Every restaurant is different. Every single place you will go to eat will have different ways of handling the food preparation and serving and creating their unique environment. In today’s world everything is available, from poorly made dollar menu fast food to poorly made fifty dollar steakhouse meals to food trucks serving a la carte authentic, creative plates in baskets to world class restaurants bringing out meals that would be unrecognizable as food if one didn’t know they were at a hip, experimental place in New York or LA. With all the globalization of culture as well as the transformation of culinary expectations, old restaurant standards and expectations seem to be going out the window at an extremely fast pace.
In almost any restaurant you’ll step into these days, there is a hard line dividing the restaurant in half. On one side are the customers, the bar and the servers, where everything is relatively clean and picked up, and where the staff treats each other with respect and only quietly reprimands one another for missed duties. Then there is the other side. Once you step over the dividing line to where customers shouldn’t be and where the folks not quite palatable for the general public come to work, there is a remarkable change. Curated decorations and paintings give way to cold steel shelving and prep tables and attractive, well dressed servers give way to tattooed, grizzly or at the very least unapologetically dressed down chefs and dishwashers. These people aren’t quietly reminding each other how things should be set up, or politely asking to be excused as they move around one another, there isn’t time for politeness and it is unnecessary to say the least. Requests are told, directed or yelled, issues are solved quickly and the food is handled not on neatly manicured plates as the customers see it, but in heaping quantities thrown around from bucket to tray to grill to fryer. The differences between these two sides of the restaurant industry don’t stop at the superficial level though, and the disparity between them is a sometimes misunderstood phenomenon.
One of the most hotly debated changes coming to the food service industry in the next few years is the traditional role of servers, and tipped employees in general. We are getting more and more pragmatic in how we look at running businesses and where our finances are directed, due to growing automation in every field. Today the quality of food is not predicated on a black tie, white linen atmosphere as it may have been in the past. Some amazing food around the world can be had out of a food truck on the side of the road or a small stop in a city where a few buttons are all the communication needed between customer and cooks, and some places its more likely to come out of a more authentic, if run down, atmosphere. In America we love our dive bars with their grungy booths and loud music, in Europe the hookah bars cater some amazing authentic Indian or Middle Eastern food to go with your water pipes, and in Asia some of the restaurants are so small due to space constraints there are bar restaurants with only five or six seats. So if the landscape of food is changing so drastically, why do we in America still believe that there needs to be a twenty percent surcharge on our meal just for someone doing their job well, and more importantly, why are these people only making three or five dollars an hour before their patrons generosity comes into play?
The problems with this system are rampant, as it creates a very strange and unpredictable income for servers, as well as lowering food prices to accommodate for gratuity, straining the already thin margins on most meals. This also seems to be the reason why cooks and kitchen workers are almost universally paid so little, while doing the lion’s share of the work. There are restaurants in some larger cities in the US that are trying to clear out this phenomenon, by paying servers a living wage and telling patrons not to tip. This allows price points on food to be raised since there is no automatic cost on top of the bill, which puts more money at play to (theoretically) pay the kitchen staff a more appropriate amount. However as someone who has worked in the food service industry for over a decade, what I personally don’t understand is where all the money goes that is not being paid to servers currently. Servers and bartenders who make good money in tips usually are paid something like 3.50 an hour, or sometimes a few dollars more, and all their actual money comes from tips. A lot of the time they even have their paychecks zeroed out due to making too much in tips and being taxed out of their paycheck for it. So if the restaurant isn’t functionally paying them anything, and still making their great margins on drinks and decent ones on food, why isn’t the kitchen staff being appropriately compensated? It’s a question that begs a better answer than the meager sum most hard working cooks make, and one that will be answered in the coming years, either due to automation or a complete role reversal in the food service industry.
This article was written by Jake Perry, a writer for dusk magazine.