Owner, Peter Lowell’s Restaurant.

In the spring of ‘03, Lowell Sheldon had just finished college and was planning to move home to Sebastopol. He was cooking at a rustic Italian restaurant in Seattle when, over a glass of wine one evening after work, he started to bat around an idea: What if the time was right to start his own restaurant?

Photo: Caitlin McCaffrey

Sheldon’s dream, Peter Lowell’s restaurant in Sebastopol, is now in its eighth year of business. Together with a talented team of chefs, Peter Lowell’s says that, at its core, the restaurant is an expression of a passion for traditional Italian recipes and a desire to have a sustainable impact on Sonoma County. During the summer months, over 60 percent of the kitchen’s produce comes from the team’s own Two Belly Acres Farm. The restaurant describes itself as having a slightly off-kilter attitude towards business—one where people, animals, and the environment come before profits, and where organic is a way of life.

Recently, Peter Lowell’s has been in the spotlight for its new pricing and tipping policy. In August, the restaurant abolished tipping, adding a service charge to cover the lack, and raising overall prices by 10 percent in order to offer a closer-to-living-wage to their kitchen staff. Next spring, Sheldon plans to expand operations to Sebastopol’s former Foster’s Freeze, turning it into Handline Fish and Food with partner Natalie Goble. We caught up with Sheldon to learn more about his new right-livelihood scheme.

What was the impetus for making this change?

It started to become apparent that we needed to pay our kitchen staff more money. With unemployment in Sonoma County at such low numbers and with kitchen work historically such a poor paying job, we were having a hell of a time finding quality people and keeping them around. This was what got the ball rolling. If you read more about this trend, from NYC to SF, you will find that universally, chefs and restaurant owners implement this change as a way to level the playing field for front of the house [servers] and back of the house [cooks and dishwashers] workers.

For us, this was what got the ball rolling. We also wanted to move away from tipping because we dislike the effect it has on relationships in the industry. That’s a much more complicated question, however, and one better left for another time.

What has customer reaction been like?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We hit it at the right time. People love not having to think about tipping and just knowing that their servers and cooks are making a living wage. It’s a win-win. 

How does this change fit in with the restaurant’s philosophy?

It mirrors our philosophy on every level. We love that we can now pay our cooks a decent starting wage of $17-$19 an hour with health care. Servers make $24-$30 an hour with health. Beyond that, it makes a ton of sense that cooks should get a decent cut of the service charge on the bill. It’s insane to think that servers are acting in a vacuum. We spend 20 of the 24 hours, seven days a week, prepping for service—hundreds of hours a week cooking and cleaning the kitchen. This is our attempt at moving toward a system that pays the entire staff a wage that they can be proud of!

How has this changed the employee atmosphere, if at all?

It’s only just beginning to change so I can’t really speak to that. But that said, I have the sense that it wouldn’t change things all that much if it were the only thing that we changed at Lowell’s. However, through the implementation of this new system, we realized that we really wanted to totally transform the way we run as a business.

We are simultaneously working to create an environment inspired by a philosophy called Deliberately Developmental Organizations. The method is about creating space for your employees to begin to integrate their personal and professional goals. There is a lot more to it than that, but ultimately, we hope to create a restaurant where every employee brings their personal passion to what they do every day at work. We feel that this would not be possible if we were not paying everyone a fair wage.

What, in your opinion, stops other places from doing the same?

Some probably don’t get it. Some people don’t believe that this is the right system. Others, though, are afraid it will deter customers. No one wants to rock the boat too much—even me, and I actually do want to rock the boat. But I have deep fears about losing customers. I felt a ton of fear around the implementation of the no tipping policy. At the end of the day, though, it seemed as though this is the only path forward that could begin to create true equity in pay, and we absolutely needed that in order to continue to be successful.

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