In The Weeds: Fringe With Benefits
I mentioned last week that I had recently read Phoebe Damrosch’s book “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter.” I was a little too busy taking care of my two kids under four (and an unexpected 200-pound baby who arrived on my couch last week after having a useless organ removed) to comment much on the book. But now that my chef hubby is back in the kitchen and the new flat-screen is installed and successfully babysitting the kids, I’ve had some time to Internet stalk learn more about Phoebe Damrosch.
Her book chronicles her serving career and love affair with the sommelier while working at famed chef Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se. The high pride of the staff is matched by the ridiculously high prices, and her experience as an inexperienced server in a restaurant where servers are expected to know and get excited about each ingredient of every dish (and do!) darn near exactly matched my memories from The Capital Grille…except for that what happens in New York City and in close proximity to celebrities and Central Park is way more important than what happens in Kansas City. Everybody knows that.
Today I stumbled across an op-ed piece Damrosch wrote for the New York Times where she proposes that the dining public may do better to pay a flat “service fee” to restaurants and do away with the tipping system altogether. In turn, restaurants would provide their staffs with all the things that most currently don’t; namely health insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, 401K plans and annual salaries.
She writes, “Tipping provides American waiters with an incentive to increase their check average by pushing bottled water, extra courses, expensive entrees and pricey wines and by showing guests the door as soon as they stop chewing. The service charge shifts the focus from the money to the experience.”
After listing the many types of servers who typically suck (day job types waiting for their band’s big break, anti-establishment types who hate the man, creative types looking for their real niche), she says there are two categories of great waiters. There’s 1) the Europeans and 2) “the mind-reading master who steers you to moments of epiphany, conjures away your empty sugar packets, remembers your duck-egg allergy from your last visit two years ago, and sends you home with cookies for the babysitter.” Wait, European waiters are great? Is France in Europe? Because I only remember cold coffee and eye rolls.
At any rate, Damrosch contends that to attract and retain those workers who are professional and committed, a more professional compensation package must exist. But I wonder, are American diners willing to pay a service charge high enough to cover these kinds of benefits? Would more workers in other “respectable” fields feel inclined to join the hospitality industry if only the benefits were better? Is it only the way we are paid that makes the job of waiter seem only something to do while working your way to something better? Or is there something intrinsic to the job itself that is seen as less than desirable? Like any other field, aren’t there those who shine and those who don’t, regardless of the way they are compensated? Would Damrosch’s proposal mean that more expensive restaurants could charge a higher service fee and therefore offer the best benefit packages, ensuring that middle-class dining would always be full of mediocre service? Could independent restaurant managers ever really be trusted to manage the service fees responsibly and not skim from the pot when times are lean? Damrosch asks, “Would American diners be willing to give up tipping — and its illusion of control — if it meant providing benefits and a living wage for the people who cook and serve their food?”
Maybe I’m more cynical, but as I said a few weeks ago, we encounter bad service everywhere we go. We get it from the hourly store clerks and credit card phone operators and from the well-paid, highly benefited bank managers, doctors, pharmacists, and college professors. I happen to believe that the ratio of bad service among waiters when compared to all other groups giving bad service is actually lower. We just happen to spend longer amounts of time with servers and we dine out much more often than we call the cable company.
The only benefit I can glean in going from a tipped to salaried model is that it may improve the way waiters are treated. Diners often behave as if they are the waiters’ direct boss, and with good reason. When leaving money for someone based on performance, it invites some people to verbalize every misstep, every slight delay, every way in which the server could have performed better. I know of few other jobs where the customer so freely expresses his every whim to the worker. “Doc, you really need to iron your white coat better, those wrinkles are unsightly. And if you are going to keep me waiting in my underwear for 45 minutes, I expect a free prescription” is not something you’re likely to hear. Yet diners feel free to comment on not only our job performance but our hair, our accent, or even our names. I often want to say, sir, I didn’t pop into your cube today and critique how fast you type, your tie selection, or what your mama named you. So kindly step off and tell me how you want your steak cooked.
I would love to hear from servers and diners (that pretty much covers us all, right?). Please use the comment box below to share your opinion on eliminating gratuities and instead charging a service fee that would provide salaries and benefits. Would it attract better workers? Would it enhance the overall dining experience? Would any of you non-servers consider server work if benefits were standard? And, if you aren’t a server or are no longer a server, what makes it seem like a job and not a career choice? I’ve written a lot about how diners annoy us servers. Now it’s your turn. What are your biggest service annoyances when dining out? I suspect you want us to stop saying “enjoy” every time we leave the table. And I know you really hate it when you are held hostage after we never return to drop off the check. Go ahead. Unleash.