The Firing Line

Most kitchens still use the term “Fire” to signify that it’s safe to begin cooking food for a particular table. The covert operations involved in successfully delivering your food at that magical moment when every member of your party is ready are much more complicated than you think. When you take an unexpected smoke break between courses or stop eating to go off on an hourlong tangent about being raised by your alcoholic stepfather, you put the kitchen and waitstaff in precarious limbo.

In most restaurants, one of these three different approaches usually govern the firing of food:

1) Manual Entry – The waiter has a “FIRE” key on the computer system and will use it to indicate to the Chef that the table is ready. This method can be unreliable when the server gets weeded and is unable to properly communicate a table’s readiness to the kitchen.

2) Scouting – The kitchen will send a food runner to “scout” a table to determine whether it is safe to fire. Most kitchens base their decisions on whether or not to fire on feedback from FOH informants. This is the most common method in a majority of casual to upscale restaurants. Too often, the scout will be overly optimistic in his prediction of readiness, especially when there is pressure from the Chef to push food out of the kitchen to make way for new orders. It is not out of the ordinary for food to arrive prematurely despite this feedback loop.

3) Auto Pilot – High volume restaurants often fire food on a fixed time schedule. A busy kitchen with orders pilling up doesn’t have the luxury of accomodating every table’s individual pace. In this case, for example, a table’s entrees will be fired 10-15 minutes after their appetizers have left the kitchen. Menus with multiple courses or prix fixe may have a set firing schedule with specific times assigned to each course. In these high volume environments, you’d be wise to down your Jalapeño Poppers within a reasonable amount of time unless you want your main course to be served on top of it.

In an ideal world, you will never notice the gears in motion. In good restaurants, FOH and BOH will work in concert to ensure the arrival of each course of food will be seamless. The times you do notice, though, will most likely be when your food arrives too slowly. Sometimes that happens because the staff is unable to accurately project when you will be finished. Picking and nibbling at shared appetizers for example can cause unnecessary delays in the later courses. Restaurant kitchens are not in the business of throwing away food that was fired too soon, so they will usually err on the side of caution. You can help alleviate some of the stress by being mindful of how much time you are taking to finish each course.  Delicious food isn’t conjured by magic.  There are people working—usually in extreme conditions—to prepare it for you. Show respect to the chefs who cook your food by eating responsibly.

Top 10 Reasons To Respect Your Waiter

10) We probably make more money than you – At the top fine dining establishments, full-time waiters make upwards of six figures. Not bad for a job that doesn’t require a college education. Stop asking what else we do.

9) We act as an important buffer between you and the Chef with anger management issues – Do you want to go into the blazing hot kitchen and explain your pine nut allergy to the manic-depressive Chef and why he should consider substituting sunflower seeds on your salad even though there are no sunflower seeds anywhere else on the menu? Waiters will always take a bullet for you as long as you behave like a human being and tip 20%. Being your proxy in the kitchen isn’t as easy as you think.

8) We were probably out drinking until sunrise and can still accurately recite all the ingredients in the Nine-Herb Salad – Try remembering this with a hangover: “Lemon balm, wild sorrel, chive blossoms, fennel fronds, lovage, anise hyssop, opal basil, Thai basil, and Kaffir lime.” What the hell is anise hyssop? Give us a break. Our liver is working overtime and all the Advil in the world isn’t gonna cure this headache. Did we call in sick? No, we gutted it out for the love of the game. For you. So cut us some slack, will ya? Just today.

7) It isn’t easy making a white shirt, black pants, and an apron look this good – Our uniform may be soiled with yesterday’s tomato sauce from hauling your food scraps back and forth to the bus tubs, but we still manage to keep it sexy.

6) We have to laugh at the awful jokes your Dad makes to every waiter every time you go out to a restaurant – “Where’s the rest of it?” Your dad will say looking down at the two bones left on his plate when we offer to clear it. “I wanna send this back.” Sure, we’ll smile and play along but it’s painful. We secretly feel sorry for you.

busboy5) We will let you mispronounce dishes on the menu without correcting you – “No problem, be right back with that Broo-shett for you!” we’ll assure you right before we mock your pronounciation to our co-workers in the waitstation. We’ll take pity and let you go on believing there’s such a thing as “Fried Galamad.” But hey, at least we didn’t embarrass you in front of “the lady”.

4) We do not take it personally when you completely ignore our recommendations – We told you not to order the chicken, dude. We kept saying the hanger steak was the signature dish, remember? We even said we liked the sea bass more than the chicken. You were busy blabbering about having steak three nights in a row, so you didn’t get the message. Your friend, who listened, said it’s the best steak he’s had in years. It’s your fault for ordering wrong. Why did you ask in the first place?

3) We have to read the scathing Yelp review you left about us without a chance for a rebuttal – C’mon did you really wait forty-five minutes for your Buffalo wings? It was more like fifteen. Of course we shouldn’t have been on our cellphones texting in the back, but it’s our second double in a row, the restaurant is understaffed and we haven’t seen our girlfriend in a week.

2) We have to listen to you telling us what celebrity we look like while we clean the crumbs off your dirty table – “Anyone tell you that you look like a skinny version of Phillip Seymour Hoffman—while he was alive?” (Dead silence) “I think he looks like a younger version of that guy from Breaking Bad. Not that you look like a meth-head or anything. No offense.” No, no… we enjoy being compared to famous junkies.

1) This place sucks – Let’s be honest. You had a bad experience, but was it really our fault? Would you want to work in this stinkhole? Did you see how dirty the bathroom was? Now imagine how bad the employee bathroom is. Give us a break. This place sucks.

Thoughts On Tipping

It happens a million times. The waiter drops the check. The guest stares at the credit slip with a furrowed brow, twiddling the pen and staring blankly at the empty tip line.

What should I leave them?

Every diner faces the inevitable decision at the end of the meal of how they will tip. It’s a lonely place. They endorse the check quietly worrying to themselves, wondering if they did the right thing.

There have never been any official published guidelines for tipping—it’s always been a very ambiguous custom—which makes it even more difficult for diners to navigate. There are a lot of gray areas in the debate over gratuities; diners are hungry for change and servers are frustrated by inconsistent and unpredictable income. As unpopular as the custom of tipping has become, it begs the question:

Why hasn’t anyone tried to institute reform?

There are many issues impeding change. The same people who want to abolish tipping altogether are not prepared for the inevitable higher prices that would result. Consumers have become accustomed to a particular price point for dishes when they dine out, but those prices are subsidized by the depressed wage levels of tipped employees. Most states allow restaurant owners to pay adjusted hourly rates that are well below state and federal minimum wages. In some states, this can be as low as $2.13 an hour.

Over time, the burden of paying waitstaff has institutionally shifted from the employer to the customer–likely as a way of artificially keeping food prices down and boosting perceived value. Psychologically, you feel better about the price of your meal when the check is 15-20% lower, even when you are customarily expected to leave “extra” for service. But if Front-Of-House (FOH) are paid below minimum wages, should the tip really be viewed as extra? Even though a service charge is rarely included, many diners have come to perceive the tip as an additional tax. Customarily, leaving gratuity is optional and unenforceable by management. When you leave the waitstaff a deficient tip, however, you are essentially flouting payment for the services you received. What other industry allows you to receive services without mandating that you pay for them?

It is considered taboo for a restaurant manager to approach the table after a guest tips poorly. But wouldn’t management insinuate themselves if that person didn’t leave enough money to pay the bill? Tipping customs have evolved so that your tip is considered an evaluation—either punitive or rewarding. Under the current system, a substandard tip would be considered justifiable if service was unsatisfactory. But sometimes people skimp on the tip in order to save on the cost of the meal. They’re just cheap or—especially in the case of foreign guests—they are ignorant of or don’t feel responsible for obeying customs. In this respect, the current system fails. Even those who resent having to tip on top of their check should be required to pay an appropriate premium, however modest, for service if it isn’t included.

ChangeTipDiners aren’t the only ones to blame for impeding change. Many restaurant workers who receive tips actually prefer that their income be negotiated in an open market. The potential upside of winning the tip lottery is more thrilling and can be infinitely more lucrative than fixed pay. Otherwise, all waiters would work in catering. Waiting tables you feel more like an independent contractor or a commission-based salesperson. Talent will migrate where the tips are highest. Busier restaurants will attract the most tenured staff, struggling ones will be plagued by heavy turnover. Any overhaul to the system would upset these market forces which are deeply entrenched in the industry, in all their dysfunctional glory.

So, what can we do to change the system?

Here are five ideas:

1) Gratuity should no longer be considered optional – Under the current system, menu prices are set artificially lower because restaurant owners can legally pay substandard wages to service employees who are tipped. The “tip credit,” to which it is often referred, evolved out of the determination that gratuities function to make up the difference for any built-in deficiency in hourly wages. However, the system fails when customers skirt their responsibility to tip properly. There may be some cases when service is unsatisfactory and a sub-par gratuity is warranted, but it should be management’s discretion not the guest who decides that a payment for service be withheld. If you are unhappy with a dish in a restaurant, it is ultimately management’s decision whether you pay for it or not—the same should apply to service issues. Every situation is different but there are certainly far too many occasions when an inadequate tip is issued arbitrarily. The bottom line is: If you paid less for your food with the customary understanding that you would leave a gratuity for service, then you should not be allowed to walk away without making an appropriate contribution to compensate those who served you.

2) We should eliminate adjusted minimum wages – The current system is antiquated and is due for a reassessment. According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, tipped employees are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line. Restaurants should not be afforded the opportunity to underpay FOH simply because they receive tips. Hourly wages often go toward helping servers pay taxes on whatever tips they receive. Seattle has recently passed legislation to insure city-wide minimum wages apply to restaurant workers and, as you might imagine, it’s already causing a stir.

3) Diners must learn to accept higher prices – Detractors will say “If FOH wages go up, so will menu prices as restaurant owners are forced to incur higher labor costs.” It’s true, prices will go up. But maybe they should’ve never been so low in the first place. One of the biggest impediments to fixing the system is a consumer who must learn to accept the real cost of dining out. This includes proper compensation of the waitstaff.

4) Guests should not feel pressured to tip on a percentage basis – After ordering an expensive bottle of wine, many diners silently wonder why they are expected to leave a larger tip when all the waiter did was open the bottle and pour it. They usually tip anyway to avoid backlash. But why should a guest tip exorbitantly more money just because they spent more? Conversely, if a table spends less than average on their meal, why is it considered acceptable to leave a smaller tip just because they spent less? Didn’t the server deliver the same services as the big wine check? If minimum wages were raised for tipped employees, it would take some of the pressure off the tenuous relationship that often exists between the guests and staff.

5) Offer more full-time waiters a salary – As more people enter the hospitality industry as a legitimate career it makes sense to have more non-managerial FOH positions that are salaried. Including service charges automatically or adjusting menu prices to subsidize service will create a more consistent pool of revenue for a restaurateur to securely pay his top talent in the dining room. Obviously, it may not work for every restaurant and every situation but there are benefits for both sides if it’s feasible to offer servers more consistent wages.