It started like any other Sunday night in Paris, and ended like many do too. Myself (a Brooklyn transplant and restaurant professional of over ten years), along with four friends, walk into a restaurant in the hip area of Montmartre. We were hoping to have a drink or two, and a bite to eat. I immediately start glancing around, feeling half like a customer and half like a worker, as I often do. “There’s a five top along that wall, it just needs to be cleaned,” I think to myself. It seems busy, but not overwhelmingly so. We should be sat within three minutes and ordering in ten. The specials look good. They’re scribbled on a board, propped up proudly at the end of the bar, facing outwards for all the restaurant to see.
We sit, and we order drinks. Two beers, two wines, and a glass of Martini Bianco with lemon. I see a young couple sit down, and I watch as our waitress approaches them, explains the specials and takes their drink order. They say they know what they’d like to eat as well, so she gets everything at once. “Excuse me,” I say, “We’d like to order too, please.”
“Le menu du jour est terminé,” the waitress says sternly at us, rather than to us. The specials are finished. We order off the regular menu, sit back, and relax…
We chat about our weekend as the waitress stands at the bar and talks to her colleague. They’re talking for a while, I notice. Surely this doesn’t have to do with the service. She grabs the two drinks and brings them to the couple next to us. We try to give her a wave, but she’s off into the distance too soon. About ten minutes later, the bus boy serves the couple their meals, a caprese salad for her, duck confit and potatoes for him.
The waitress is nowhere to be seen for several minutes. We’ve gotten up to ask for our drinks once already, directly to the bartender. He says they’re on their way. About 30 minutes after we’ve arrived, the couple has just finished eating. We get up to leave, still yet to be served a single thing. We excuse ourselves and head out the door.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” The waitress says in French. “Stop! You have not paid yet!”
While this may seem to the seasoned New Yorker like a single bout of horrible, awfully flighty service, it is in fact the norm in a place where tipping does not exist. Slow service and snarky attitudes plague Paris’ restaurant scene. Inflexibility and lack of enthusiasm circle around the tables like a cold breeze. If you ask for water, prepare to be served a glass with a heaping pile of reluctance, and watch your friends proceed to explain that they, too wanted water. I’ve been told the coffee maker isn’t cleaned, so there’s no coffee. I’ve been told ‘two minutes,’ only to wait for forty. I’ve sat through a breakfast of omelettes and crepes, orange juice and coffee that took two hours to complete, only after I reminded the server that we had indeed ordered those crepes, and would like to eat them sometime soon.
I’ve been served two different sized glasses of wine for the same price, while being told ‘I got lucky’ with the larger one. I’ve been told we can’t be seated because the kitchen is closing in thirty minutes. And, as a restaurant worker myself, I’ve been thanked extensively because I offer a style of service here in Paris that is efficient, polite and accommodating, something that is surprising in the eyes of a Parisian. In my eyes it’s appropriate, and the right way to work and not be fired.
Working for tips lights a fire under the you-know-whats of wait staff, many of whom may or may not be preoccupied with their performance art or law school studies. A restaurant thrives on intense focus, efficiency and skill. Simply put, the pressure is always on. Like accomplishing a complex sports strategy combined with the grace of a ballet, working the front of house on a busy Friday night takes skill. It takes staying calm under pressure, and multi-tasking unlike any other job I’ve seen before. It takes is highly aware workers that must perform at their best or risk the entire restaurant crashing and burning. It takes putting a reputation on the line, and potentially securing or destroying hope for a loyal customer. One must be polite, direct, knowledgable, and even entertaining. Though the restaurant industry is often seen as a last resort for employment, the best restaurants in town rely on the best workers in town; battle hardened professionals that know exactly what their doing. It’s this very meritocracy that keeps New York City restaurant service so far elevated above the borderline comical excuse for customer service in places like Paris, where there are no tips. If all of that goes away, tables will be turned slower. Wine lists will seem less appealing, and that extra carafe of water or question about a nut allergy will be forgotten.
But say that wasn’t the case, and that it was merely a numbers game.
In the fine dining world—and slowly trickling down to the smaller riff-raff that are the best little restaurants in the city—many establishments have done away with tipping in an effort to provide more reliable wages for workers, particularly for cooks and managers. This concept has been made popular by Danny Meyer of Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe, and his entire Union Square Hospitality Group empire.
Meyer uses Europe as an example when proposing that everything can be included in the initial price of the menu items (lest he forgot there is no free healthcare stateside). No service charges or gratuity are charged nor relied upon. He explains that by getting rid of tips, waitstaff whom excel at their jobs can be rewarded through pay raises. It’s no secret that raises seldom happen, especially in a timely manner. Or perhaps they will take on the form of the corporate raise, increasing only by a minuscule percentage, allowing enough money for an extra shot of espresso in your coffee each morning but not much else. Hard work is already rewarded in the restaurant industry, in the form of large tips. Staff members are instantly awarded, and in a way that is more sizable than anything Meyer claims this new structure will be able to offer. A hundred more dollars than usual—in cash—is just that: a hundred more dollars in cash.
Especially in New York, diners are affluent. If one can’t afford to go to a restaurant—and tip—he or she won’t. If you’re in a restaurant where a cocktail costs $14 and a fresh market side $9, you can afford the check and will reward excellent service with an additional amount you find suitable. At the very least, 90% of patrons will always tip 20 or 25 percent. I know this because in ten years of working in restaurants, I was only left ‘no tip’ about five times, and have consistently been given a tip ranging between 18 and 25 percent. Several times per month I would see a much larger tip, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. One diner in my old restaurant would tip a flat 50 dollars each time he dined. His bill rarely exceeded $120. In the present age of internet and guide books, even foreign tourists are now aware that tipping exists in the United States, and are happy to oblige.
It’s true that we get hit with a slow night once in a while, but good management knows to schedule you for a Friday if you’re also working a Monday. For each ‘bad night’ I experienced, I also experienced a night where I would walk out with enough cash in my pocket to cover one week’s gross salary of one of my Corporate America friends.
But what about cooks? Of my ten years in the industry, I’ve spent two or three in the kitchen, and it stings to see the waitstaff earning so much more, something that certainly does happen in most, if not all, establishments. Kitchen work is gruesome, fast-paced, and physically demanding. Don’t we deserve a cut?
In January, the ‘tipped minimum’ in New York State is being raised 50%, to $7.50 per hour. This is the minimum hourly wage that workers who earn tips must be paid. Instead of the standard five dollars per hour that tipped minimum workers are currently awarded, they must now be awarded $7.50. This increase comes at the expense of the restaurant. But therein lies the mistake. If the restaurant is required to spend that money, it could go directly to the cooks salary instead, not the tipped minimum workers. Fast food workers are soon to be earning $15 per hour, and cooks deserve the same compensation. The question isn’t why fast food workers are suddenly earning $15 per hour, it’s why where other restaurant kitchen workers excluded from this law in the first place? The solution to cooks’ wages is being sought in the wrong place; at the expense of wait staff.
Instead of tips, Meyer says his menu prices will increase 15 to 20 percent. This won’t affect patrons, because a 20% increase in bill price or money spent on a tip equals out, once all is said and done. But take a closer look, and everyone loses.
Figure that menu prices go up 20%. Even if every single cent of that new profit went to evenly distributed staff wage increases—and none in the restaurant’s pocket—waitstaff wages go down by about 10%. That remaining 10% to the kitchen staff won’t be enough to solve their financial woes. It wouldn’t puts cooks anywhere close to the $15 mark. Keep in mind that cooks often work 12+ hour days as well, thereby diminishing the hourly impact this extra money would have.
Not to mention this does nothing to ensure paid time off nor benefits. What all kitchen staff needs is a raised state-wide minimum wage, plus affordable health care benefits and paid time off. They also need sick leave, as its absence often means sick workers serving you your food because no one else is there to do it. I’ve done it, and many I know have done it as well.
Ultimately, Meyer’s thinking may sound appealing, but it’s flawed. Servers wages aren’t the only place to find money to pay cooks, but I wonder if Meyer thought about that while he was traveling to Sweden and Russia, Paris and South Africa. What profits his restaurants must make to afford such luxurious vacations. Perhaps the cooks could get a bigger piece of that pie.