Monday, May 20

How changes to the minimum wage affect tipped workers and diners

More than a year into the experiment, the city — where food service, including a wide range of independent restaurants, is the third-largest sector of the local economy — is still torn. Trupti Patel, a waitress, said she has received death threats for openly advocating for an end to the minimum wage, and is still harassed. Another server who voted for the change, Britt Lucas, said she also doesn’t talk to some people today because they disagree on the issue.

It’s still unclear how exactly the restaurant industry will fare as the city slowly increases tipping to meet the standard minimum wage by 2027. But after interviewing more than 25 owners, chefs, workers and diners, we can offer some insights into how the policy, known as Initiative 82, is working so far:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of restaurants in Washington has actually grown: to 3,472 last year, from 3,307 in 2022. And new ones continue to open; according to Yelp, there were 283 openings in 2023, compared to 254 the previous year.

But many owners still fear that as tipped wages rise, the additional expenses will drive them into bankruptcy. Rick Allison, who operates several restaurants in the District, Virginia and Maryland, said labor costs at his King Street Oyster Bar in Washington were up 12% from a year ago. The fault lies with the initiative. In addition to rising rents and inflation, the impending wage increases are unsustainable, he said.

“People are going to close,” he said, adding, “My next restaurant is in Virginia.”

Chris Kennedy, co-owner of the Reliable Tavern bar, sees current challenges as short-term growing pains. “It’s going to be a tough few years in Washington, but we will find our way.”