There’s an article* about gratuities in the September 2016 issue of Bon Appétit that caught my eye and has me thinking. According to the piece, there are two driving forces behind the current trend toward including service in the price of the meal – minimum wages increases and an existing disparity in pay between front of the house and back of the house employees. As you might imagine, I’ve got some thoughts on this.
First, a story…many, many years ago I worked with a fantastic chef named Len Hull. God, he taught me a lot about food and music and life! Prior to opening his own wonderful little restaurant, The Sea Shanty, Len had worked under Larry Forgione at Brooklyn’s River Cafe. He had wonderful memories of his time there, nights filled with celebrity diners and fantastic meals, but one thing he said really stuck with me – the kitchen employees all drove shitty Volkswagens and crappy Datsuns, while the front of the house folks were all driving Mercedes and BMWs. It’s just the way it was and has always been.
I think the hourly wage for a server during my full time days was somewhere around $2.10 an hour, with the expectation that tips would raise it up to beyond the standard minimum wage per hour. Most nights it did. In January of 2016, servers in NYS were given a 50% hourly raise when the standard went from $5.00 to $7.50 an hour. Even with this raise, my front of the house staff probably averages between $15-20 an hour. Does that sound like a lot? Take into consideration a few things – I don’t provide health insurance to any of my employees. It isn’t possible, unfortunately. If my servers need a night off, they don’t get paid. There are no sick days or vacation days. It is very much a hand to mouth existence for most. Reality.
As for back of the house, most chefs are salaried employees. In a business the size of mine, health insurance is not available to my kitchen staff either. If you know me, you’re aware of my feelings about access to healthcare and how much it bothers me to not be able to provide this benefit to the people who make my business happen. Again, it just isn’t possible. If the math were done (something I’m not encouraging!), I imagine that my kitchen staff hourly wage averages somewhere in the $12-18 range, definitely lower than front of the house wages. Chefs have been provided with paid vacations during our closures (in spring we closed for a week’s vacation, for instance) as well as paid holidays and the occasional night off for personal commitments, but that’s about all I can do.
So, do I think that a gratuity included model of business to “redistribute wages more equitably” is the way to go? No, I don’t think I do even if Danny Meyer, one of my restauranteur heroes, is adopting it for his NYC restaurants. Unless, of course, we’re also going to figure out a way to redistribute the salaries of grossly overpaid executives in the corporate world to better share their income with employees lower on the totem pole. I’m not overly traditional, but the disparity in wages between back and front of the house is the way it’s always been in the restaurant business. As a chef stated in an unrelated article in the same issue of Bon Appétit
Cooks work long hours. It’s a stressful environment and, honestly, not the best pay in the world.
Nothing would make me happier than to provide all of my employees with real benefits and adequate income to enjoy quality lives. I’m doing my best with that, truly. I’ve certainly heard grumblings, over the years, from the kitchen when it comes to how much more money the floor makes than they do, but I don’t think it is a genuine issue most days. I mean, sure, when the kitchen is 95 degrees and they just got slammed with orders and are busting their asses to feed the dining room with the knowledge that they aren’t making a cent more than if it was 72 and we only had a deuce seated, it’s only natural that there might be some resentment. But that, my friend, is the restaurant business.
*I wasn’t able to locate the article online while I was writing this. There may be an embargo on the latest issue, but if you want to try, the title is Gratuitous Advice and it’s on page 52.