Are Servers Hospitality Industry Mercenaries?

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Here’s the second-half of our phone interview with David Kinch, the chef behind the two Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, California. Dinner is $130 per person for the short tasting, $185 for the longer menu. Service, like at most American restaurants, is not included and is at the discretion of the individual guests. Sure, good guests will tip 20%, but we’ve long argued that adding a service charge (in the style of Coi, Brooklyn Fare, Alinea or Atera), or adopting service-included pricing (in the style of European restaurants) is the fairest solution for both restaurants and for diners. 

Such policies give guests a more transparent picture of exactly how much they’ll be spending. Such policies, can also have positive economic benefits for the staff, but we’ll let chef Kinch talk about that in his own words. Keep in mind that Kinch once worked at the late, lamented Quilted Giraffe, one of the first NYC restaurants in the modern era to (controversially) impose a service charge on guests. Here we go: 

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How do you feel about French Laundry and Per Se-style “service included” policies? Would you ever adopt such a system?I would love to do it. It’s the last major hurdle that’s is holding back dining in America. We are the last major industrial nation, civilized nation, where tipping is still in effect. I think it is holding back an entire half of the industry. The hospitality industry is about service. Servers will always be treated as a domestic, as a hired gun, if they’re paid like a domestic, if they have this carrot dangled in front of them. ‘If you don’t give good service, you’re not getting your 15%.’ It’s a terrible mindset. And I don’t see the whole of America coming out of it because it’s so ingrained, which is a real pity. 

The thought process that, well how are they gonna do a good job if they don’t have this threat of me tipping them hanging over them? Well, I what I want to say to people is, what’s your incentive to do a good job? Your incentive to do a good job is about how well you’ve been trained, the quality of your work environment, and your enthusiasm about accomplishing something. I think a service charge should be built into a restaurant, I think the house should take it, and they should use that to pay a living, salaried wage and benefits to service staff, to where it can become an honored profession like it is in Western Europe, like it is in Japan, like it is in South America and Latin America. 

You can be a server, and it can be an honored profession, and you can put your kids through school and you can take vacations, and maybe buy a vacation home, in France, as a server, because you’re making a wage, because you’re making benefits. It’s not because you’re making half the minimum wage, and you’re hoping that you’re going to be set in a good station, or maybe you’re gonna have a big tipper. Or maybe the restaurant had a good week in the [tip] pool and everything comes together. And I would love to do it, but the way the systems are set up, state-by-state and through the federal government, there’s no incentive for us to do it, which is a real shame. 

My fear is that this antiquated, slave system, where people are treated like domestics, is the last vestige holding us back as an industry.  

Are you familiar with the story of the Quilted Giraffe and [owner] Barry Wine?…One of the things that slips under the radar was that Barry went to a service charge system back in the early to mid 1980s where no further tipping was expected…He should be commended for what he tried to do. 

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Why can’t I charge 20%, instead of telling the servers, we had a slow week so you’re not making much money. “Oh can I work this station? Can I have this big whale, this guy spends a lot of money on wine.” They’re begging. They’re begging like slaves, like domestics, to have an optimum situation. Now how is that going to foster an honored profession? Why can’t I take that money and pay those servers $65K a year. I’ll give them benefits. They’ll have $65K a year whether they have a slow week or a busy week. They can plan and budget their lives. It’s a living wage. And the onus of good service, of doing a good job and of being part of a team, is the onus of management to train them correctly, which is yet another incentive in this competitive environment to make everyone better. It makes absolutely no sense to me. 

It’s funny you mentioned this all from a service perspective; I always looked at this from the back-of-the-house perspective, as a possible way to help kitchen staffers earn as much as servers. You can certainly correct that really easy. I can use the service charge to deal with the wage inequality between front and back of the house.

That said, from a legal perspective, and I could be wrong, I believe if you call it a “service charge,” I’m not entirely sure whether sommeliers or anyone besides wait staff are allowed to partake of it.So the federal government is deciding that a sommelier is not providing service? Well Ryan, you and I know that’s the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever heard. Everybody is providing a service. It’s the hospitality industry. What do you mean I can’t use that money to pay my managers? Of course I should be able to do that. They’re the ones that are doing the training, for God’s sake. It’s a screwed up system. 

It’s very simple. I put in a service charge of 20% Or I don’t even do that I just charge…whatever I decide the market will bear, and I put that money in the pocket, and I use that to take care of my team and to build a quality team, and be competitive. And if people don’t want to come to my restaurant for whatever reason, that’s fine. It’s such a win-win situation for the government. They get compliance on all their TAXATION. It’s ridiculous. 

But no. Clients want a so-called power over their servers. ‘You better give me good service, or I’m going to tip you 10%.’The implication, the implied veiled threat that is part of the contract between client and front of house staff.

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If I can edge you on, the natural question that your eloquence provokesis that, would you want to put yourself in a position where you could lead your charge and do all of this? I’m not going to do it to make a political statement. I will do if I can fit it into part of a responsible and productive business model…A service charge system that is clean and simple, that is tax compliant, that allows me to streamline my business to offer more benefits and health insurance to my employees, which to me is an effective tool to keeping people for a long time. Why do I want a waiter or a cook working for me for a year and a half? It takes me three months to train them where I want them to be. And they leave after a year. It’s a waste of my [expletive-omitted] time, Ryan, [blasphemy-omitted].

It’s like I’m spending money training people all the time. That’s another thing about servers getting tipped wages. It’s like they have no allegiance or no loyalty.They’re going to go to a restaurant where it’s busy, where they’re going to make more tips.They’re going to leave because there’s a place where they’re making an extra $75 a week because the restaurant is busy or because there’s an extra shift available. As opposed to working at a place they’re proud to work at, and they can be guaranteed a liveable wage, whether it’s busy or not. A place where they can work on their career, their serviceable skills. A place where they can improve their lot in life.

It’s like they’re hired guns, it’s not like they’re even employees, they’re like mercenaries. They’re the industry mercenaries. They’re domestics. Through no fault of their own. Boy I’m giving you some good stuff here! 

Indeed. 

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    Interesting points made. Here in Oz we’re often given the impression that the US system is better from a $$ point of...
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