Photo by Katherine Harris
Server at Hell's Kitchen
Over the next few months, with the increase of the minimum wage, there could be a lot of issues and talk about service in restaurants. There will be ramifications as restaurant owners have to absorb these expenses along with the potential increases in health care costs.
For some, the impact will be severe and a few places might close, unable to make the math work. As the cost of employees rises, others might opt for fewer bodies on the floor, and the approach to service may change. Fewer servers with more tables means less attention for guests. Couple that with higher dining prices, and we’re going to see some frustrated diners. Or worse, people eating out less often. Then there’s the likely chance that eaters will adjust their tips lower in order to compensate for the higher prices, thereby making this whole crazy thing a wash.
Some companies have reacted to the wage increase with talk of opening restaurants without servers, spurring some voices to screed about the death of service and the evil, greedy companies who want to stick it to the hard-working service worker. All I plead is a moment of sanity in all of this.
Within the last three months, more than 30 local restaurants have opened with a full-service staff. Kim Bartmann, who is already hot on the job of paying her staff’s health care costs, just opened her eighth restaurant with no signs of quitting there. Parasole, always growing, just opened Libertine with a full staff. Gavin Kaysen is working to open Merchant, which will likely require a seriously trained service staff. Ling & Louie’s is hiring for open, Le Town Talk will hire, Saint Dinette will hire, The Lexington will be reborn with a whole new staff. Besides Erik Anderson/Jamie Malone and Todd MacDonald, who will open higher-end spots in the near future, there are many, many mid-range and smaller operators that are on the books to open new places and new locations still this year. Even during the toughest of economic times in the past few years, restaurants still opened.
You can’t deny that they are a driving force for our economy. It does no good to vilify the industry for the sake of sensationalism.
The truth is that while most people will be talking about servers and tips, a very real issue in the industry will be ignored. The scarcity of cooks has a lot of people very worried. At no other time in our local food history could a young cook learn more from cutting-edge chefs who are open to collaboration. This is how the next generation of restaurants bubbles up, when line cooks become sous-chefs and then chefs. But most cooks already make well above the minimum wage, which they should. And now restaurants have to pay more to the already highest paid hourlies they have, which means they’ll have less to allot to holding on to and equitably paying great cooks. For me, this is the scarier cycle with bigger ramifications.
In the end, this is a team sport. Restaurants are made up of people and, for the most part, they’re just trying to figure out a way for everyone to win: from struggling hourlies to unpaid owners. This industry is going to be a poster child for the wage increase, and people who have no stake in it will dice it up for lunch in whatever way makes sense for their political agenda. Just take a moment to consider all facets of restaurant operation and appreciate the intricacies of the industry in the next couple of months when the Internet and Yelp flame you up one way or another.