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Common Foodsense: What the Passage of $15 Minimum Wage Says

Well, we done done it, ain’t we? Fifteen bucks an hour, plus tips! A city council blinkered by catchy slogans, easy promises and a grand vision of a more prosperous citizenry has voted for a happy fantasy. This scenario might sound vaguely familiar: It is instructive to know that the belief in miracle cures is not confined to the right.

What’s missing is an unwillingness to admit the existence of nuance, and to examine the results of possible failure.  Just like health care, the minimum wage is actually complicated, with many parts in motion at once. Move one a little, and you affect the rest. A butterfly waves its wings in China, every hot dog stand in Oklahoma is blown down by a tornado. And now we get to see the effects of this experiment in our own backyard, using Minneapolis as the lab rat and its neighboring cities as the controls. 

To a certain extent, we as an industry have only ourselves to blame. We have fought individually and institutionally so hard and so long against any movement in the minimum wage that when it came time to talk about tip credit, many lawmakers could no longer hear us. And wages truly have been lousy: I had students five years ago who were taking kitchen jobs at $10 an hour, which is what I made as a line cook in 1986. Oh, and I had full medical and dental—without deductibles—and paid vacation, all notably rare commodities for restaurant line cooks these days.

Granted, this was in San Francisco, which once had a strong union (gone now) and, as a result of union pay and benefits, a stable, highly skilled, middle-class workforce that could afford to live in town (see previous parenthesis). We didn’t mind that the waiters took home twice what we did per hour, just as they do most places; we had more hours and more security and free beer, and our weekly pay did not vary with the weather and the tour-bus schedule.

So now we’ll have McDonald’s workers making 15 bucks an hour, which, frankly, I don’t mind a bit. It’s a big corporation with a fair pile of capital behind it, and they can afford to lower their service fees so their franchisees can raise pay. What I worry about are my friends’ restaurants, the little indies who will now have their whole cost structure upended, and have to figure out how to survive it or how to get out.

Putting aside my personal offense at this new ordinance—do you realize you’ve just said that servers are worth more than cooks, and written this insult into law?—the results will be nothing short of spectacular. Not good spectacular; the word is neutral, it just has to do with spectacles. Think of train wrecks. Dumpster fires. Pompeii.

Fine dining will probably be hit the least: Presuming a stable economy that continues to make it possible to visit them, restaurants in the most expensive tier can raise prices to cover costs. For them, our new affliction is likely to be merely painful, rather than life-threatening. 

Where prices are lower, the situation will be more desperate. Bartenders and servers who make good tips will now command the same base pay as the cooks and dishwashers, with tips added on top. Menu prices would have to rise even without a tip credit; with it, they’ll have to jump quite a lot. And the back of the house is likely to go into revolt at the pay disparity. 

So other strategies will have to emerge. I saw one possibility a couple weeks ago at Fogo de Chão, where I had been invited on a junket dinner to celebrate their newly redesigned interior and bar menu. This, by the way, is my main privilege in my loose association with the press: Because my name is connected with Foodservice News, careless PR people occasionally mistake me for an opinion-maker, and think that in return for free food and alcohol, I will write glowing things about them. This is a belief I encourage. No one has ever offered me a cash bribe (well, one student did, but it was pretty cheap) or offered to put my kids through college, but I do get free samples of frozen wontons and an occasional dinner. I suppose it’s enough. 

At Fogo—where, by the way, the dinner was excellent, and I’d describe the whole thing in detail if I were actually a reporter—tips are shared, and the cooks spend a great deal of the time in the dining room. Each “gaucho chef” cooks a meat item that he (only “he,” I noticed) then takes to the table to see if the customer is interested. It’s a buffet, essentially, which comes to you. Perfectly designed to let me age in place.

And as a result, there is not that bright distinction between “cook” and “server.” Lines are similarly blurred at Travail, and we will probably see other places follow suit. And among the other choices are automation (the iPad becomes your order-taker and some anonymous person brings you the food later); giving servers more tables; raising prices; service compris; or any combination. I’m guessing that the service compris choice—a service charge included, no tipping, everybody on staff gets a wage—is going to become fairly common. I’m also guessing we’ll see a demographic segregation, as immigrants gladly take the guaranteed hourly wage to wait tables and the locals accustomed to their high tips flee to the suburbs. It’ll be interesting. That’s another neutral word, by the way. I’m keeping a bunch of them ready. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice 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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