The Mysterious Case of the Late Night Handover

Late night diners are always more susceptible to being abandoned by their servers. Not the inevitable complacency you find when it’s closing time—no, the kind where you’re halfway through your appetizers and the waiter approaches to inform you that he is leaving. We’ve all been there. Sometimes, though not always, you’re treated to an awkward goodbye like a Tinder date that never really tindered. Occasionally, there is an uncomfortable exchange where you’re introduced to the incoming server like meeting your new foster parent. This is Phil, he’ll be taking care of you the rest of the night. You’ll do your best to hide the separation anxiety. The first guy was very helpful with the menu and made great recommendations. You wonder if he’s going to share in whatever tip you leave. Moments later, Phil comes over to the table without introducing himself and tries to bully you into clearing your unfinished plates. You immediately miss the original waiter even more. You start to romanticize the relationship you had like missing an ex-girlfriend who dumped you freshmen year.

Most restaurants that keep late hours stagger their employees’ schedules to combat apathy. In theory, the people who came in late should be the most fresh and well-rested to keep the energy level high for the last tables. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. In practice, servers and bartenders who know they’re closing the following day use it as license to stay out late and party the night before. So the closing staff may be more rested but it may only mean they’ve had more time to nurse their hangovers. The late staff—as custodians of the tip pool—should be concerned with generating as much money in tips from the last few tables as possible, but its priority is usually closing up shop. The late waiters know their share of the tip pool will be the same no matter what time they leave so it’s not uncommon to find them cutting corners to get out sooner.

In order to facilitate the transition between opening and closing waiters, restaurants with staggered schedules often allow tables to be “transferred” at the end of the night. Management usually prefers this process to be transparent and will require the staff to inform the guest before they leave. The server isn’t fishing for a gratuity when he warns you of his impending departure; tips are likely pooled among the staff. He just doesn’t want you to feel abandoned. Perhaps, more importantly, though, he doesn’t want to risk getting in trouble when you complain that your server disappeared. No matter what, when he approaches the table to end the relationship, it almost always feels like a bad breakup. It’s not you, it’s me.

So how do these staggered schedules work? Let’s say there are four waiters on the roster. With a staggered schedule, two of them will arrive an hour or two early to set up the restaurant and two will arrive shortly before the restaurant opens. The same will be true for support staff like busboys and food runners. Some are expected to come in early to polish silverware and fold extra napkins, others come late and sweep the dining room floors. At the end of the night when things quiet down, the early staff will be dismissed first. Those who started their shifts later will take over the last tables and stay until the last guest leaves.

Staggering shifts can be problematic for service. The server who takes over may not always have the same sense of ownership he has with his own tables. Earlier conversations that the new server hasn’t been privy to—material information about food allergies or time constraints for example—can be lost in the shift change and lead to hiccups in service. Continuity is an essential component of great service and political coups midway through your meal can send even the greatest experience off the rails.

As much as it sucks to leave guests hanging in limbo, staggered schedules are a necessary evil. In great restaurants, you’ll barely notice when your table has been transferred—when everyone is so deeply invested in your care, the seams are invisible. They make it look easy, but it isn’t. Restaurant work is physically and emotionally exhausting. Atrophy is a daily struggle and, at the end of the day, keeping the staff fresh is just as important as the freshness of the food.

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Don’t Ignore the B-Sides

Most nights in countless restaurants all over the globe, a healthy collective of random tables will order the exact same thing. They’re commonly referred to as the Chef’s “Signature Dishes” in today’s foodie nomenclature. I despise the term and so should you—if not for the simple reason that it sounds like a line of frozen microwaveable entrees. These tables don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. “We heard the [blank] is a can’t miss—best in the city,” they’ll tell the waiter as they hand back the menus they never bothered to consider. It happens everywhere. They say they “heard” about it, but they really mean they spent three hours scouring articles on Google and swiping through countless Yelp images and reviews of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

When people order this way where I work, our staff jokingly refers to it as the “Number 1”—our version of an upscale McDonald’s value meal. You learn to forgive them. They might never have a chance to dine with us again—whether because of the herculean task of securing a reservation or the trans-Atlantic distances they’ve traveled—but it doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t really experiencing the restaurant as it was intended. Signature dishes are poisoning our dining experiences. Our meals are becoming monolithic and our choices driven less by our personal tastes and more about the flawed wisdom of the masses.

Chefs put together their menus with the same thought and care as musicians do conceiving an album. Everything matters—from the order of the songs and the cover art to the recording equipment and the personnel in the studio. Our dining habits mirror the way we listen to music in the digital era—more and more diners follow popular trends and choose the hits over the deep cuts. We are more apt to click on the songs we know or the ones that come up at the top of the “Most Played” list when we search a particular artist. On the surface, we’re robbing ourselves of the joyful unpredictability of a spontaneous dining experience but, on a deeper level, of the possibility that we might actually prefer the tracks on Side Two. So why have diners become so fearful of flipping the record?

Take the time to read the menu. Making too many obvious choices can lead to disappointment.

My dear friend the late, great Gina DePalma would occasionally stop serving her wildly popular Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake at Babbo—an embargo against the general public for ignoring the rest of her pastry menu. She poured so much of her heart and soul into her pastry program and loved all of her desserts like her children. If you asked her which dessert was her favorite, she’d demure like a proud mother. Eventually, she’d cave in and reinstate the Cheesecake just so she wouldn’t have to listen to everyone complaining about her taking it off all the time. Maybe she was also playing a little hard to get. Either way, selling thirty cheesecakes a night while a seasonal tart she’d labored over for weeks went unsold drove her nuts.

Is there a statute of limitations on how long an iconic dish is still essential to the experience of the restaurant? There should be. As time goes by, some chef’s “signatures” don’t have the same luster—like a graying 70’s lite rock artist signing the same song over and over years past his prime. The song doesn’t always remain the same. Yet like pop musicians who have throngs of fans, well-known chefs face backlash if they don’t cook the hits. It incensed the Bob Dylan faithful when he plugged his guitar into an amplifier. But it was necessary to his evolution as an artist; and he was probably sick of singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” every night. As much as his fan base yearned for the old Bob, most of those people didn’t stop listening to him. His updated sound also brought new fans into the fray. They understood that experimentation is part of the creative process. It’s the same with food, but we’ve become too casual as listeners. The best way to get to know a chef is by tasting the dishes on his or her menu that aren’t popular.

As an audience, we affect the type of music chefs play. If we order conservatively, they’ll cook conservatively. We need to be more supportive of chefs when they have the courage to abandon the past and carve new paths. To accomplish this, we need to rearrange our mindset about what it means to be disappointed with what we’ve ordered. Dining is fraught with risk. It costs the same money whether you like what you’re eating or you don’t. As the expense of dining out has risen, so too has our proclivity to hedge—making safe choices and following the herd. But we need to understand that hedging, while limiting losses, also limits profits. Having someone you don’t know cook for you is already a leap of faith. But, in a restaurant, it’s so much more exciting to jump without a net.

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The Tyranny of the Tip Pool

Most restaurant staffs share tips. This means when you sign the credit card slip to reward your excellent server—let’s call him Darrell—that $50 you’re leaving doesn’t go directly into his pocket. In fact, Darrell only takes home a fraction of it. In a majority of restaurants, gratuities are consolidated into a common “pool”—a pool that usually has a lot of people who need to get paid swimming in it. Though your server may be the public face of everything that goes on at your table, the work involved in delivering seamless service is a team effort.

You might not notice the quiet infantry of food runners shepherding your plates from the kitchen to the table or the agile crew of buspersons swooping in to harvest dirty dishes and keep your table unencumbered by crumbs. Your cocktails sure as hell aren’t going to make themselves, so of course the bartender gets a piece of the action for that delicious martini he transferred to your dinner bill. He usually also needs a barback to help restock the bar—like a single parent with another hungry mouth to feed. Hostesses or maitrés’d, though they often are not directly involved with table service and rarely receive tips, may also be awarded a cut. In fine dining, a sommelier—whose presence is justified by stimulating wine sales—is necessary, and of course so is forfeiting a healthy chunk of gratuities in exchange for his salesmanship. Every one of these roles described here is essential to your experience and, to varying degrees, everyone’s pay is determined by the tip you choose to leave.

So, consider that $50 tip you left Darrell. Most likely, twenty percent will be divided among the bussers and another twenty percent for the food runners—that’s $10 each off the top. The bartender and wine steward will take ten percent apiece, so there goes another $10. In some restaurants, the hostess or maitre’d will take $5 more bringing the tip-out total to $35 which leaves poor Darrell with a whopping $15 in his pocket—less than a third of your total tip. Oh… and unless you tipped cash don’t forget the three percent service charge levied by the credit card companies that the restaurant often conveniently passes along to Darrell. Whatever is left at this point will be paid on a check at the end of the week where Uncle Sam will be tipped out at least another twenty-five percent in the form of whatever federal, state, local and social security taxes may apply. So that $50 tip turns out to be about $10 of take-home pay. If even. Considering Darrell just spent the last two hours accommodating your obscure requests and enduring your abuse, ten measly bucks isn’t much of a reward.

TipsRestaurant managers want their staff to make more money. After all, their employees work on a commission of sales so, in theory, it’s a goose-gander relationship. If tipped employees aren’t making enough money just put less people on the floor, right? Actually, it’s not really that simple. Running with a skeleton crew might please the staff but often at the expense of service when it stretches everyone too thin. As diners become more savvy, restaurants can ill afford slippage in their standards of service. So if staffing less is impractical, restaurants are forced into a form of gerrymandering—redistricting the floor plan to expand individual waiter’s stations while adding more support staff to handle the grunt work. The pie is the same size, it’s just sliced differently—more smaller slices and fewer bigger ones. Restaurants that struggle to find and retain FOH more often experience high turnover due to overstaffing not because of lack of business.

It bears repeating: Just because a restaurant is busy doesn’t mean its front of house staff is making a lot of money. Finding the right formula is very challenging for restaurant managers to maximize the earning potential of its staff and foster an environment conducive to retention. Restaurants that have abolished tipping are facing the same challenges. In order to make a reasonable amount of money, most waiters rely on volume. Using the example above, if Darrell has ten tables throughout the night who all tip $50 each—at $15 take home pay per table—he can walk with $150 in tips. Anything under that is considered a shitty night. Anything over that is gravy. This is why tipping well when service is exemplary makes such a difference. You can be the gravy.

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