it. And for the most part, I think people in the hospitality industry really like it."

Now, there is something to be said about tips.

"Unfortunately, we do flip the screen towards you, whichever I get that comment all the time. "Oh, how dare you flip a screen at me." I'm like, "Sorry." I wish, if you had 20 minutes, I can explain to you why tipping's fucking stupid in this country and why it's not going anywhere. But we flip a window towards you, you don't have to tip, there's always the option to say none and then there's a percentage breakdown. I can't remember exactly, I want to say 18%, 20%, 22% of your check. I don't have the numbers on me exactly at hand, but I would say in general, we have a tip average of 17% to 18% on a $30 check average.

Obviously that means some people tip, there's plenty of people that do not tip, we do not pressure you in any sort of way other than flipping the screen around. And then yeah, they're pooled and divided across the entire team evenly. There's no point system, and obviously there's arguments to be made for and against that, but that's just how we do it, we keep it simple, and so far it seems to be working and people are happy with it. I'm sure we will encounter more obstacles as we go on, but for now I'm happy with it."

Pecking House does make it very clear to guests, however, that the tips are shared amongst the entire team.

"We advertise broadly that we're an equitable tipping restaurant. There's a sign right there in front of the register, all your tips are split amongst the entire team, we appreciate any gratuity you want to add. There's absolutely no pressure. And with all our employees, we make it very clear before they sign on, "Hey, this is how it works," and it's either for you or it's not, but this is how it works. So I think everyone seems to be pretty okay with it, but I'm sure there are always people who want to contest and be contrarian and stir the pot."

In a perfect world, Huang wouldn't ask for tips at all, but he recognizes that it's a systemic change that needs to happen in order for employees to be paid a living wage.

"There are many people, not myself and not just myself, who have tried to eliminate tipping and who have tried to fix this broken system. It's not like this is some extremely lucrative and fair system that people are really ecstatic about. I mean, everybody as you examine it, realized it's a broken system with centuries of problems attached to it. But the way food works in this country and what people expect to pay for food it's not like, oh, you can just eliminate tipping and then everything's okay. You'd have to eliminate tipping and then raise all your menu prices. And then you'd have to try to explain to your customers, this is why my menu prices are higher.

And we all know that's not how modern society works. People don't read the fine print. People don't take the time to understand the issue a lot of the time. I'm guilty as well, I'm not casting judgment on anyone. So all they see is the sticker shock. They look at a menu and be like, "Holy shit, why is this $5, $10 more expensive than this place that's doing it two blocks away?" Very similarly. And New York's an ultra-competitive place with ultra slim margins. So who's going to be the first person to do that? Who's going to be the first person to put that much risk? And there's already precedent for people trying it. As I called it, titans of the industry, Shake Shack, Momofuku, USHG, who have tried this and it doesn't work.

Everybody's walked it back. I'm not trying to detract. I think that's amazing that they tried, and I think it's really bold and I think it's really important and I'm really glad they did it. So there's no judgment here, but they walked it back because it didn't work. Nobody liked it, staff didn't like it, customers didn't like it, money behind the restaurant didn't like it. So that's the real issue because yes, there are people who are trying to be bold and do the right thing and try to fix this broken system, but you're putting yourself at great risk doing that."

Huang understands how hard it is to move on from tipping as the primary way that restaurant teams get paid, being so ingrained in the system for so long. And it's not for a lack of trying either.

"I mean, it's hard to point exactly to one or two things specifically, but I mean, this is how literally the entire restaurant industry in America has been built. And that's not something so easy to change. That would be like trying to change the entire country to go to metric, which we all know, yeah, we've read that and it doesn't fucking work. So unfortunately, that's how the entire system is built. So it would require an entire dismantling, some sort of intensely federal regulation which we can see we can get barely any federal regulation for anything or enforcement, a level of enforcement. So it's just baked into the system.

I would say in my opinion, the biggest proponent is your average customer base. And that's not to shame any customers but, myself included, we have been accustomed to artificially cheap food in this country for centuries because the uncomfortable truth is that this entire industry was predicated upon the disadvantaged minorities, disenfranchised communities, Black, immigrant, whatever. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant, everybody expects Chinese food to be cheap. And it's the uncomfortable truth there being that it's cheap because you're paying for extremely cheap labor of immigrants who have no choice. So everybody's used to that, and so now trying to move the needle on it, I could show you my Instagram inbox, it's not easy. There's a lot of comments about how expensive it is and how difficult it is, and that's with tipping. Now, if I eliminated tipping and I still wanted to pay my staff the living wage, minimum wage that I do, everything would probably have to go up by at least $4 or $5."

At Pecking House, they're making strides in being able to provide better pay for the team. There are a few main ways they're able to do this: their service model and attention to food costs.

"I think the low-touch service model is a big one. I think being smart about food usage is a big one. I mean, I think fine dining is obviously very important if you consider cooking to be an art form for advancing the art form, being on the cutting edge of that, so to speak. But what it was was a huge abundance of labor and resources. The amount of food fine dining wastes, I think is something I think we're only lightly aware of, I'm deeply aware of. So I think we're very smart and tight about food management and all that. But yeah, the low-touch service model is a huge part of it as well. What makes it work for us is that we're a counter-service restaurant where the kitchen is open and they're involved in service and such. You can't just change the way a restaurant is laid out overnight. And even if you did, it's all of a sudden completely changing how everything works."

Huang is putting in the work at Pecking House to move the hospitality industry forward, away from tipping and towards more equitable wages for staff. It's a far cry from the restaurants he cut his teeth cooking in, but now that he's on the other side, there's no looking back.

"It is a job, we're providing a living for people, and that shifts how you approach it. You want people to have obviously a livable wage, you want to treat them well, and you want to create a culture where, yeah, there are standards and there's a pursuit of excellence, but not at the expense of your humanity, which is how so much of fine dining was run, and still is forever and ever. It's that the standards come before anything going on with yourself. So I think it seems to be working, the retention's quite good. People seem to be pretty happy with it. Obviously, we're hiring a very different kind of cook than the one I'm used to working for.

There is this kind of weird, I wouldn't say weird, but at least for the first time in my career where there's maybe the contentious aspects of socialism/communism where everybody is sharing equally in the means of production and the rewards of production. And so if there are people who are not carrying their weight, there is definitely some different kinds of frustration with that. So maybe it changes the way we manage things and how we lay out expectations for people. But that's still a part of the learning process. But overall, I would say it's a lot better and I've really enjoyed it and it seems people are happy, or as happy as people are, can be working your ass off in New York. So I couldn't really picture going back to doing it a different way. Or the old way."

Reinventing the way restaurant teams work

Simple to set up, easy to use. Give your restaurant the team management tools they need to be successful. Start your free trial today.

Start free trial

No credit card required
D. J. Costantino
D. J. Costantino

Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and have a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!