Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pragmatism: The Great Unknown in Restaurant Staffing

Each restaurant, as we understand it, is often a microcosm of some sort of social structure.  Certainly, the issues that seem to pertain to one restaurant may be infinitely relevant and applicable in the cases of all other restaurants, but the operators, owners, chefs and staff would argue that each environment, as a whole, is rarely duplicated.  Some primary issues however are system-wide.

Following the State of the Union on Tuesday, Tom Colicchio and Pete Wells took to twitter to begin a conversation about the minimum wage model (as President Obama vowed to raise) and how it applies to restaurants right now.  Many of you may not think this is of interest, but it does directly affect the price and quality of your food.  If restaurants can pay for more skilled cooks that look to food as a career, then the food is better cared for and better executed.  I’m not denigrating the legions of great minority kitchen cooks, as they have their own aspirations, but there are plenty of really good restaurants what might be even better with passionate cooks if they can afford to pay for them. 

So here are a few things you need to know:

1. Almost everywhere, FOH (waiters, bartenders, etc) make minimum wage of service workers at $5.xx. 

2. Cooks make regular minimum wage like all other workers, depending on state.

3. Typically if you are FOH, your wage plus tip should bring you a wage that is higher than the minimum wage, a range of anything from $11-$40+ an hour.  I’d argue most FOH are hovering the lower end of the bar than the higher.  

4. How a restaurant decides to pool or not pool tips, directly affects how much a waiter, busser, runner, and host will make during a shift.

5. BOH almost never sees a penny out of pooled tip.  The average hourly wage for a fulltime entry level cook (who may have just spent $40k on school) or even an intermediate one is likely to be somewhere along the lines of $12-$13 an hour.

If you understand these precious few items, then you can come to a very simple idea.  Working in in the industry can be tough as shit on everyone.  And what’s even tougher is that, as a sympathetic operator, chef and owner, I wish I can pay FOH/BOH more, but there are almost no margins to do so.  If we try to increase the standard mark-up for food cost, then we get accused for ringing the customer – which essentially can force customers away and result in the complete terminations of everyone’s jobs.  (Sadly, two of the more important things to the customer, 1. ingredient quality and 2. fair wage for staff, are also the hardest for them to understand when it comes to price sensitivity for their food – whole other issue/blog/story)  There is no win-win situation and the success story examples are only exceptions that PROVE the rule.  The 80/20 rule for restaurants leans to 80 for failure and 20 for “barely surviving”.

I would however argue this: the model and structure for restaurant organization and staff is the least progressive part of the restaurant experience.  It wouldn’t hurt if we started to take a few more pragmatic approaches to the issue that has been consistently a sore spot for almost all involved.  The issues of wages are only the surface wounds to deeper eventual issues that may come, including losing talent, attracting skilled staff, workplace community, fostering general ill will or resentment amongst staff and financial instability.  Here are a few ideas that may require some tinkering in combinations or ingenuity to implement:

  • Implement gratuity as a dining fee or built into the check/meal and do not allow for tip.
  • Put all fulltime staff on salary and all part time staff on tip adjusted hourly.
  • Multidisciplinary trained workers, e.g. BOH working FOH shifts and service.
  • Pool tips for all of staff, set fair and even wages for all of staff.
  • Incentivized guidelines for managerial staff and chef positions in terms of equities in ownership.
  • Interdisciplinary staff training amongst staff – proactive staff lead projects.
  • Institute creative staff projects with ownership and profit share structure within restaurant (lunch/off day staff-created popups/catering).

Most restaurants will find issues with most of these items and call them impractical.  It wouldn’t hurt if people tried to come up with some of their own, but (one factor being the result of a lack of interdisciplinary training – whole other story/issue/blog) some managers, owners and chefs are often not suited to understand or even question the system presented to them.  This is not a blueprint obviously, but if we can shift some of the conversations and assumptions about the constitution of restaurant staffing (i.e. FOH is an unskilled revolving door only for people in between things in life or BOH is a revolving door for serious cooks who will only succeed (or make a decent living) by moving their way from one flashy named restaurant to another) then, we can begin to shift some of the inadequacies that always seem to be involved.