We Serve You -- We Aren't Servants

By Tove K. Danovich

First I was a host, then a server, and in a flash I found myself with five years of New York City restaurant experience on my resume. When I sat down to read Saru Jayaraman's new book Behind the Kitchen Door about worker conditions within the restaurant industry, it was as someone who'd witnessed many of these problems firsthand.

Yet, I'm a tall, college-and-private-school-educated, white female from a middle class family. I'm within the group of people who, as Jayaraman wrote, have "the right look." Because of my background and luck, I've been able to work in restaurants where my wages have never been stolen, where managers allowed me to call out when I was sick with the flu, and where, while you might hear some rude jokes, no coworker or owner would ever cross any boundaries.

Unfortunately, the majority of the 11.2 million people employed in the restaurant industry could not say the same. In New York City, 40 percent of restaurant workers are undocumented workers. Jayaraman writes, "Only 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a livable wage and women, people of color, and immigrants face significant barriers in obtaining those livable-wage jobs." Whether you are a customer or employee, it doesn't take much observation to note the color and nationality of those working in front of house (ie. better-paid ) positions compared to everyone else.

Labor abuse is an issue all throughout food production and distribution industries. What makes these service jobs unique is that you, the general public, interact with members of the restaurant industry every time you go out to eat. You could easily go through life without speaking to a slaughterhouse or field worker but, when an average American spends over $2,000 a year in restaurants, it's hard to avoid your server.

Behind the Kitchen Door focuses mostly on problems within the restaurant itself and, as these can all be fixed with better legislation (like paid sick days and raising "tipped wage" which is federally mandated at $2.13 an hour), they have easier solutions. Far more difficult is fixing the problems between customers and staff.

A small but pivotal point in the book's narrative comes at the beginning of a chapter titled "The Tipping Point."

"I used to be a bad tipper. Even though I ate out frequently, I didn't understand what tipping really meant. Part of me resented the whole idea. Weren't servers being paid for their jobs? Why did I need to pay more than the price of my meal? Wasn't service part of the menu price? I worked hard for my money, and eating out was a guilty pleasure, so feeling compelled to leave something extra just didn't seem right. If I left $5 for a $40 meal, I felt good about myself"

Jayaraman, who is today a leader in restaurant-worker's rights, is admitting that she once didn't know how to tip. She didn't refuse to tip the now-standard 20% because of bad service. She had to be taught how -- she was a "bad tipper" -- because the relationship between servers and their customers is not a normal one.

If you work in a restaurant and enjoy your job maybe it's best that you don't read Behind the Kitchen Door -- because it will make you believe that things can be better. Not only can your managers and owners treat you and pay you better but your customers, too, have an obligation to treat you with dignity and respect.

As a server, I count on each $10 glass of wine I sell to mean en extra $2 in the tip pool. When I've interviewed for restaurant positions, almost all managers will cite a night's sales as an indicator of what your wages might look like upon hiring. A restaurant's staff not only assumes that sales mean a better paycheck, our managers and owners do too.

But the general public does not.

There's an article being swiftly passed from one New York City server to the next called "You Got Served!" The author details everything he hates about NYC restaurant service:

"Frankly, garçon, I don't even need to know your name. By the time you tell me about the specials, I've already forgotten it. You're a servant. So serve."

While infuriating to see this type of behavior not only encouraged but published, author Kyle Smith isn't alone in his attitudes.

He compares servers in New York to those in France where "waiters don't even work for tips (the customer is expected to leave a mere euro or two) and yet they're so much less annoying."

"And yet?"

Of course they're better. I'd rather be a server there too. In France, waiters are professionals with a salary. In New York City, you'd still be a servant after 20 years of experience in the best restaurants in the world.

I've spent five years learning the art of patience and holding my tongue. When I overheard a group of customers bad-mouthing our coat check person for being "too slow" running their five suitcases and armful of coats up the narrow staircase ("Someone should really write a review never to check your coats here. What is wrong with him?"), I actually took a minute to decide whether keeping my job was worth letting them bring that attitude, unchecked, to other restaurants.

Later that same night, a coworker told me, "This job is an interesting study of human nature. We get to see a certain caliber of clientele act at their absolute worst." And they do.

A friend once told me a story about his uncle, an old-New York art-dealer type who'd leave a stack of bills on the table each time he went out to eat. "This is yours if the service is perfect," he'd say after introductions.

Were the drinks late because the bartender was overwhelmed? He'd slide a bill off the table. The owner still hadn't fixed the dishwasher so the silverware had water spots on it? Another one, gone. If this patron had to wait for his check after dinner, well, then the pile became very small. Before working off a tipped wage, this story made an odd kind of sense to me. If you are tipping for service, then it should be perfect to receive 20 percent. In reality, what we call a gratuity is not a gift; it's payroll.

A restaurant's staff is not employed by its patrons. And a waiter or waitress is not a servant, we are providing customers with a service. So why are our customers the ones paying us?

Our system of wages in the restaurant industry would be like a furniture salesperson making commission only if the customer "felt like" paying an extra 5-10 percent. No other industry does that and none should. If we really wanted restaurants to pay their workers fairly, we would require them to pay their own workers and factor that expense into their prices -- much like every other business has ever had to do.

Originally published on Food Politic.