Chef-Owner Keri Moser talks about her latest restaurant venture: Octo π, a wood-fired pizza and wine bar. This interview reveals Keri’s determination and her passion for food, her employees, and fostering a positive workplace by eliminating tipping to reduce chaos culture.
Moving Past Failure
Keri: “Octo π is my third restaurant venture. My first was a short little nibble of a restaurant. It was a gourmet deli – basically a deli cooler filled with duck and marinated fillet, and things that were high end that I was trying to make accessible. I was open for a year and a half. That whole venture was a lesson in how NOT to do a restaurant. I was trying to do what I thought people might want. What I thought might be a good concept. And you can’t work as hard as you do in this industry and not be 100% passionate about it. It was probably the most financially successful of my three ventures! It always broke even. It never lost money at any point. But it didn’t work, it didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for my family either. We were open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Once you’ve failed at a venture that you’re passionate about, it really frees you up to fail again. Which is a wonderful gift, really. Because I found that when my first restaurant closed, my identity – everything – was wrapped up in it. I didn’t know what to do. It felt like everything had crashed. I said to myself, “How can you start this and then have everything fail?”
It took me several years to recover emotionally from that, and I kind of lost myself. I didn’t want to see the food industry for awhile. Then I realized that you can fail and the world moves on. And that’s the best possible attitude going into a new business. It’s the most wonderfully liberating part! It takes so much stress off. To say, “Screw it. I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to be the best I can. And if it works, it works. And if it fails, I’ll do something else. The sun will rise again.” It took me 4 years to open the next one, but when I did I knew what was on my list: I was going to make food I was passionate about, and I was going to keep it to four days a week because I wanted to spend time with my family. ”
Rejecting the Chaos Culture
“My senior year at University of Sewanee I worked for the catering side of the dining hall and got really excited about food. So I went and worked at a restaurant the following summer. And it was so chaotic and horrible that I didn’t want anything to do with restaurants after that. It was a mess… drugs, drama, insanity… total chaos.
The turning point for me was an article written by Alice Waters. She said, “Kitchens are insane, chaotic, drug-filled, alcohol-filled pools of chaos. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Person after person says ‘That’s just the way restaurants are.’ But no, you CAN hire people who are responsible, and professional.” And she didn’t put up with any of the chaos shit.
That article was life-changing.
The people I hire are really important to me. I spend as much time thinking about how to create a good working environment with good people as I do about food. I do my best towards that end, and we’ve made some big decisions over the years because of it. It definitely involves eliminating tipping. Tipping is one of the most broken systems we have. It’s bad on so many levels. Studies show that tipping is a perception of power that we don’t actually use. The power to tip or not. Very few people use that power. It’s shown statistically that the only thing that changes the size of a tip is the size of a bill. People who eat at a fine restaurant tip more, and a people who eat at a truck stop tip less. And it’s very capricious for someone’s livelihood. It fosters a terrible environment and competition. People don’t work together. And I know that’s the way it’s always been, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
Some large restaurant owners say, “If you take away tipping you’ll get terrible service.” Well that means you’re not doing your job as an owner. Because my job is to make sure my employees are good at what they do. It’s not my customer’s job. There are other service industry jobs that don’t get tipped. Your bank teller doesn’t get tipped. Your nurse doesn’t get tipped. They get paid a wage and they’re expected to do well. So I decided I needed a better way to care for my employees. So that’s what we did. We eliminated tipping in 2010.”