Dishin' That: When restaurant employees compete, everyone loses

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Work contests do not motivate me. In fact, I’m philosophically opposed to them.

I’m not interested in selling the most desserts, or pushing boutique wines from a distributor sales rep trying to win his own company trip to a far-off vineyard. Inwardly, I snub ego-driven dinner specials along with whatever the kitchen needs to move quickly in the name of food cost.

Fishing for rigged compliments by forcing comment cards on regulars is a waste of time, and often, having the highest percentage of sales means hungrier diners, or those with more finesse, sat in my section.

Over the years, inane contests cooked up by restaurant owners and managers have been accompanied by poster-sized graphs, pie charts (One was headed: “Are YOU the top apple of our pie?”) and the posting of daily status memos we were all expected to sign.

No matter if the contest is a one-night stand of, “Whoever sells the most sea bass gets a free sea bass dinner,” or“Whoever has the highest increase in sales percentages (not everyone works the same amount of hours, making this type of fine print necessary) in a calendar month gets $25,” such work contests do not excite me.

By working for server minimum wage (not to be confused with a living wage), most of us are free agents who join a “team.” The relationship becomes mutually beneficial, so anything that deters from winning – meaning the house and servers all make money by focusing on basics – is not a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about professional growth and development, and even seasoned servers and bartenders can improve their game by learning new ways to up-sell. But we aren’t selling cars. If the front-of-the-house staff is well trained, a constant barrage of contests can backfire, leading to an anti-group mentality.

Even the occasional contest can stir up the pot of competition, deterring from the overall goal of excellent food, served by attentive professionals in a desirable atmosphere. More than once, I’ve seen the balance disturbed because someone lost sight of those key things, obsessing instead on selling white chocolate lavender cheesecake bites.

For the record, I don’t dislike restaurant contests because I can’t win. To the contrary, I’ve won Celtics tickets and was rewarded with “more hours, better shifts” in one highly competitive place where the schedule was never set. It was disconcerting and unfair because push and up-sell as you may, all customers are not created, nor do they order, equally.

Call me a Server Socialist, but I vote for group goal setting and group reward compensation. Had a great year? Throw a party. Maybe single out a server or two in the opening toast with specific accomplishments. But remember, pitting us against each other, no matter how seemingly innocent and fun, will eventually put the dreaded “I” back in Team.

Peas & Q’s

Q — My buddy and I saw you at Dock Fore last weekend and he asked if you were that person who writes the restaurant stuff. You said you weren’t and we both thought that was rude. Even if you answer this I won’t know because I’m not reading it anymore. — Matt H., Portland.

A — Yes, that was me at Dock Fore, and then Amigos (shooting pool terribly), and then at the bar at Zapoteca for dinner. And, if you noticed, I was with My Blue Eyed Yankees Fan, who wouldn’t have enjoyed a break in our limited time together to hear your restaurant horror stories.

Had I been with my BFF, or even Carlykardashian, I would have jokingly told you “not to read that trash,” and then listened without diversion to your inevitable tale of bad service or obnoxiously expensive food.

So, if you’re reading this (and I hope you are), please know my email inbox is always open, even if my rare window of spare time isn’t.

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: @Nhladd.