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Chicago Lawmakers Don’t Know What’s Best for Restaurants

Kimski chef Won Kim opposes the measure to eliminate the sub-minimum wage

The exterior of a modern restaurant with a dark facade, colorful sign, and a rectangular window.
Won Kim is chef of Kimski in Bridgeport.
Kimski/Aron Gent

There’s no update on if and when aldermen will vote on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers from $6.40 per hour to the standard minimum wage of $13 per hour in Chicago. Alderman (4th) Sophia King introduced a proposal in September that would raise that wage and eliminate the so-called tip credit restaurant and bar owners use to make up the difference. The restaurant lobby in Chicago, led by the Illinois Restaurant Association, has opposed the measure, arguing small businesses can’t afford an increase in expenses. Pro-labor activists support the proposal, arguing workers deserve more money and shouldn’t have to depend on tips.

State lawmakers in California, Washington, Minnesota, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana have already eliminated tip credits. New York City has done the same. On October 24, the owners of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale wrote an op-ed showing their support for the proposed ordinance. In a related move, Mayor Lori Lightfoot later in October said she was in favor increasing the standard minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021.

Like HBFC, Kimski is a counter-service restaurant. Won Kim, the chef at the Bridgeport Korean-Polish restaurant, has made Kimski into a pop-up incubator for up-and-coming chefs. Kimski is part of Maria’s Community Bar, the beloved packaged goods bar with first-rate craft beer. Kim also paints artwork for his friends’s restaurants, and DJs. His words on the proposed ordinance, edited for clarity, are below.

When Kimski opened almost four years ago in Bridgeport, I wanted to develop a model to pay a decent hourly wage on top of tips while maintaining an approachable price point for our community. We know not everyone is a stellar tipper, but the tips help out tremendously and reward great service and work. There’s incentive for our employees to want to be hospitable.

Sure, there are studies and statistics to favor a $15-per-hour wage which will “stimulate” the economy and solve all economic issues. We were told this would be true when the hourly wage was $10.50 per hour and again at $12 per hour. Today, I can only share my personal experiences with a small team of eight in the back of the house and five to seven front of the house that are paid $13 per hour with shared tips. This system works for us. Our experience is specific to our South Side neighborhood where customer tendencies are unique versus the rest of the city. It’s also where North Side customers want a pat on their back for making that jarring six-mile commute while journeying south of Roosevelt Road.

I want everyone to have a livable wage and to be able to live comfortably working in this industry, but this situation should be handled individually for each specific business. Some models work well and have for decades. Why fuck it up all of a sudden because out-of-touch legislators think they know what a living wage is? For as many businesses that thrive under the current model, there are as many small businesses that have failed. I’m talking about the restaurants that aren’t featured on any listicles, on TV, or don’t garner hype — the mom and pops of this world who don’t give a shit about Marcus Samuelsson visiting their establishment.

Kimski is taxed annually on our catering license, business license, and liquor license. We’re taxed on daily transactions, tips, employee paychecks — this list goes on and on, right into a new proposal to double taxes on food and beverage. This is before we even delve into menu costs. The stereotype that restaurants and bars don’t make money exists for a reason. It’s not just food we have to pay for.

Have you seen the public backlash on attaching a small 3-percent increase for health care and benefits for restaurant employees on receipts? Now that some restaurants have figured out how to provide this amazing boon to its employees and price food accordingly, how are they going to raise their prices again to accommodate the increased $15-per-hour wage? I don’t personally know what’s best for the city, but I sure as hell don’t want anyone speaking on our behalf when they don’t know what our operation costs are. These expenses can change at the drop of a dime if our electricity goes out, a cooler stops working, or inclement weather strikes.

Kimski is casual dining. In the world of pricey fine dining, it’s already understood that dinner will cost you your rent check. Any additional taxes or fees on top of that $350 tab aren’t big deals when spending that large amount. That’s different for the rest of us not serving fancy prix-fixe meals. You really think people will be prone to tip once they see the increased prices?

Consumer perceptions on dining are just so varied. We can scream till we’re blue in the face about how we source good ingredients, support local farms, grow our own herbs, and make sure we get happy animals. At the end of the day, the average customer just doesn’t give a fuck. We use biodegradable to-go containers with starch lids and starch cutlery that are not cheap. Have customers ever asked us about it? No. Our carbon footprint is low, we pay to compost, we do charity events. We do everything a restaurant is supposed to do on top of paying property taxes and rent.

We live in this weird food bubble where the participants expect the public to know all of this information. The fact is that they just don’t care. There are always a few exceptions, but that can be said of almost anything. Why is it that we have always sat back while so many of these same lawmakers get to decide how to run our business? I understand that there are inequalities and crappily run institutions, but that’ll happen no matter the law.

Giants like McDonald’s and Burger King can afford the measure. It’s harder for an independent like Kimski. This current model works for us and it’s what brings our customers back. I am against this new proposed law. If eliminating the tip credit works for you and your employees and they’re ready to plan their vacations around this new hourly wage, by all means do your thing. Just don’t tell me that my employees are going to be on that same boat. You don’t know us and you definitely don’t know Bridgeport.


954-960 West 31st Street, , IL 60608 (773) 823-7336