SMALL BUSINESS FOCUS: ALICE’S TEA CUP

alices tea

By Carol Tannenhauser

“Do you still have fairy dust?” a pair of schoolgirls asked Lauren Fox, co-owner, with her sister, Haley Fox, of Alice’s Tea Cup, 102 West 73rd Street, a tea room and restaurant inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (“not the Disney version,” Haley is quick to say.)

“Of course we do,” Lauren replied, reaching for a glass bowl and brush. “Make a wish,” she said, dusting the girls with glitter. “Me, too,” said this reporter, who, when duly dusted, wished for the words to convey the charm of the place, the bond of the sisters, and the reasons Alice’s Tea Cup will soon become a no-tipping restaurant, raising its prices on most menu items by 15%.

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Lauren and Haley Fox at Alice’s Tea Cup.

“We’re moving from regular payroll and tips – the system as it’s been working since the dark ages – to a revenue-share model,” Haley Fox said, over tea and scones at Alice’s, last week. General Manager Jonathan Mello explained: “The concept is to have hospitality included in the prices on your menu. All the services you receive, from the time you walk in the door till the time you leave – the people who greet you, the people who make your food, the people who serve your food, the people who take your plates from the table, make your tea and coffee, wash your dishes – all that is included in the price you pay for the items on the menu. This allows us to allocate the money in a fairer way.”

The sisters’ decision to join the national movement to eliminate tipping in American restaurants, spearheaded by NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer, of Union Square Hospitality Group, was set in motion by the increase in New York State’s minimum wage. In 2017, non-tipped workers went from $9.50 an hour to $11. Tipped workers went from $5 to $7.50 – a 50% raise. In 2018, the minimum wage for tipped workers will rise to $8.70 and, in 2019, to $10. For non-tipped workers, it will go to $13 and $15 an hour. “Rising wages gave us the incentive to look at the way everything is structured in terms of pay,” Lauren said. “We realized the discrepancies were great.”

The way it works now, when a tip is left at a table, it goes to the server, who must “tip out” set percentages to his or her busser and barista. “Servers can add on, and often do,” Haley said. “We have one cook who works incredibly hard. He’s a non-tipped worker. When he’s busier, he makes no more money. The dishwasher and the host make no more money. But the tipped workers make a lot more money. This is about getting your money to all the people who help create the experience for you. It will be accomplished by giving each worker a percentage of the revenue, on top of a base salary.”

Before moving forward, Haley and Lauren presented the plan to their staff. Since opening on the Upper West Side 15 years ago, they have added two locations on the Upper East Side, for a total of 73 employees. “They set up a really good meeting with us,” said Alice Lefae, a host at the UWS location – and the artist responsible for the paintings and quotations from Carroll’s classic on the walls. Many of Alice’s employees are artists, including Lauren, who is an actor and singer. “They were very open and it was a very relaxed environment to hear about it,” Lefae said. “So, we weren’t like, ‘Oh my god, my pay is going to get messed up!’ I feel good about it. I trust Lauren and Haley. They’re good people to work for, so I’m not worried that they would do anything to hurt us.”

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There’s one more group to consider: customers. “Our fear is of that sticker-shock moment,” Haley said. “It’s going to take retraining your brain, because you look and say, ‘Oh, god, the price has gone up so much,’ and you might just turn away. But there’s no line for tips on the credit card bill. The message we need to get out is that customers are not spending any more money, and this is good for our staff, good for us, because it helps us hire and retain staff, and good for the Upper West Side, which we care about on so many levels.”

“This is our neighborhood,” Lauren said. “We were born and raised here. We’ve watched it change dramatically – first, for the better, but, now, it’s becoming more corporate, like the rest of New York City. Places like Café La Fortuna, Ouest, and Telepan – amazing mom-and-pop shops – have closed.” “When we were little,” Haley said, “there was an old-fashioned soda fountain called Sweet Cream on Columbus Avenue and 69th Street. Lauren and I were allowed to go around the corner to Sweet Cream by ourselves. Then, it went away. “We don’t want that to happen,” Lauren said. On the contrary, their goal is to build and, eventually, franchise their brand, serving as consultants and quality control for new Alice’s Tea Cups, outside New York City. “To do so, we must find ways to innovate and evolve,” Haley said. “We’re not a place that’s in fear of failing. We’re restructuring partly because we think all restaurants are going to have to, and partly because it’s the right thing to do.”

Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.

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West Side Rag is profiling small businesses, which are disappearing from the neighborhood at an alarming rate. Readers have sent in dozens of suggestions and we’ll be taking a look at several of them over the next few months. To read more in this series, click here.

If you have suggestions for other businesses we should profile, please email us.

Cash register photo by Franck Blais.

COLUMNS, FOOD | 19 comments | permalink
    1. wombatNYC says:

      I’m all for the change in the American restaurant world. Time we caught up with Global society. Service included !

    2. Brenda says:

      I love Alice’s but this piece feels more like a press release than an article.

    3. Denton says:

      Danny Meyer did not spearhead any anti-tipping movement, restaurants from Per Se to Dirt Candy were doing it long before

      • Woody says:

        Danny Meyer certainly did spearhead the movement. Simply being first doesn’t define spearheading.

    4. Woody says:

      Their reaction to the neighborhood becoming corporate is to build the business and then export their brand to neighborhoods outside NYC by franchising?

    5. Independent says:

      Delightful theme, I love Carroll’s Alice books. Do they have any 3D figures of any of the characters?

      The whole concept of tipping, at least as I have always understood it, was supposed to be to reward exceptionally good service or a special favor done. Making a tip mandatory in any way seems like a complete contradiction in terms. A mandatory gratuity is an oxymoron.

    6. lauren lese says:

      I like Alice’s but I have not felt the urge to go there lately and wonder if others have experienced what I have.
      They have an odd habit when you walk in. It doesn’t matter if there are tables available, they will tell you there is a wait. I have been told to wait and then 10 minutes later led to an empty table that was empty when I walked in. This has happened several times in recent months. Its the kind of off-put that might make me suspicious that there is some sort of bias going on except I don’t fit into any of the usual categories for prejudice. One reason I say this is that the request to wait is very unapologetic; almost as if the staff is secretly hoping we’ll just leave. Whats up with that? Must emphasize, I am NOT talking about a situation where it is crowded and there is a line or where “the whole party isn’t there” (a restaurant line that is irritating but that is another story).

      • Vince says:

        Lauren, I’ve had the same experience twice at Alice’s. I have not gone back ever since. There are many reasons for this to happen. The main reason is that it has to do with what is going on behind the scenes at the restaurant. Mainly, they simply cannot handle another table at that time. They would rather you waited for the table then sit you down and overwhelm their staff. They don’t want you leaving complaining about the slow service, they would rather you left saying there was a long wait to get a table. Another reason would be that the hostess is snooty and wants to give people the illusion that there’s a wait…but this is unlikely since we are talking about Alice, LOL. I wish them well with their new tip policy, but it will not work for them…they will see a decline in customers. We are talking about ALICE not a Danny Meyer restaurant. Forcing customers to tip is NOT a good idea.

        • Nani says:

          Excellent comment, Vince! I’ve had the same experience as you, being told by a snooty host that there was a 45 minute wait when they had an empty table. Now it makes sense. That’s why I have not gone back either.

      • vm says:

        I have had this experience at some other restaurants, too. Is the wait supposed to make us feel like we are waiting for something special? Going into an empty restaurant after waiting just makes me feel foolish.

        • Christine E says:

          Sometimes a restaurant is holding a table for a reservation, which if unclaimed can then be given to walk-ins.

    7. Mary says:

      I used to like to go to Alice’s for weekend brunch. But the last time I went, the menu was so limited, I will not return. The weekday breakfast is great, but who can go on weekdays? I wish they served “breakfast” foods on the weekends.

    8. karen weaver says:

      I like this idea and because Lauren and Haley’s workers trust in them, I think it sounds like it will work well. I have not yet visited Alice’s, but from what I have heard, the concept is creative and after all, you get what you pay for. I agree that other places will join in and do the same thing.

    9. Would occasional book readings, original poetry, story telling be useful?

    10. Liz says:

      I like the idea of “no tipping” if it means that all the workers get to share in those funds.

      I also think it is fairer to the waitstaff. Many times these folks, who relied on tips to supplement their income, would work really hard and find that the customers left no tip or a very meager tip at best.

      This option is fair to everybody.

    11. sjm says:

      Please add Golden Key Locksmith (Columbus bet 75-76) to your list. Avi is the best. He installed my locks when I moved to UWS in 1981. He’s been in the same tiny space all these years and providing great service. Always a hello and smile when we pass on the street. A true neighborhood fixture.

    12. Carolina says:

      ATC just had a big price jump and now they’re adding another 15% on top of that? I’d rather they make their portions smaller. Or give an option for a half portion. I always end up taking food home. I used to love bringing my niece here but that’s going to be impractical and out of my budget.

    13. Haley fox says:

      Hi, all who commented! This is Haley, one of the owners of Alice’s. First off, thank you for reading and for commenting. Truly. Now to the cmoments themselves:
      Thank you for your support!!
      IF you ever see seats being held, it is because either a party has been called and we are giving them up to ten minutes to come claim their table (which is a nicety we offer so people don’t have to stand around waiting) OR the hosts are waiting for the sever or kitchen to catch up if a bunch of tables have just been sat at once. Having said this, we appreciate this note and the misunderstanding – it obviously isn’t being communicated and may be being abused. In no way is this for a ‘snooty’ reason and that part will be addressed immediately (as will the communication part)!
      And lastly: PLEASE understand that this change will not cost the customer one more penny! Not one. This is an increase that will include less than would normally be added as gratuity by any and every diner. Our prices will ”bake in” that normally added gratuity and the customer will not have a gratuity line on their bill or credit card receipt – it won’t even be possible to tip. Please understand that this is the way businesses will have to go in order to offer a more equal wage to all employees and accommodate a changing business landscape.

      I say this for us and for all small and medium businesses: please allow yourselves to retrain your brain to look at more than just the sticker price – consider not only the total you spend normally (which will not change for the worse) but also that communities support local business so that local businesses can stay open; neighborhoods don’t just have cvs and at&t and banks; and every small business no matter how successful is just trying to stay afloat as customers want to spend less but expenses increase. We are lifelong upper Westsiders who care deeply about community and neighborhoods and the city as a whole. It’s important to all of us to understand what ALL small businesses struggle with in a City where we all went them to stay! We hope we can help people understand this struggle and that it will help all local, small and medium businesses, not just shed light on our own struggles or changes.

      Thank you for understanding!