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Opinion

Being a Paying Customer Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

As with most consumerist pursuits in America, we think of dining out transactionally. A restaurant visit is a decision to pay for culinary pleasure, where our senses are centered in the delivery of nourishment beyond what we need and hedonism that we cannot reproduce in our own homes. Some are grateful for that exchange, others carry with them an attitude that talented chefs are lucky to have a hungry audience willing to pay to taste their cooking. To those unfortunate souls, the higher the cost of a meal, the more pleasure they expect in return.

Entitled diners have a tendency to oversimplify this calculus in a way that obscures their understanding about the proper cost of a meal. Those people might accuse a $50 steak of being too expensive by comparing it to a $20 steak they can buy from their local butcher or a $30 dollar steak served in a more casual eatery. The restaurant industry is competitive, which makes it easy for guests to abdicate their role in sharing the financial burden restaurants face like escalating rents and rising labor costs.

Aggrieved parties that write negative restaurant reviews online almost uniformly complain about prices. These guests don’t tend to evaluate a restaurant experience in terms of whether or not it was enjoyable but whether or not they perceived the transaction as profitable. Online critics and restaurant owners rarely see eye to eye on the appropriate cost of a great meal.

The forced deprivation caused by quarantine measures should make us all realize what an immense privilege it is to dine out. We’ve spent the greater part of the last few decades fetishizing chefs’ culinary imaginations and living out our voyeuristic fine dining fantasies through the lenses of our smartphone cameras. The more we conceive of our dining selves as vessels for arousal, the less we bring to the table in terms of making those sparks fly. Sex is never good if you just lay there. It’s the same at the dinner table. The restaurant industry needs your love right now, not your lust.

A restaurant’s primary function has always been to provide the public sanctuary. Its protracted absence has made public life less vibrant. Even as the pandemic ravages our industry, though, restaurants have continued to find innovative ways to welcome guests, facilitating intimacy at a time when proximity to others is forbidden.

Without restaurants, we’ve learned how integral the act of dining out is to the way we socialize. Meeting friends for drinks cannot be simulated with the same warmth remotely. Restaurants still provide the backdrop for indelible memories—romance, friendship, business deals, and celebrations. Without the adrenaline rush of a crowded dining room and the heartbeats of others, food cannot have the same impact. Restaurants are conduits for human connection.

Most of us haven’t comfortably occupied a seat in a restaurant in months. If we have, it probably didn’t put us at ease the way we remembered. The virus has placed a choke hold on the hospitality industry and suffocated so many hard-earned careers. Building a profitable restaurant takes years, but it takes only a matter of months to bankrupt one.

The industry won’t have an easy time digging itself out of this hole, but there are things we can do as guests to support the recovery effort, beginning with rearranging our mentality about the role we play in their success. If we want our favorite restaurants to survive, we need to be more than paying customers.

Having a deeper appreciation for the role that restaurants play in our communities means thinking not just about where we dine but about how we dine.

Guests who approach restaurant visits with the mentality that its primary function is to provide pleasure make it increasingly difficult for restaurants to please them. The constant burden to prove themselves is exhausting for restaurant professionals and fosters hostility in our workplaces, hastening burnout and substance abuse. Hospitality will have to change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but guests should too. You can help alleviate some of that strain by approaching future dining experiences more empathetically.

Start by thinking differently about what it means to have a reservation. With seating capacity limited in many municipalities, the effect of reneging on a reservation is even more devastating. Respecting your allotted time and being punctual is even more critical to a restaurant’s financial health than ever before. Ask the host upon arrival if he or she will need the table back. Even if there is no time limit, express your willingness to return the table if need be. The pandemic is making perilously thin margins even thinner. Yesterday’s dollars are needed to pay today’s bills. Without yesterday, there is no tomorrow.

Be vigilant about new safety protocols. Understand that doing so ensures the wellbeing of the people sacrificing their own health to serve you. Even though wearing a mask can be awkward while you’re trying to enjoy a meal, try to keep it on when servers visit your table. These sterile impediments hinder the staff’s efforts to deliver fluent service more than they do your comfort. Paying for a meal shouldn’t exempt you from abiding by the rules.

Table assignments also fall into this category. To maximize efficiency and profitability, restaurants have a floor plan that acts as a schematic for maximizing revenue. The pandemic has forced many restaurants to drastically gerrymander the way they partition space. Putting together this Tetris pattern has become even more complicated with the spatial restrictions and restrained seating capacities caused by COVID-19. Even if you don’t love the table to which you’ve been assigned, try to make the best of it without protest.

Restaurant-Customer

Return the table in a reasonable amount of time. Guests who overstay their welcome make an already challenging situation even worse. A restaurant is a finite space. It needs available seats to sell more food, and it needs to sell more food to stay open. Since March, most restaurants are operating at fifty percent capacity or less. When people monopolize their seats, it hurts twice as much.

Its helpful to think of a restaurant reservation like booking an AirBnb. Even though you’re paying a premium to stay there, you’re still a guest in someone else’s home. Good guests will recognize the privilege of occupying a space that isn’t theirs and treat it with the same respect they would their own homes. You have a check-in time and a check-out time that must be adhered to. Making unreasonable demands of your host just because you paid for it would be untoward, and doing so might risk jeopardizing your standing on the platform.

In the end, it’s incumbent upon each individual guest to monitor his or her own conduct and that of their company. This could apply to someone in your party who refuses to follow whatever safety protocols are in place. It’s unfair to put the onus on management to diffuse the situation when you and your other dining companions could easily police the situation yourselves.

There are other ways to support restaurants beyond your comportment as a guest. Since March, many people have bought gift cards from their favorite restaurants or donated to staff GoFund Me accounts. Take it a step further. Stop into your favorite local restaurant. Talk to the owners. See how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Perhaps your church group has a holiday event catered every year. Offer to front the payment. If there are any business services you can offer through your profession, make them pro-bono. Volunteer a day of labor or offer to help clean the area outside of the restaurant. Do anything that might help offset input costs or increase revenues.

Most restaurants function like non-profit businesses, so donating your time and money to support one isn’t really that much different from charitable giving. It’s for a good cause. Your neighborhood restaurants provide a vital service to the community and should be considered as integral to its health as schools, parks, religious centers and libraries. Only a very small fraction of restaurants actually make money. Sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year, and eighty percent go out of business within five years.

The disruption caused by the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity to begin changing our behaviors to be more accommodating toward restaurants. As so many of our beloved establishments close, we’ve learned how fragile these businesses are and how much less dynamic our communities are without them. When iconic restaurants close, they take an irreplaceable part of a city’s cultural history with them. As the surviving restaurants in our neighborhoods begin to reopen, we should approach them with a renewed sense of responsibility about our role in their success beyond purchasing food. Simply put: Ask not what your restaurant can do for you, but what you can do for your restaurant.


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Categories
Opinion

Tipping Won’t Change Until America Does

The reports of the death of tipping in America have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, one of the most visible advocates of eliminating tipping, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, unexpectedly revealed that he was abandoning his “hospitality included” model across all of his company’s full-service restaurants.

When he announced the initiative in 2015, Meyer was championed for having the courage to repair the broken economics of restaurant labor. As it turns out, eradicating tipping isn’t as simple as flipping a switch in the payroll fuse box. Try to imagine what would happen in your office if management announced one morning that everyone’s salary was being recalculated without any change in aggregate pay. Everyone would revolt, except the ones getting raises. That’s more or less what happened at USHG.

In arguing for change, Meyer and others have cited the racist history of tipping in America. When slavery was abolished, the tipping system became a backhanded way for white business owners to avoid paying fair wages to recently freed slaves, if they even paid them at all.

As America continues its long overdue reckoning with racial divisions through the Black Lives Matter movement, more evidence mounts that tipped minimum wages reinforce the income disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. A recent report by One Fair Wage, an organization dedicated to ending sub-minimum hourly wages for tipped workers, explicitly details how women and communities of color have been systematically shortchanged when tips are the primary source of their income.

What often isn’t acknowledged in the controversy is how tipping is promulgated by free-market capitalism and sustained by conservative fiscal ideology. Over time, tipping has evolved into a renewable cycle of gladhanding that exists mainly to benefit white people. For too long, the hospitality industry has levered its own survival to the wealth of its patrons. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, prices at high-end restaurants had reached astronomical levels, and yet there was no shortage of buyers. The restaurant industry has always been the perfect dance partner for privilege.

Tipping

As with other capitalist endeavors, the rules of engagement in restaurants are shaped by money. Upscale restaurants have become meritocracies. Order an expensive bottle of wine and your meal won’t be rushed; have an appetizer as your entree and your check will arrive before you ask for it.

Affluent guests learn quickly how having money can curry favor—fast tracking reservations, ensuring preferred seating arrangements and facilitating complimentary items. Tipping has become a natural extension of that moneyed dynamic. The promise of a gracious tip keeps the servers’ interests aligned with the owners’—to extract as much money as possible from their most valuable guests.

The blameless environment of a restaurant makes rich people feel powerful. Regulars become codependent on the false affection money affords and servers are lured in by the handsome sums they receive in exchange for manufacturing concern. Once both sides get hooked up to the drip, it’s difficult to kick the habit. Of course, both parties are equally irritated when these capitalist forces turn against them. Servers seethe when they’re tipped poorly without proper cause. Parties with reservations waiting at the bar bristle when a group of regulars tips the maître d’ and is whisked immediately to their table ahead of them.

Market forces also dictate the supply of qualified labor. Tipped employees choose jobs based on their economic best interests. All things being equal, if a restaurant is busy and management has devised a system to facilitate its staff making good money, it will attract talent and staff will be loyal. If a restaurant isn’t consistently busy or the system of distributing tips is ill-conceived, retention will suffer. If restaurateurs want to attract and retain qualified labor, they must find a formula that keeps wages competitive with the market. Danny and USHG learned this lesson the hard way. 

Of course there have been many restauranteurs that have successfully implemented non-tipping models, but in general those experiments have occurred on a much smaller scale. Fostering the necessary trust and a sense of shared responsibility is a harder sell for larger restaurant groups.

We see the same tensions infecting our national politics. Shared wealth has struggled to be embraced as a mainstream political idea. You don’t have to look very far to see the unsuccessful attempts of progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to center socialism as the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. Republicans, on the other hand, spend most of their energy vilifying anything related to the notion of collective prosperity.

Just as many independent restaurants have successfully eliminated tipping on a local level, a new generation of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have burst onto the national scene with a socialist message that mirrors the changes in political attitudes in their home districts. This dichotomy suggests that changing the tipping system with the mindset of grass-roots community organizers might be more effective than a top-down approach that relies heavily on proselytizing and PR spin. 

At the end of the day, this isn’t a problem unique to the restaurant business, it’s a contradiction at the heart of the American ethos. E Pluribus Unum is E Pluribus Over. The disunion and moral decay began long before Trumpism, but the current political climate exacerbates the wealth gap between the winners and losers. Making America “Great Again” requires removing any barriers that impede one’s acquisition of personal wealth. To free-market capitalists, rewarding the resourcefulness of a convincing server with a commission of his or her sales drives both revenue for the restaurant and income growth for the server.

The problem is that capitalism can’t be bothered by the hardship that besets the people it leaves behind. Free markets must have winners and losers. It’s part of the game; The Art of the Deal, if you will. In our ruthless quest to amass capital, Americans view coming out on the losing end as a sign of personal weakness. But it isn’t fair to measure the aptitude of the players on a playing field that isn’t level.

Americans have a gift for deluding themselves into thinking that everyone is given a fair shake. The conservative pundits who want to scale back federal stimulus during the pandemic, for example, are convinced that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Unfortunately, not everyone’s boots have straps. Some people are barefoot.

The tipping system won’t go away until America is ready to face its demons. In most fine dining establishments around the country little has changed through the decades—the kitchens are filled with underpaid Black and brown people while the staff of most dining rooms are well-paid and overwhelmingly white. Other thriving industries like finance, technology, medicine and law systematically exclude communities of color from the prosperity they generate. Those industries, in turn, perpetuate a cycle of transferring wealth to high-end restaurants where white owners and white servers are the primary beneficiaries.

To eliminate tipping, we must first dismantle white supremacy by demanding equitable pay and an end to racial discrimination and gender bias. To do so means we have to care about each other first—a seemingly insurmountable task in America today. Deaths from the Coronavirus continue to reach nightmarish levels, conspiracy theories flourish, politicians point fingers and Karens throw daily tantrums at Trader Joe’s about wearing masks in public. For a country founded on Christian values, it’s clear that loving thy neighbor isn’t exactly our strong suit.


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