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Restaurant owners, workers united in opposition to proposed wage change

Mike Desmond/WBFO

If restaurateurs and waitstaff agree on one thing, it's that replacing tips with a higher minimum wage is a bad idea.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has told the State Labor Department to look at doing away with tips in restaurants and replacing them with a higher wage. Both local sides in the debate met Monday in The Irishman Pub and Eatery in Williamsville to talk about the proposal.

Currently, a high percentage of waitstaff get a $7.50 an hour as a minimum, plus tips. Bar and restaurant owners estimate they are getting at least as much as their pay in tips and paying income taxes on that income.

Glen Park Tavern owner Ellie Grenauer says the governor's proposal is misguided and making those tips part of pay is way too expensive.
"I would love to give all my staff a $2 raise an hour, but we can't afford it. And if they keep hitting us with more increases, that it actually makes it much less fair on the back of house people who deserve that extra money," Grenauer said.

Sean Regan is president of the local chapter of the State Restaurant Association and general manager of the Consumer's Pub at the Park, the former Pettibone's. Regan says the higher minimum would be bad for business for everyone in the restaurant area because costs would rise.

"Maybe they're going downstairs and getting a hot dog instead of a larger meal in the restaurant. That takes profitability away from our restaurant. Now, we have the ballpark, so it's a little bit different than just the restaurant than other locations. But, it hurts everybody. I'll have less servers on. We won't have the business. I won't have to have as many servers working," Regan said.

Assemblyman Ray Walter, a Republican, says state legislators should have a say.

"The governor is completely avoiding the Legislature. He's cutting them completely out of the process and he's going right through the Department of Labor. You've heard from restaurant owners, but more importantly tipped workers, servers and bartenders who know that their income will be hurt by this. It's just a bad idea, a bad proposal, completely misguided," Walter said.

Schwabl's owner Cheryl Staychock and Head Waitress Cindy Olivieri also disagree with the proposal.

"When you give people good service, you expect a tip in return. And I think it'll be harder on employees because now, if you have to spend more to keep an employee, then I think if they cut the tip out of it. I feel that people aren't going to give good service," said Oliveri, who has worked 22 years as a waitress, 19 at Schwabl's.

Staychock started as a waitress before buying the West Seneca landmark, saying she did it with the money she made waiting tables. She says doing away with tips would ruin the job.

"Our customers would walk in the door and they would be just like another number. They aren't going to be nice. They don't have to be nice. They don't have to give of themselves, like my girls do now. My girls are the best of the best," Staychock said.

Customers of many area restaurants are being asked to sign petitions opposing the proposal.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.