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Common Foodsense: Finding a Wage That Works

My grandfather Howard was a notoriously bad tipper. He was born on the family ranch in 1894, and by the time the Depression rolled around and made everyone broke, his ideas about currency were already well established, and the new, widespread misery just confirmed them. Everybody worked for too little money, and when it was time to contribute, he saw no reason not to maintain the tradition.  

This resulted in some situations. At Le Provençal in Washington, D.C., the restaurant that introduced me to snotty waiters and steak au poivre, my dad had paid for dinner and my grandpa insisted on leaving the tip. My dad added extra, and when his old man said “I already left him something!” my grandma replied: “Howard, maybe they want to come back.”

We celebrated his 90th birthday at a venerable Chinese restaurant in Stockton called On Lock Sam, a place that began four years after he did. There were 20-some of us there, and of course the old man insisted on paying, birthday or no. He left a tip and got up to go to the bathroom—and two dozen plates lifted up and had ten-dollar bills shoved beneath them. Family, you know. The elderly waiters didn’t bat an eye; they’d known us for quite a while.

On a $500 tab, two guys split 50 percent of that for two hours’ work. We were all happy with the meal and the service, my grandfather was happy with the propriety of his tip, the rest of us were happy to follow suit with the same amount (each), and our waiters were very happy as they went off to their other tables.

Now I would like to offer you an opinion about the mayor of Minneapolis: Betsy Hodges is a lousy tipper.

I have, as you’ve seen, an intimate knowledge of lousy tippers. If my family didn’t give me enough examples when I was growing up, I married a waitress who would bring home stories. At the Green Valley Restaurant in San Francisco (a latecomer, established 1904), servers would fight over who got the French deuce in the corner. You knew they wouldn’t tip you, so you could drop that pleasant façade and let your true feelings show. Some things are worth more than money. On the other hand, she worked part time at a place where a five-course meal cost $9.95, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect a great living. We kept our cash in the Harvard Dictionary of Music (burglars typically don’t study music trivia while at work), and I went to it once and found the book’s spine broken by the $900 in cash inside. 

“What’s all this?” I asked.

“Two weeks’ tips.”

I didn’t have a problem with this; it was all going into a shared kitty. It was, however, slightly over double what I made as a union line cook—and that didn’t include her paycheck. I love to cook, but had I not married a server, I’d have had to become one. The pay difference is just too great.

So now I read that the mayor of my fair city believes the Department of Labor Statistics when they say that the average Twin Cities server makes slightly more than $10 an hour, including tips. One possibility is she never waited tables in a restaurant and is thus ignorant of the income inequality between the front and the back of the house. Another is she’s a lousy tipper, and projects this personal problem on others. With the Pathway to $15 proposal, the servers would still get their $15 even with a tip credit (or “tip penalty,” as she calls it); that’s the minimum. If their tips are less, the restaurant makes up the difference. Is there a problem with having their minimum equal to that of their coworkers?

Now, do we really believe that servers are starving?

Consider Applebee’s. Their “2-for-$20” promotion, with one drink each, comes to $30. This, remember, is cheap, even for Applebee’s, and that’s not an expensive place. A decent tipper will leave $6, or 20 percent. This promotion taken by a four-top is now a $12 tip for the table, and do we really not think a decent server—the corollary to the decent tipper—can handle four four-tops in an hour and a half? That’s $48, or $32 an hour, tips only. Plus $15 base salary, if we don’t see a tip credit, and we’re now reaching the salary of an experienced surgical RN. You can dispute these numbers, of course, if you think no one goes to restaurants or everyone tips like poop. And the dishwashers and cooks will have their $15 an hour, period. Yes, their salary is immune to the fluctuations in business that affect servers’ income. And no, it doesn’t come out even. Not even close. 

This insistence on a single minimum wage will mean, eventually, the death of tipping. One way or another, restaurants are going to find a way to stay in business, and labor is already their biggest cost category. Some will simply build in a service charge, and pay tipped employees what cooks make. The food will get better; the service—as servers and bartenders move from a commissioned sales force to simple wage earner—will get worse.

Some will automate. The most important part of a restaurant’s identity, whether food or service, is likely to be preserved; the other will be on the headsman’s block. Need really good service, but just OK food? It’s only a short step from a combi oven to a robot. Need really good food, but just OK service? You can make glazed squab, and still have customers pick it up at a service window. I’ve had an amazing lobster roll handed to me through a dive’s window in Narragansett, while the March wind off Point Judith blew in through the open door, and I was happy to wrap my frozen fingers around it and hand over my $8. Eight only. No tip. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the fooservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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