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In The Weeds: Fringe With Benefits

September 29, 2009


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.


8 Responses to “ In The Weeds: Fringe With Benefits ”

  1. pancake on September 29, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Great Post CJ! This is so interesting – I have thought about this very thing for years and have never been able to fall conclusively on one side or the other. While I was waiting tables (it paid the bills and allowed me to work on my non-paying art – so I fell into that catagory) I would daydream about being offered the kind of benefits that non-food service jobs provided for their employees. I was also dumbfounded by the candor with which my customers felt was appropriate to express their opinions of me – to me. Most of the time it was friendly curiousity, (What do you REALLY do?; Are you in school?; Can I be Tarazan?; etc) but never in my life had I been in the company of so many different people who felt free to comment on my appearance, accent, name, footwear – all things unrelated to the service itself.

    I just don’t know…I also think it would be very difficult for Americans to give up tipping – and it would be very difficult to give up the tips.

    Personally, I enjoy restaurant work and feel grateful that I have a trade that I could fall back on if I had to.

  2. Nat on September 29, 2009 at 12:26 pm
  3. BigCrockofGold on September 30, 2009 at 12:58 am

    It’s the job I love to hate. I tell myself it’s a sales job and I am making a commission off what I sell. I could only make about half my income if I used my degree. But the respect due is often lacking in the business and it kills me when you see someone’s eyes light up when you tell them you have a college degree, but you’d rather be doing this job.

    And when is it going to become OK to go into a business like say a car dealership: piss on the bathroom floor, vomit behind a desk, thrash the car you were test driving and then demand compensation in the form of “Gift Cards” towards your next car?

  4. CJ on September 30, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Big CofG,

    Check out Damrosch’s op-ed in the NYT. She says of types like us, “You’ve probably encountered the wistful Oops-I-Became-a-Career-Waiter who made twice his friends’ starting salaries 20 years ago, but brings home the same money today and is loath to try something new at age 40.”

    This one sentence made me think long and hard about college educated folks like us. Maybe we need to take a few steps back in the here and now in order to be where we want to be at age 40.

  5. John Williams on September 30, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Well I would simply say that in todays economy I see many guests looking for a discount on just about everything. And all restaurants giving just about every discount you can think of just to get people in the store. But none of the patrons wish to tip on the perceieved value they recieve. So, how bout we turn the tables. I come to your table and inform you that all your getting is a glass of warm water, but I still need your 10$ per person in order for you to leave. Sounds reasonable?……think about it.

    wilbo out

  6. teleburst on September 30, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Here’s my take, written a day or two after it turned up:

    I’d like to add that, despite Ms. Damrosch’s espousing of the virtues of service charges in keeping people in the buz, she found a way off of the dining floor after only four years of receiving said service charge.

  7. gordon on September 30, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Service y compris has made sense to me since I was introduced to the concept 36 years ago. It does not hinder a server’s efforts to go the extra mile to receive a bourboire at night’s end. A hybrid system of “guaranteed” pay with incentives for superior service…a form of friends with benefits?

  8. teleburst on October 1, 2009 at 10:22 am

    It sounds like a rasonable idea, but I wonder how many guests would give this “bourboire” once freed from the chains of tipping. Seems to me that most would take the easy way out and not bother. Of course, there are generous people (we rely on them to make up for the ones who aren’t), but they are also sort of “bound” by the idea of tipping, which would almost become an “afterthought”. Eventually, I think that most servers would find that their extra efforts aren’t rewarded much of the time and they would revert to doing enough to justify their salary but not necessarily going the extra mile because the cost/benefit ratio just isn’t high enough.

    Is this an indication of a lack of “professionalism” or a “lack of caring by the guest”? Perhaps a shade of that. I think it’s human nature, esepcially when you’ve been conditioned a certain way. After all, guests don’t always reward servers for great service, nor do servers always deliver the goods.

    I still think that a service charge works for rarified restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s or The French Laundry (or perhaps with certain restaurants in high tourist areas as long as they apply it across the board), but is impracticable for most other restaurants, especially high volume ones.

    Just my opinion, of course. having lived in both types of systems, I recognize the differences that each system has that makes it appropriate for the type of salary/wage system that is most common there.