Photo by Caitlin Abrams
The cook shortage finally made a splash with big media. Both the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post published long articles at the end of summer about the crippling lack of kitchen workers in our country’s restaurant industry. We chatted about it in this space a while ago (“Called to Serve,” September 2014), but it seems like it’s finally getting discussed on a national level.
The hard fact remains that as more restaurants are opening, fewer people are choosing to work in kitchens—a ratio that’s not sustainable. A friend of mine who is an instructor at a local culinary school says that enrollment is way down, largely because wannabe chefs can get a job right out of high school and learn as they go. Furthermore, she has a hard time seeing some of the students who do enroll as serious kitchen workers, as their expectations of TV stardom far outweigh their commitment to cleaning squid for seven shifts in a row.
Adding to the dearth of cooks is the fact that Minnesota doesn’t have a tip credit, whereby tipped employee hourly wages are lowered by taking into account their income from tips. This would allow extra dollars to go to cooks. Without it, as the minimum wage goes up, the only people benefitting are the tipped employees who are already the biggest money-earning hourlies in the restaurant.
The Minnesota Restaurant Association put forth a reasonable plan where the tip credit would only go into effect after a $12/hour wage was achieved with tips, allowing restaurants to raise the wages of the non-tipped cooks, potentially making it more attractive for would-be kitchen workers to enter the industry. When some media outlet tries to rile you up with a sensationalized story about evil restaurants not wanting to pay servers $15/hour, take a moment to understand that the issue isn’t that black and white.
But change is afoot. Seward’s new Co-op Creamery is trying something different. It offers counter service during the day, full table service at night, and no tipping ever. It simply pays all hourlies a higher wage. If you can’t stop yourself from tipping, your money goes to a seed-saver program started at the co-op. Prices on some items may be higher than you expect, but when you don’t have to do math at the end of the meal, will that have an impact on the way you feel about your experience? Will this model be the one that eventually changes an entire country’s culture of tipping while perhaps luring more cooks to the industry? Only time will tell.