All photos Laura Hayes
All photos Laura Hayes

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Update: The “2026” pop-up is now planned for June 11-13 from 7 pm. to 1 a.m.

Florida Avenue Grill served a buffet of sausage, eggs, and pancakes for $15 Sunday morning. The price wasn’t arbitrary. Should voters pass Initiative 77 on June 19, $15 will be the new minimum wage for tipped workers by July 2025. Voters will decide whether to eliminate the tip credit, which currently permits employers to pay tipped workers a base wage of $3.33 plus tips.

This wage allows restaurants to keep costs down and fully staff a team of employees by essentially asking customers to foot their labor costs. If tips do not carry a tipped worker over the standard minimum wage, the employer is already obligated by law to make up the difference. All but seven U.S. states have a tip credit.

The “Dine-In” at Florida Avenue Grill was organized by Gregory Cendana, who supports the passage of 77 and identifies himself as a concerned diner who has been a tipped worker. Cendana became incensed when more than 100 local restaurant operators signed a letter asking voters to vote no on 77 earlier this month.

“Our initial reaction was to boycott them, but then I realized it will only hurt the people we’re trying to support, the tipped worker,” Cendana says. “I decided to take a different approach by supporting ‘high-road employers’ who care about their employees and restaurant workers across the entire industry.” 

The small crowd had dwindled to about 20 people once it was time for Candana to make remarks along with Imar Hutchins, who owns Florida Avenue Grill, and Monica Weeks, manager of the One Fair Wage campaign that Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is running. ROC is the organization that collected enough signatures to get 77 on the ballot. 

Several Dine-In attendees were affiliated with ROC, including ROC-DC Director Diana Ramirez and Trupti Patel, a tipped worker and ROC member.

In his remarks, Hutchins talked about tipping being a legacy of slavery. Florida Avenue Grill is one of the oldest, continuously operating African-American-owned restaurant in the U.S. When City Paper interviewed Hutchins last month, this was also his focus. “Even if it doesn’t affect you, there are people that it effects,” he says. “I don’t think there should be two sides.” 

Race is a recurring theme in the battle over 77. On May 7, a town hall-style meeting hosted by the D.C. chapter of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild at The Midlands Beer Garden got heated. Speakers from each side attended the event. Patel, Ramirez, and Jessica Wynter Martin represented ROC. Only Patel said she currently worked in a bar or restaurant. Christine Kim from Service Bar DC, Ryan Aston from The Hamilton, and Frank Mills from Jack Rose Dining Saloon spoke as tipped bartenders who oppose 77.

Mills is African American and was the most vocal arguing against 77 at the event. At one point, Wynter Martin, who is also African American, argued that, “There always have been and always will be black people, people of color that will fight against the things trying to serve them.” The event was live-streamed on Facebook. Several in attendance accused Wynter Martin of using incendiary racial language and called for her to be barred from speaking at future engagements. 

Tipped workers wearing Save Our Tips buttons

The opposition, including Mills, showed up at the Dine-In on Sunday. He and a handful of others wearing “Save Our Tips” buttons conversed with a server and a bartender who both say they’ve suffered wage theft. Mills said better enforcement should be a goal. “There should be a change,” he said. “Legislation that states this is how we’re going to go about thismaking sure people get compensated for their work and taking care of what we already have in place.”

Mills took issue with the accuracy of the politically-motivated pricing of the event. He noted that the $15 buffet cost, which only included the price of food and sales tax, didn’t accurately account for changes operators will have to make to cover increased labor costs if 77 passes. “The establishment would have to produce 33 percent more revenue annually just to break even,” he says. 

Maria Barry, a Tin Shop restaurant group employee who works on the Save Our Tips campaign, explains that the bill should be closer to $22. Working with 33 percent, Florida Avenue Grill would have to add an additional $5.25 plus a fatter sales tax figure.

“They’ll have to increase food prices and implement a service charge to make ends meet,” she says. “If it’s $22, are people going to tip on that? And what kind of tip will they leave? If an omelette at a diner costs $12 today, at what point are we just going to be like, ‘I’m just going to make eggs at home?’”

Meanwhile, opponents of 77 are planning an event of their own that they hope will better inform voters of what dining out will be like if 77 passes. A pop-up dubbed “2026” will be held in The Armory bar in the basement of Rebellion at 1836 18th St. NW from June 11-13 from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.

“It’s a future dystopia showing the effects of this harmful initiative,” says Aston, who is organizing the event with Rebellion partner Travis Weiss, Mills, The Riggsby bartender Zac Hoffman, and others. 

The year 2026 is when the wages of tipped workers would have to equal the minimum wage of all other employees if 77 passes. The pop-up is open to the public and organizers hope ordering off a menu with swollen prices will leave a lasting impression. “I want them to realize what the effects will be not just on our lives, but their lives too,” Aston says. 

Weiss calculated what they’d have to charge per drink and per burger based on a month’s payroll at his other restaurant, The Commodore. “I made everyone $15 that wasn’t at $15 and raised other employees up incrementally,” he says. “What people don’t realize is that if a dishwasher makes $15, your line cook isn’t going to stand for that.” 

In his model, the payroll cost for two weeks jumped from $7,770 to $11,637 including all hourly employees, management, and the restaurant’s operating fee. Weiss and his partners don’t own The Commodore outright, they’re considered the restaurant’s operators. “It increased our payroll by 49.77 percent,” Weiss says. That’s the percentage he worked with when calculating prices for the pop-up. Their flagship burger will cost about $22.50 instead of $15. A Buffalo Trace Old Fashioned will cost $15 instead of $10. 

“Now you’re paying $42,” Weiss concludes, adding up the cost of the burger and cocktail. “How would you tip? That’ll be the toughest part. When the sticker shock sets in.” 

Aston explains that they’ll also be operating a “skeleton crew” at the pop-up to symbolize the labor cuts that they believe bars and restaurants would have to make if 77 passes. The cocktail list will be “slightly provocative,” according to Aston. “One of them is the ‘Uncle Tom Collins,’” he says. The drink is a nod to the event where Wynter Martin addressed Mills. “They came after us. They were mean to my friend. You don’t get to be mean to my friend.” 

Mayor Muriel Bowser and the majority of the DC Council have come out in opposition against 77. As has The Washington Post editorial board