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Sweet Charity

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There's a trek in store for anyone wanting to visit the Joy of Ireland Tearoom: down tourist-choked Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Place mall, up two Tinkertoy stories, and through the gift shop that fronts the restaurant--3,000 square feet of green golf gifts, Irish jams and crisps, Guinness T-shirts, Celtic crosses, Beleek china, and wall plaques lacquered with platitudes and shilelaghs. But once at her destination, the prospective tea taker is soothed by a peaceful view of rooftops and the sunshine that pours through the wall of windows overlooking Michigan Avenue. She's stimulated by the graceful decor, spare except for a giant crystal chandelier. Finally, as one of the relaxed, smartly dressed tearoom employees pulls tableside with a

menu, she's struck by the framed thank-you letters from charities that cover the walls.

The Joy of Ireland gift shop opened in 1991; the tearoom, added in '99, had a no-tipping policy for its first two and a half years. Instead co-owners Michael Joy and Richard Kosmacher asked customers to give to a charity fund, making up the difference in their servers' income by paying an unusually high 9 to 12 dollars an hour. They wound up collecting more than $12,000 for causes that included Misericordia, Catholic Charities, and Old Saint Patrick's Church.

"No one can take that away from us," says Kosmacher. He and Joy looked over their finances in early 2001 and decided the charity program--which had been one of their main dreams in realizing the room, another being the atmospheric emulation of Irish public teahouses they'd visited, such as Bewley's in Dublin--was a bit much on top of their Michigan Avenue rent. Now that they've done their good deed, and also attracted a small following with their view, food, and ambience, Kosmacher says, they'd like the back of the store to turn a profit.

So they've dropped their pay rate (though it remains pointedly over minimum) and phased in ordinary tipping, which is the mainstay of waitstaff income at most places. Kosmacher says they were careful to warn clientele of the change so diners wouldn't inadvertently stiff the servers ("That was a big concern of Mike's and mine"), but they didn't want to seem pushy about it. "We didn't just end it overnight--we literally took three months to wind the program down. We can't make people tip, but we had signs up."

The no-tipping policy, while it lasted, was modeled in part after Irish custom. "There is a precedent for paying a staff a full wage. In Europe...they treat them as professionals and don't rely on tips." Kosmacher and Joy weren't concerned that people would think them unfair for giving only to Catholic and Irish charities: "It's not like [Catholic Charities] only give[s] the money to Catholics," Kosmacher says. He says they chose charities that don't leak funds into an oversize administrative staff. "I would bet you that 90 percent of the money we gave ended up--at least indirectly--entering into a poor neighborhood in Chicago or a poor area in Ireland."

But how is the eatin'? The Joy of Ireland must sell a lot of golf tees, as the pretty and surprisingly low-priced tea sandwiches (for $9.50, the crab finger sandwiches include a salad), scones, and petits fours are served carefully on flawless Wedgwood china. Desserts are smotheringly rich: a special one day, strawberry creme brulee, topped layers of fruit-laden whipped cream and vanilla custard with a thin, thin crust of crunchy burnt sugar. Warren Hutchinson III, a veteran of Vong and Spago, runs the kitchen with Mark Tribuzio, who's worked for Charlie Trotter's, the Four Seasons, and Ambria; baked goods come from Sweet Thang and Red Hen Bakery, among other places. Ghirardelli hot chocolate can be had for $2.50 a mug, and high tea--sandwiches, scones, et al--is $16 a person. They also serve beer, wine, and Illy coffee.

The tea is served in Wedgwood too, and the staff communicate an unharried ease so rare among American restaurant employees as to be downright suspect. Kosmacher claims the tips in the tearoom now average 20 percent of the bill. "This is a very impressive statistic," he says. "It says we have very classy customers, and also that they're very, very happy with the service."

The Joy of Ireland Tearoom is at 700 N. Michigan, 312-664-7290.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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