Who Ordered ‘Health and Wellness’ for Dinner?

This Portland restaurant is funding employee health care and bonuses with a 5 percent surcharge on all checks.
A few extra bucks on every check means health insurance and higher earnings for Biwa's non-tipped workers.
(Photo: Getty)
Aug 27, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the TV show Portlandia,” Gabe Rosen, chef-owner of the Portland restaurant Biwa, asked me during a telephone interview. “We live in that.”

And in a move that could potentially pass as a plot line in the sketch comedy show, Rosen and his business partner Kina Voelz introduced a new line-item charge on all checks at their Japanese spot on August 1: Diners now pay an additional five percent on their tab for employee “health and wellness.”

Continuing on his Portlandia train of thought, Rosen described the new program, which helps finance employee healthcare and quarterly bonuses for non-tipped workers, as Portlandia 2.0.

“Not so much that you know the name of the chicken that you’re eating or whatever,” he said, “but that you would kind of be involved in the lives of the people on the other end of your dinner, and maybe in a way that people aren’t necessarily used to—and not in a real touch-y, feel-y way. We kind of felt like, in a strange way, it enhances the dining experience.”

Biwa has been feeding residents of Lower Burnside since 2007, when Rosen and Voelz opened the restaurant with the intent to not only sell a lot of ramen and izakaya, but to provide healthcare for their employees too. Planning to provide benefits, a rarity in the restaurant world, was partly about developing a high-quality staff, according to Voelz, who cites “some obvious reasons,” for providing healthcare, “like greater productivity, less turnover, less re-training—that sort of thing.” But there’s that Portlandia-like impulse driving her too:

“But I think, also, in general, because we’re at work all the time, we work with our staff all of the time—we see them, we know and we like them, and we want them to be happy in their jobs and their lives. So we prioritize spending money on staff over just about anything else. They do the bulk of the work, so we really think that’s where the resources should go. We’ve designed a restaurant and a menu and a service experience that let’s us do that.”

It took until 2011 for them to achieve the goal of providing healthcare; each employee got a high-deductible plan, the premium completely covered by Biwa, with the option to buy more expensive coverage. But it wasn’t enough.

“We just got to thinking about the issue—partially because health insurance costs are going up—but mostly because we just think it’s really crazy that in a town like Portland, where restaurants, independent restaurants, are kind of this lauded thing, and they’re a tourist attraction and all of this,” Rosen said. “But we didn’t think enough attention was paid to this whole sort of important sector of our community and how kinda crappy some of the jobs in it are.”

The health and wellness charge is geared toward changing that. The five percent surcharge is deposited into a separate bank account, and health insurance premiums are now paid out of that fund. The money that’s left over will go toward quarterly bonuses for line cooks and dishwasher—additional money that Rosen estimates could shake out to equal a 10 or 15 percent increase in hourly wages for these non-tipped employees.

“We’re partly making the case that, if you make 10 to 13 dollars an hour as a line cook—depending on your experience—here in the Portland area, that still doesn’t quite cut it for people that are trying to save money or want a family or want to buy a house—whatever it might be,” says Voelz. Despite its progressive image, Portland has no municipal living wage ordinance. Oregon’s state government bumped the minimum wage to $8.95 at the beginning of the year.

In 2007, the year that Biwa opened, San Francisco passed a city healthcare mandate that required business with more than 20 employees to set aside money for worker insurance programs. When the law went into effect in 2008, the restaurant industry, with its notoriously thin margins, passed the burden along to customers. Some establishments charged a flat fee on each check, while others used a percentage model similar to Biwa’s. Earlier this year, the city sued a group of nearly 100 restaurants for pocketing that money—as much as $9 million that was supposed to be earmarked for employee healthcare. Many of the restaurants ended up taking a settlement deal from City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Choosing, as a business, to adopt a similar plan (Biwa has less than 50 employees and therefore will not be required to provide healthcare when Obamacare goes into effect) appears to be less problematic. While the health and wellness charge is not even a month old, Voelz makes it clear that the program didn’t come out of nowhere.

“This isn’t something that Gabe and I just dreamed up and decided to implement in a vacuum. This is something that we discussed extensively with our staff beforehand,” she says. Rosen added that they wanted to “make sure it’s not a terrible idea” before implementing the charge.

So listen up, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen: Gabe Rosen has your next Portland restaurant trend to lovingly mock. He jokingly described Biwa’s new model as “Farm to table to dishwasher to Sunday soccer match.”