Hospitality included: Bar Marco, The Livermore reign supreme
July 22, 2016
[Editor’s note: The Livermore closed its doors in East Liberty on September 30, 2017. Bar Marco remains a Strip District staple.]
Summer’s arrival has reintroduced some long-awaited luxuries in Pittsburgh: al-fresco dining, fruit-laden cocktails, barbecue everything. But something about the season feels different. In retrospect, our city’s had one hell of a year — on the food front, expressly.
Nationally, Zagat named Pittsburgh the No. 1 food city of 2015, prompting The New York Times to dissect “Pittsburgh’s youth-driven food boom.” In town, a new law upped food trucks’ metered parking allowance from 30 minutes to four hours. Meanwhile, waves of fresh restaurants rolled into the city, swiftly and surely, leaving in their wake a host of national accolades and masses of regional foodies asking one question: What’s next?
For the Strip District’s Bar Marco and its partner restaurant, East Liberty’s The Livermore, the past 12 months have shed light on a pivotal change that has turned heads and tides in equal parts.
We do not accept gratuity. Our kitchen and front-of-house teams are paid a salary. Our prices reflect this.
The policy surfaced in January 2015. Its announcement, headed by Bar Marco, made national headlines. Three months later, amid a local media frenzy, the independent eatery became the first in Pittsburgh to nix tips, raise menu prices, and better compensate employees with annual salaries. By June, The Livermore had followed suit. For employees, the adjustment meant fixed paychecks, health care benefits, and paid vacation time. For Pittsburgh, it was another groundbreaking step forward in a fast-evolving food culture.
Now, one year later, the transition has proven successful — not just for employees, but for restaurant patrons. “People get it,” says Andrew Heffner, private events coordinator and staff manager at both establishments. “[The policy] still requires all the same kind of work and management of staff. But we’re able to, in a sense, really more invest in the core team that we have, and therefore have less turnover than we used to, or than most restaurants have.”
Specifically, the new system provides fairer wages for back-of-house employees, who — by law — were never able to accept tips to begin with. “It’s a big change that we can pay better to our kitchen,” Heffner explains. “The way most restaurants are set up now — you can’t tip kitchens legally. So for us, there’s more transparency and a closer balance between front [of house] and back.”
Despite that the model appears to be growing nationally, many restaurants feel that the cons of dropping gratuity far outweigh the pros. The practice can be challenging for larger restaurants that require more employees, for example. Conversely, Heffner says it was a good fit for Bar Marco and The Livermore, which are modestly sized and staff “five to six workers per night, per restaurant.”
Certainly, there’s no universal way to predict whether a business will benefit from the elimination of a tipping system. But since Pittsburgh has seen two successful implementations of the policy, we should mention that these particular restaurants were successful out of the gate.
Though barely 5 years old, Bar Marco remains a critical piece of Pittsburgh’s dining renaissance. As one of the first in the city to focus on communal and European-style dining concepts, the upscale eatery opened in 2012 to widespread press, praise, and intrigue. The Livermore, much like its sibling, was still considered avant-garde at the time of its 2013 opening, emphasizing an intimate atmosphere with handcrafted cocktails and light Italian fare.
It’s no wonder that Pittsburgh has embraced a concept as foreign as an anti-tip restaurant: Our city’s entrepreneurs have a knack for pushing boundaries.
In East Liberty specifically, residents and regulars have grown accustomed to dramatic change. In light of the neighborhood’s ongoing redevelopment, The Livermore — which occupies the former Waffle Shop space on South Highland Avenue — has approached its own evolution mindfully.
Heffner says, “You leave behind some people if there’s not a thoughtful growth. We try to be aware of that in what we offer here … you can have some pasta and a glass of wine and roll out after 20 minutes, or you can stay for a long night and chill with your friends or whatever. We want it to feel comfortable to lots of people.”
With comfort as a primary goal, The Livermore is by all means succeeding. Its interior — conducive to both conversation and solo-dining — boasts original tile flooring and stained glass windows, and a custom bar made of wood from an abandoned bowling alley in Ohio. Especially welcoming is the restaurant’s adjacent event space, the Cloakroom, where nonprofits and startups without headquarters can host public gatherings, free of charge.
“Nonprofits always need a nice space to do events in, but maybe they’re priced out of other places,” Heffner says of the meeting place. “We don’t use it all the time, so we [can open it for] benefit happy hours and stuff.”
Community-driven practices are not uncommon in neighborly Pittsburgh. Still, they’re admirable. As our newly labeled “food town” adjusts to national recognition, spots like these remind us that, as a city, our hospitality’s been on-point for decades.