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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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05.04.08

Tipping and the Back of the House

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Chris Borrelli had a good article in the Chicago Tribune last week about tips and how they get disbursed. I think the article made some great points, especially about what I consider an exploitative behavior of some restaurants which charge a percentage of the waiter’s tip to cover credit card processing fees, as if it’s the waiter’s fault the restaurant accepts plastic.

Assuming the restaurant doesn’t pay a flat processing fee to the credit card company, I might buy into the idea of sharing a percentage of the cost of a tip on an exceedingly large gratuity, since the restaurant would have to pay a greater processing fee without receiving any portion of the tip. Of course, I’d more likely accept that premise if restaurants started treating their waiters as real business partners and paid them full minimum wage.

One aspect that wasn’t covered in the article which I think bears some attention is the long simmering tension between the front of the house (i.e. the service staff) and the back of the house (the cooks and dishwashers etc), particularly in high end restaurants, which is often exacerbated by the tip system.

In elite restaurants, many chefs work a minimum of 14 hour days, and that’s a conservative estimate. I know of many local restaurants where’s it’s not uncommon to pull the occasional or regular 80-90 hour work week as a line cook.

In those same establishments, waiters tend to come in a few hours later and are often the first to leave at the end of the service. Now, I’m not arguing that servers don’t work hard. They stand on their feet and carry heavy plates and cases of wine for hours on end. Likewise, good service requires a unique and valuable skill set, like the ability to cultivate a relationship with a customer and be exacting without being too overbearing, something chefs can’t always do. At the end of the day, from what I’ve seen, the front of house work is usually cleaner, more air-conditioned, and many of these folks work a few less hours.

That being said, even if servers and line cooks worked the same hours or had exactly similar responsibilities, the disparity in their wages, especially at these high end establishments is extraordinary. At the really high end spots, it’s not uncommon for servers to pull in $60-80,000 while a typical line cook makes $24-28,000 dollars.

Part of the reason for the disparity is that restaurants generally subsidize the full labor cost of a kitchen worker, whereas, the server’s salary is subsidized by customer tips. Servers would argue that because tips are variable and they assume some risk in working for them, they deserve the spoils. That’s very true at the low end, though also not as consequential, because the disparity between servers and kitchen staff is much smaller on the low end of dining.

At high end restaurants, with educated wealthy clientele, average tip percentages are rarely below 18%, and in some cases, I know many average slightly above 20% because the experiences are so extraordinary. Servers at those places might argue that the reason tips are so high is strictly because of the service, but when’s the last time you said, hey I need to go to that restaurant because I hear they have kick ass servers? It’s a good bet you’re going because you read about a sweet dish from awesome chef X, which is likely prepared by a brigade of overworked and underpaid line cooks. Subconsciously, there’s no question most diners at this level are tipping well because they ate well.

I think this makes for an argument for some kind of shared pooling system to honor the contribution of the cooks and support staff. Doing so, might even free restaurants so they don’t have to spend as much of their working capital on kitchen salaries, and they might be able to lower food prices or provide better overall dining experiences.

Though the reason cooks tend to work such ridiculous hours now is because one way restaurants compensate for the low margins earned on food is by hiring less staff than they really need. I’d bet even if they had to pay less in labor costs through such a system, prices on menus probably wouldn’t drop much.

The problem of creating such shared system is that federal department of labor rules state: Tipped employees may not be required to share their tips with employees who have not customarily and regularly participated in tip pooling arrangements, such as dishwashers, cooks, chefs, and janitors.

There is a way to legally create a pooled system, though, and that’s to charge a flat service fee. A service fee is not considered a tip, and allows the restaurant to share the fee however they choose within the infrastructure of the restaurant. That’s the model that Per Se in New York follows.

The main complaint about such a system is that it robs the diner of the ability to award great service or punish bad service. Generally speaking, there may be a gaffe or two, but in my experience there’s no such thing as bad service at places like Per Se, Alinea, or Charlie Trotters.

Another problem is that technically the restaurant can do whatever it wants with such a fee, and there’s no guarantee anyone will see the return in salaries. Though I would guess high end places would disburse honorably.

The other problem with a service fee is that now in the diner’s mind a fixed meal price that used to be $200 just became $240+ with a 20% service fee. The psychological barrier of being compelled to pay a higher price, even though you were probably going to do so voluntarily is tough to get past, and could hurt a restaurant or cause customers to flock elsewhere.

Likewise, servers would rebel, because such a system would likely depress wages and reduce the amount they used to earn. Though, as I mentioned, I believe cooks have gotten stuck with the short end of the stick for years, and an adjustment needs to occur to honor their contribution and create better overall working relations.

My argument is not to reduce anyone’s wages though, and so I might even suggest a higher mandatory service fee if people can’t make a fair wage. On the other hand if a server who used to make 80,000 now makes 60,000 and a cook moves up to 50,000 as a result of such a system, it’s tough to argue that someone’s not receiving a fair wage.

Ultimately, I think what Borrelli’s article and my summation here address is that diners should understand where their dollars are going and what they’re buying when they dine out. Assuming restaurants aren’t making money hand over fist and just not taking care of their employees, there is some responsibility on the part of the diner to ensure a healthy restaurant industry.

I realize, in such a poor economy, everyone’s worried about their next move and every dollar spent. The idea of accepting any kind of burden of responsibility is really tough to swallow. On the other hand, as a freelance food writer who tends to make more in the ballpark of a line cook than a high end server, I still support paying slightly more, tipping a bit more, or encouraging a shared pool if it helps improve service, food, and ultimately the livelihood of those workers. It’s an easy proposition for me, because the work I’ve seen the workers in this industry do is extraordinary and also extraordinarily hard and I believe they deserve it. Of course, we all do.

9 Comments on "Tipping and the Back of the House"

Mike G

The system is a bizarre relic of upper crust habits toward their servants in the 19th century, and should be abolished. It bears no relation to any logic by which equitable wages might be determined– the whole (unresolved) question of tipping on expensive bottles of wine shows that, by what logic should a server receive hundreds of dollars more for pouring one bottle of wine over another? It has surely contributed to the growth of fast food as the one sector where tipping is not an uncomfortable side aspect of the experience– David Hammond was saying on LTH the other day how much more expensive fast food is over non-chain food, yet subtract 15-20% off the final bill and that difference substantially shrinks. It should be abolished– and I won’t live to see that day and neither will you.



MIke S

Depending on the level of restaurant but at the higher end restaurants there is lots of training and education involved for a waiter. TO get to know and understand a wine selection by grape, color and region could take years. Waiters must also know what is in every dish from the sauces to the dry rubs on meat. Waiters in high end restaurants are highly educated in their fields and as such should be rewarded with tips when deserved. Have seen the line in most restaurants? I’d be surprised is most of them spoke english, they are usually immigrants with 2+ jobs. Until you get to the sous chef level and above restaurant owners don’t pay well because they don’t have too, there is always an immigrant with illegal papers willing to work for peanuts.

Talk to your waiter next time I think you will find all back of the house(kitchen) employees work longer hours for less because they either lack the skills or just plain don’t want to deal with the customer. Beleive me the hardest part of a restaurant is dealing with the customer.



Tom W

I just want to point out some math here. From the Tribune article, “So, you left a $20 tip. Your waiter took home somewhat less than $15.” Let’s assume that this server gets sat 2 tables per hour, which is a conservative estimate. So after tipping out this server made $30 an hour not bad.

Let’s look at a line cook’s salary. I’m going to use the numbers from the article because they are, in my experience, accurate for a line cook in a fine dining restaurant. Let’s assume they work 5 14 hour days, it could be a little more or less, 6 days instead of 5, etc. For $26,000 per year, or $500 per week. Assuming the 70 hour week this works out to about $7.14 per hour. Less than minimum wage.

This is what I find interesting about line cook wages, is that the better the restaurant is generally, the lower the pay.

So $30/hour vs $7.14/hour, it doesn’t make any sense. Is being a server that much more difficult and challenging that it warrants the higher pay? Is a line cook position so unskilled that it pays so little? I don’t think so because I think they are both equally challenging positions. They just require a different set of skills.

The higher pay then must be because they generate more revenue for the restaurant, but when was the last time you heard someone say “Let’s go there, they have GREAT service.” You don’t.

The service fee is promising and I hope it catches on with more restaurants. In fact it would be a great way for restaurants to reduce their turnover rate. Cooks at fine dining restaurants often only stay for 1-2 years then move on. But I’m sure they would think twice about leaving their $40-50,000 a year job with tips to work for $25,000.



S

A couple of related questions that have been nagging me for some time now and which you might be able to shed some light on: 1. delivery: do drivers see any part of delivery fees, and what are good guidelines for tipping? 2. carry-out/pick-up: are tips expected, and if so, what are your suggested guidelines?



delk

but when was the last time you heard someone say “Let’s go there, they have GREAT service.” You don’t.

Yeah, but how many times do you not go to a restaurant ’cause the service is horrid?



MIke S

If being a line cook is so hard and pay is so bad why don’t they become waiters?

Your job is your choice.

and Oh yeah most of them don’t speak english so they can’t be waiters



wclark

While I agree that the food is first priority, good service adds to the experience, one could almost say “theatre” of dining out. Dining is food, drink, company and service and all must be in proper balance.



Charles R

A primary consideration in any job is the opportunity for advancement. For example, lots of people do grunt staff work for free in Congress to get a shot at making it big in politics. There’s no such thing as making it big as a waiter, but a line cook could go on and become the next Iron Chef. They’re learning something useful, while waiters are kissing butt all day.



Marianne

While I agree that the tipping system is outdated and could use revision, your comparison between waiters and line cooks is misguided, for a few reasons.

If the guys on the line were in fact working 80 hours a week, I find it hard to believe that they only make $26k a year. That would mean that they are making $500/wk, which, with overtime of time and a half, would mean they are being paid $5 per hour. That is below minimum wage in almost every state. More likely they are being paid in the range of $10-$15 per hour, which at 80 hours per week would be $52k-$78k per year. The logic on these numbers is flawed.

Second, while a line cook becomes a robot of sorts, cooking a limited number of items specific to his station, a waiter is responsible for knowing the ingredients and preparations of every dish on the menu, as well as being a wine and spirits guide, upselling, and making sure that the guest has a good time and is well taken care of. This more than compensates for the increased wage, in my book.

While I will often excuse a restaurant for one bad dish, chalking it up to a cook having a bad day, if I get bad service I will never go back. Also, as an economy worsens and less people are going out to eat, a server is getting less business. A line cook may have his hours reduced, but he is going to make his pay whether he puts out 10 plates an hour or 100. $2.83 an hour, which is the going rate for servers in PA, doesn’t go far. The risks associated with a salary based on tips makes 20% tip seem reasonable to me.

In an ideal world all wages would be fair and would be based on the skill level of a persons job. However, unless restaurant patrons want to see menu prices go up 10-20%, this will not happen.



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