This year’s flu season hasn’t terrified Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Lemley and Nathan Heard as much as last year’s. And Foreign & Domestic customers share some of the credit.

The couple, who bought the North Loop restaurant in August 2017, began offering health insurance to their employees at the beginning of 2019, with a little help from customers. Foreign & Domestic instituted an additional voluntary 3% to customers’ bills to raise money to pay for half of the participating employees’ monthly insurance premiums. The employees cover the remaining 50% (approximately $300). So far, about half of the restaurant’s 15 employees have signed up for the program.

While the addition of the 3% health insurance fee, which is stated on the menu as optional, is new to the Austin market, restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York have been using the practice for some time. Heard and Lemley visited restaurants in Los Angeles before instituting the new program in January to see how the programs worked, but the couple said the decision was easy.

“We just want to take care of our staff. They are family to us,” Heard said.

So, this year, when one of their professional family members who was covered under the new Blue Cross Blue Shield policy came down with early signs of the flu, he was able to go to the doctor, get some Tamiflu and return to work more quickly. The new insurance not only meant that the person didn’t become terribly ill, but he also didn’t show up at work and knock out the staff or customers with the virus.

One of the employees who has taken advantage of the opportunity to essentially get health coverage for half off is Brent Rose. The server, a four-year veteran of Foreign & Domestic, has worked in restaurants in Austin and out of state for 20 years and had not had health care coverage since leaving his parents’ policy more than a decade ago.

“I never thought it would be a possibility, but pretty early on they were talking about it,” Rose said. “It certainly makes it feel like a family restaurant. When your owners are also making sure you’re staying healthy and that you’re happy, that’s the best thing you can ask for.”

Heard and Lemley expected some backlash from customers but said so far they have dealt with only about a half dozen tables in three months that took issue with the practice. The owners said they were happy to take the 3% off those customers’ bills.

“It’s way more important for people to have health insurance and have one or two people be mad,” Heard said.

The menu’s bolded language regarding the fee reads: “3% will be added to the bill to allow us to provide health insurance to our full-time employees. If you would like to have this removed, please let your server know.”

When someone asks why Heard and Lemley didn’t just build the price into the cost of the meal, the owners point to transparency. They want customers to know where their dollars are going. And the owners have worked with the staff to make sure they are well informed and confident in having a respectful conversation with any customers who object. All of the money paid via the insurance fee goes into one QuickBooks account, Lemley said, and any money left over is carried over to the next month. Though the owners admit that paying for full health care coverage would be difficult, they hope to be able to bump their own contribution up to 75 percent of the employees’ premiums at some point.

Lemley, who along with Heard has had health insurance at other restaurant jobs before becoming first-time owners, understands just how important coverage can be.

“I think for a lot of employees it’s security,” Lemley said of the possibility of incurring huge medical expenses while uncovered. “You don’t want to think you’re going to be paying off bills for the rest of your life.”