Dishin' That: A stroll in the quicksand that is restaurant minimum wage

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A petition of sorts arrived from a group of readers who work in a hotel restaurant. The topic is one I’ve been avoiding like yesterday’s overpriced salmon special, but now that I’ve been called out, I have to at least dance around it.

“We read your column every week,” the email began. “We usually agree with your viewpoint, and then talk about similar situations we’ve seen here. You mostly do a good job but why haven’t you talked about the wage and cost-of-living increase issue? What’s your personal opinion?”

It was signed with what I believe to be legitimate names, and a bolded P.S. that said, “Don’t print our names. We don’t want to get fired.”

Gee, thanks.

Is there any deeper quicksand for a front-of-the-house representative to jump into than the tipped-employee-minimum-wage saga? Or, the minimum-wage saga in general?

Not so far back in the day, serving and bartending were truly lucrative gigs. One place I worked had a rule of thumb where the house would automatically claim 13 percent of your total sales (including tax). Credit card tips were dispersed nightly, and sometimes, I ended up owing the house when my weekly paycheck arrived because the $3.75-per-hour wage didn’t cover the taxes.

Way far back in the day, we could claim whatever we wanted. The recommendation was 8 to 10 percent of total sales, which seemed fair-to-steep when the acceptable tipping rate was 15 to 18 percent for a job well done. But it was our business, and the hourly rate of pay hovered around $3. We filled out the little claim forms, which went to the in-house payroll person. Once again, I often owed the house money when all was said and done.

Conversely, I worked in a place (but not for long), where credit card tips were factored into a weekly paycheck. This was also the place where the chef/owner took a percent of function and event tips for the kitchen. We could never figure out what we actually made, paid to someone else, or were taxed on.

Some friends who work in country club-type settings get an almost respectable hourly wage, an occasional group bonus, and nothing else. This is soul sucking and counter intuitive to the spirit of serving and bartending.

However, it was explained to me like this: “We want to buy a house and I need to show a steady, consistent paycheck. And really, tips are never, ever a sure thing. How many weeks have you made bank and then had a streak where you couldn’t make your car payment?”

And that point is the real reason tipped employees deserve something reasonable to offset the cost of living they are experiencing along with the rest of Portland.

Regardless of the ever-tightening tip-reporting procedures, which still vary from place to place, base pay for servers for should be increased to help offset how much more it takes to ride the bus to work or buy work shoes seldom found at consignment shops. Rents in Portland are notoriously high, yet even with the small bone some restaurateurs are throwing, tipped minimum wage remains disproportionate to ever-increasing prices.

Before the hate mail starts flowing, let me acknowledge I see the hot potato from both sides. Higher minimum wage is brutal for small business owners, and the waterfront powerhouses alike. I know of a lovely mom-and-pop corner store that has cut hours and inventory; they are on the brink of extinction.

Bottom line is, restaurants are wrestling with the age-old problem of perceived unfair wage distribution between the front and the back of the house (a smart server will never count cash tips in front of anyone else). Line cooks are hard to find, and resentment is at an all-time high.

Logically, increased wages means increased menu prices, and, as I have learned from field marketing research, increased tips do not always accompany this new equation. In reality, the only place the diner has to offset a menu price increase is in the unregulated, unpredictable tip.

Many of us followed the story of the brave servers at 555 in Portland, who left in solidarity over their owner’s vocal opposition to a base cost-of-living wage increase. Since 555 is a star of Portland’s food scene, I’m sure their spots were filled in a nanosecond.

This just scratches the surface. I anticipate many stories representing both sides of the issue because ideology and reality collide here. Perceptions of fairness are skewed by personal and professional financial projections, and the notion that all servers walk away with $100 every night.

Your feedback is encouraged. Just be respectful, and enjoy your meal.

(No Peas & Q’s this week; the quicksand sucked up all my space.)

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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