Dishin' That: Restaurant salaries follow a closely guarded recipe

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A reader in Durham emailed her Rubik’s Cube of a question at a most serendipitous time.

“My friend’s son cooks at a high-end restaurant, and after five years there, he makes all of $12 an hour. How is it fair that the waitresses earn $350 a shift? Cooking the food is certainly at least as, if not more, important than serving it.”

Coming off 21 hours of bartending and serving in three days (the entire weekend), my new “part-time” restaurant job gives me a fresh opportunity to reconsider the front- and back-of-the-house perceived rate-of-pay inequalities. With the operative word being “perceived,” most people don’t know that the fallout from this discussion goes much deeper than someone making more money than someone else.

The great divide of resentment between the people in the kitchen, and the tipped, and tipped-out support staff (hosts, busers, service bartenders, food runners) varies from place to place. Sounds corny, but seasoned professionals make peace with it because they know each cog in the machine is equally as important as the other. Many well-respected chefs marvel at the skills of servers who deal with demanding, entitled guests on a regular basis.

Cooking the food is at least important as serving it. But so is being a Dish Dog. He’s the sweaty kid responsible for washing mounds of over-sized plates, stacks of saute pans and running silverware that needs to be rolled immediately. And he barely makes minimum wage.

If you’re waiting to be seated, the host is the most important position. This is the person juggling a floor plan resembling Blackbeard’s treasure map. She/he is also dealing with campers who refuse to vacate a table, and a surprising number of people who insist they made a reservation, but have noses like Pinocchio.

As far as servers are concerned, yes, they do make more money than line cooks, but as stated above, are not more or less important. Server pay is a crap shoot, because they are not guaranteed a $350 nightly pot o’ gold.

Server minimum wage is under $4 an hour (a quarter of what that friend’s son earns) and the majority of their compensation comes directly from the perception (there’s that buzz word again) of service they provide. Tipping percentages are unknowns loosely determined by individual inclinations and societal standards. How it all started, and why it continues, is a column for a different day.

What people outside the business don’t consider are the down times, when server minimum wage is as good as it gets. With a few exceptions, places offering an opportunity to make $350 an evening are seasonal, weather-sensitive and staffed by career servers. A line cook working in one of those restaurants stands an excellent chance of learning from local greats, and moving up, or on, to a sous chef or chef de cuisine position. If running an upscale kitchen is a lifelong goal, than paying dues as a line cook for $12 per hour is a no-brainer.

But is it fair? Once again, it’s a matter of perspective. Everyone makes choices in life, and I’m willing to bet your line cook would be miserable waiting tables, no matter what the pay. However, that isn’t the answer to the question.

Fair or not, it really has nothing to do with how much the servers make and everything to do with what the house pays. Is the friend’s son a full-time employee, or home from college? Does he have full availability? Is he good at what he does? Is he a team player? And most importantly, is the house managed well and making money?

The real question is not about what the servers are making, but about about his five years on the job. If the answer is yes to the questions above, then it’s time to ask for a raise, or take his hard-earned experience elsewhere.

Peas & Q’s

To those who have asked, I am back in the saddle and working someplace really fun. The staff and guests have been welcoming and management treats all of us with the utmost of respect and consideration. I can’t plug the joint here, but send me an email if you’d like to sit in my section (or at the bar on Sundays) and enjoy live music, good food and one of the greatest views Portland has to offer.

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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, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.