A story about the powder keg that is a restaurant workplace

The working culture of a restaurant often hangs by a thread. Employees are used to being mistreated within the industry and employers have to constantly guard against cheating, stealing, or misconduct from their employees. Add razor-thin margins and low wages and you have a situation just waiting to go sideways.

And with that in mind, consider this next story. It comes from Mark Taylor, owner of Siena and former owner of the renowned, but now closed, Cru. This story takes place at Cru. Taylor was putting on a Riedel dinner, where the customers would experience wine pairing with the food and drink the wine from specialized glassware which they would then keep.

Events like this are common. People enjoy them, they bring in new customers, and they tend to be profitable for both owner and employee. In this case, however, all it took was a minor misunderstanding to turn all that good news into an ugly scene.

A Waiter Lashes Out

“So we did a dinner with that [Riedel glassware] and the wines. And they all got to keep their set of glasses, the set of four, to go home. Reidel packages them like that so you can do that. But the deal is that me, as the restaurant, I have to buy all those—at a wholesale price—but I have to buy all the glassware. And then, so the way I structured the thing internally was I’m charging these people for the dinner and the wine and the glassware.

“But what I’m going to do, I don’t want to buy and sell the glassware at a profit and then have to charge PST on it and all that, so I’m just going to include it, and again this probably isn’t proper technically, but I’m just—there’s going to be fifteen percent on the food and beverage and I’m also going to add the cost of the glasses as a gratuity onto the bill and then at the end of the night however many, twenty sets of glasses, I’m going to take that money to pay the bill, pretty much however I choose to recover the cost of the glasses I bought.”

So Taylor's strategy was to tack on a gratuity for the staff, plus an additional "gratuity" to recoup the cost of the glasses. From our conversation, I had no sense that Taylor wanted a cut from the 15% which went to the staff. But neither did he want to be out-of-pocket for the glassware. His strategy was intended to keep things as simple as possible. But for one server, it had exactly the opposite effect.

“So, with all our transparency and all my taking care of waiters so well for so many years, this guy got a bee in his bonnet that I’m taking tips and it’s unfair and la la la. I got the most ridiculous resignation letter from him. So his thing was that the people who work the floor should be the ones who deserve to get all the money and so on. So I told everyone exactly how it played out. Maybe it wasn’t exactly clear enough before the event, but it’s just... You work your five hour shift serving food and you go home with like a hundred and eighty dollars, and you’re complaining to me like this.”

The Owner's Dilemma

Taylor agrees that there is often a distrustful atmosphere in the industry. Margins are thin and many owners pass that on to their employees by skimming tips or under-paying them. However, not all of them do.

“I hire very carefully and we scrutinize them the first little while to make sure that they’re going to fit into my team properly, and from then on I just let it take its course. Because like I said, I believe that I treat them well and they tend to stick around for a while. They come to work happy. But I’ve worked at other places where they come to work fearful and the staff is looking to see what they can squeeze out of the night. And you can feel it as a customer, I think, the kind of competition that’s going on around, nobody wants that. It’s a subliminal thing. I think that a lot of what we experience in restaurants is under the surface. We don’t really know why, but there it is.”

Taylor has put his finger on something important. I can remember being paid less than minimum wage at one of my first jobs. However, I can also remember cooks stealing food, bartenders giving away booze, and workers clocking hours they did not work. In short, when people aren’t paid properly, or feel like they’re being cheated, they will not feel much loyalty, leaving them feeling just fine about making up the difference.

If you have to steal to get what’s yours, you do it. It's not right, but it does happen.

To be clear, not everybody does this any more than all employers are looking to cheat their workers. There are people like Mark Taylor who espouse a belief that respect is reciprocal. Many workers are true, honest professionals.

But the general tone of distrust does creep in from time to time. In some places, whether the owner is a cheat or merely incompetent, workers end up with less than their fair share. How can you help but be on the lookout for your boss pulling a fast one?

Add widespread substance abuse and grinding poverty and you have a situation that is waiting to ignite. Taylor did suggest that this waiter may have had “other issues.” Still, it is not much different from many incidents I have witnessed over the years.

Is There an Answer?

Trust is easily eroded, but there is no obvious solution to the problem.

Should workers simply be paid a living wage?

How much more would you pay for dinner in order to know that the workers are happy?

Or is trust the kind of thing that can never be fully repaired? If so, how bleak is this picture?

How about unions? Should we be talking about unions? Or would that just deepen the divide between owner and employee?

As always, I welcome your comments and emails.

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