Clueless about tipping

Image: Bon Appétit

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.

8 thoughts on “Clueless about tipping

  1. What about owners? Do you tip if the owner serves you at a bar or restaurant? I’m inclined to think “no” — although the one thing that has made me throw a buck or two down at the bar is wondering if “all tips” make there way into a communal pot to be later distributed to all tipped staff.

    1. That’s a great question. Owners legally are not allowed to accept tips, according to my accountant. My place is a “pool house” with all tips going into one pot which is split by servers. If I pour you a drink or take care of you at a table, whatever you leave me goes to my staff.

  2. You “imagine” they make $12 to 18 an hour? Why would you not know how much your kitchen staff makes? I would think that would be a very important fact for a business owner to know.

    1. I meant to convey that their hourly salary ranges according to how many hours they work. If it is a particularly busy week and they put in 45 hours rather than 35 hours, what they make an hour would be less, no?

  3. I Don’t think “this is the way it’s always been” is really an argument. Personally, I think the chefs should be paid at least equal if not more than front of the house. While poor service may put me off of a restaurant, my choice on where to go is really about the food.

    1. I appreciate your comment and perspective. Believe me, I do what I can to provide all of my staff with an income that sustains a good quality of life and demonstrates my appreciation for their work.

  4. So according to this logic, women don’t deserve voting rights because “it’s just the way it’s always been”. Without those who will break terrible traditions we would still be living among slavery, for example.
    You are one of the few empowered to change the status quo. I’m sure customers won’t be turned away just because their $24 fancy steak now costs $1 more, for instance. But using tradition as an excuse for further injustice? Strange, very strange.

    1. I’m not sure the suffrage argument really plays here. Being denied a basic right because of gender is a bit different than an adult freely accepting a position and the income that comes with it, no? Either way, as a small business owner I try to show appreciation to my employees in many different ways. I’d love to give my kitchen staff additional raises and health insurance, but for now, we’ve all been contented with other acknowledgements of their value, such as paid vacations and other benefits.

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