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Q&A: Gabe Rosen on Biwa's 'Health and Wellness' Charge

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Photo of Gabe Rosen courtesy Avila/EPDX

Two weeks ago, diners at Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz's southeast spot Biwa started receiving a notice with their checks (above), announcing Rosen and Voelz's adoption of a five percent "health and wellness charge" to help supplement employee health insurance — famously a rarity in the restaurant industry. "Too many times we'd lose a staff person because they'd break their ankle and have to move back in with their parents; people had crazy surgeries that they had to pay for out of pocket," Rosen says. "To see it over and over again, it seems insane. And we realized that we could do something about that."

According to Rosen, nearly all of Biwa's 20+ employees are covered by the restaurant's health insurance. "When we were looking at insurance this year, we figured the price is probably going to go up every year; [but] it's pretty expensive," Rosen says. "It was kind of a big hit for us to do this." Rising insurance fees forced Rosen to have to raise prices, but like the somewhat controversial Healthy SF measure in San Francisco — which also tacks a health surcharge to the end of restaurant bills — Rosen says the surcharge is a way to make guests aware of where the extra money went. "We raised prices five percent across the board, and we wanted to do it in a way that was very transparent," Rosen says, "Where we could show the guests, 'This is what we're doing. This is important to us.' We'd like to see this replicated, honestly. It's crazy to me that nobody gets insurance in this business."

So with that idea of transparency in mind, have conversations happened with guests? Or have you gotten complaints?
Oh yeah, absolutely. All of that. We're close-in, in Southeast Portland, we realize that we were lucky and our clientele is overwhelmingly going to be in favor of this. And they overwhelmingly have. It's funny, the very first day we did it, we had the very first customer — three guys — and they were livid. Absolutely livid. And they tore into their waiter. The same waiter, about two hours later, had another guy who was just thoroughly offended. And the waiter, she was just defeated — it doesn't happen that much where these guys just get laid into by the guests — and immediately, she's thinking, "This is going to be terrible."

We haven't really had a complaint since, to be honest. It was interesting getting the first couple [complaints] — I was kind of naive and didn't realize it's a little more politically loaded than I thought it would be; I didn't really think about that part. The people that complained, their argument was, "This is bullshit, we shouldn't have to pay for this. You should pay for it and you just need to raise prices." That's exactly what we did. We raised prices five percent.

But do guests get a head's up about the charge before the bill arrives?
We thought about that up-front. After we got a couple complaints, there's definitely been an ongoing dialogue about how to approach this here. And we kind of decided, it is written on the menu [the way that] corkage [fees] and large-party gratuities are written on the menu. And we thought making too big a deal of it would diminish the dining experience; to have a big sign or warning when people sit down. Our average check is $26 a person. Five percent of $26 is $1.25 — to an individual guest, what I would hope is an insignificant amount of money. It's the way it accrues here and what it lets us do that makes it valuable.

Is the charge having an effect on tips?
It's not. We were lucky; we had buy-ins from the waitstaff immediately, and it was a concern that tips would go down. But they haven't at all. We've tracked it carefully, and they've stayed exactly the same.

So have you gotten feedback from other industry folks?
I definitely talk to a lot of folks in the biz, a lot of people who do what Kina and I do, that think it's real neat. And have expressed enthusiasm for what we're doing and what it'll hopefully allow more people to do in the future. As I see it, it's a pretty straightforward thing. We were going to insure the staff one way or another, and we just decided we wanted to be a little more vocal about it to bring attention to the fact that restaurants are a valued commodity here; it's tourist season in town. The more I think about it, and have the livelihoods of staff to worry about, it seems unfortunate that folks don't have insurance.
· Biwa [Official site]
· All Previous Biwa Coverage [Eater PDX]