A public discussion at Scratch Food & Beverage last week about tipping in the hospitality industry has left some sour notes.

By: Neil Strebig

 

To be honest, I wasn’t going to write this article.

I’ve been thinking about it all week. Should I write about an issue, I feel passionate towards. Or should I let it die on the vine?

My biggest concern – is this the right platform to … well, to platform on? As the managing editor, should I sit this one out? Maybe I should let the other publications, the food and beverage journalists cover this beat. And then, as I watched each day roll off the calendar I realized something – no one is going to cover this.

No one ever does.

Sure we love food. Sure we all love to boast about Pittsburgh’s booming restaurant scene and we all love to bask in the glory of another list the scene has found itself on. Yet, no one is every writing about the actual industry – just the glam of it. Just the food. Just the beverages.

Which brings us to last Monday night where Tipped Off Pittsburgh hosted a roundtable discussion at Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill. The discussion, “The Tipping Point: Views on the Best Ways to Pay in the Restaurant Industry” was focused on the pros and cons of tipping, a wage model most restaurants in the industry (and within the Greater Pittsburgh Area) rely on. The panel consisted of two Northside business owners, Scratch’s Don Mahaney and Casellula’s Brian Keyser. They were joined by service industry veteran, Nicole Battle, president of Pittsburgh’s USBG chapter.

There was about a dozen or so in attendance.  A mixture of service industry workers, owners like Mahaney, Keyser and Bar Marco’s Kevin Cox, along with a few notable food writers.

Photo courtesy of Tipped Off PGH.

To be fair the event was constructive. Mahaney, Keyser, Battle and attendees openly discussed their thoughts on the industry in regards to both the tipping model and the overall culture of the industry.

It’s a conversation this industry needs. Not because those three, Tipped Off or anyone else in attendance has the answers, but because it’s the first step in the right direction.

But it appears to me that such progressive talk started and stopped at Scratch last week.

The only other media response I’ve seen over the past week was from Tipped Off co-founder, Steph Dooley.

And before I get any farther into this, let me a little more transparent here. Prior to my career in journalism and long before I took over as this paper’s managing editor, I spent a career in the hospitality industry. First, as a chef then over the past year and a half I migrated towards a FOH (front-of-house) position as a server at Stagioni in South Side as I actively completed my B.A. in journalism. I’ve spent the last decade of my life as a service industry employee. I’ve lived most of my professional life in kitchens and I’d be lying if said I didn’t love the industry – there’s nothing like it.

And that’s exactly the problem. It’s a profession that few can understand unless you’re in it. That fraternity affect makes it difficult for others to comprehend and even worse it creates a circle of like-minded individuals who sometimes are too close to the problems to accurately see them.

It can be frustrating at times, as if hospitality as a whole is allergic to progression. We ignore the flaws in the profession’s wage structure, the obvious problems with sexism in the industry and worst of all we constantly undervalue ourselves as professionals.

And yet, after an event opens the forum for ways to correct these issues the entire hospitality scene in the city remains silent, why?

In the last four years, there have been two service industry-forward events. The first, was this past July’s 86 Conference hosted by The Good People’s Group. Last Monday was the second such event. And while the 86 Conference garnished some initial support there wasn’t much-continued discussion afterward and I have yet to hear about a repeat for next year.

It is my understanding that the Tipped Off team aims to hold two more panel discussions next year, but still, the point remains – there’s a haphazard sense of care with these topics.

The enthusiasm is there at the start. Yet as the talking points get hashed out, the vehemence dissipates. It’s like a political campaign – the vigor is at the starting line, but fatigue is at the finish. And last week was no different. At the start, everyone involved was adamant about the topic, but as the night drew to a close the fervor was separated by individual ideologies.

As soon as we address 15 problems, we forget where to start. If the conversation was about the tipping policy, let’s continue with that and dive into why tipping in this industry affects more than just a FOH employee’s nightly income.

“Customers pay the server, but the rest of the business is operated like a normal business,” something Keyser said that evening and perhaps the bluntest quote of the night in regards to the idiosyncrasies of tipping.

He’s right. Only FOH service works for that matter. BOH (back-of-house) works on hourly wages and management works on salaries, yet servers and bartenders are still dependent on what the customer gives them.

Sure as Americans tipping is engraved in us as part of the dining out culture, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. It’s a farcical method allowing a stranger control over one’s income. I don’t go into H&R Block, have someone lead me through the income tax filing process only to then tell them I valued their services at X amount. No, they charge me a fixed fee for their service. Yet for FOH employees that’s not the case. No matter if they provide quality service or not, they are still dependent on the goodwill of a stranger to ‘do the right thing.’

This, in turn, leads to a series of problems for the industry and two issues that were heavily discussed during the panel. First, the tipping model provides nearly zero financially stability for FOH staff.

(above) Don Mahaney of Scratch F&B, (below) Nicole Battle of USBG. Photo courtesy of Tipped Off PGH.

Sure, servers at a quality fine dining establishment can clear upwards of $400 on a Saturday night, but what about the Monday and Tuesday nights where they barely crack $50? Not exactly the epitome of consistency. The result is another negative consequence for the industry.

First, it forces the individual to budget on essentially the unpredictable. You can calculate averages and budget accordingly, but the reality is anyone who’s worked in a tipping restaurant has experienced a night where they expected – or hoped – to make X amount and finished with substantially less. The second half of this issue is also an individual factor: spending habits.

It’s no secret the industry is stressful. It’s also no secret that majority of restaurant employees work longer shifts, holidays and weekends. The result is an irregular work happy hour that goes from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., not a socially normalized 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. one. The stress of the industry coupled with the anxiety of weekly financial instability often leads to individuals looking for a way to blow off steam. It inadvertently creates a common trend, the reckless spending of a quarter of one’s earnings from that night – the very same night – in the hopes to just unwind. Not only does it hurt an individual’s bank account, but it also stamps our profession with a stigma. We’re unprofessional because our social and spending habits are atypical.

And while this isn’t solely the tipping model’s fault, it still is a factor. Onus still falls on the individual, however, if there is a salary involved, this may help decrease the likelihood of developing such habits.  For starters, the consistency of knowing your weekly wage should help curve the erratic spending patterns some industry workers have.

As detrimental as the tipping model case can be for budgeting, there’s an element of irony in the fact servers still tend to make significantly more than chefs and stewards in BOH positions. It creates a wage discrepancy within the restaurant itself.  And one that often leads to a larger problem. In terms of workplace rivalry and issues within the staff, the tipping model is one of the biggest culprits. It creates an immediate difference between value amongst FOH and BOH employees and yet, the most perplexing part of all this is that a dilapidated payroll system like tipping is still the norm.

There’s no denying this is a multilayered issue, but the worst part is there isn’t a straightforward remedy. In truth, there is no clear-cut solution.

As Mahaney pointed out during Monday’s discussion the solution changes from restaurant to restaurant what works at one establishment may not necessarily work at another.

Some restaurants like the Strip’s Bar Marco have found a way to successfully implement a no-tip policy. While they may not have completely eliminated the wage differential between FOH and BOH employees, co-owner Kevin Cox acknowledged they’ve “closed the gap.”

However, while Bar Marco has been able to survive with a no-tip policy, Keyser had to abandon his policy at Casellula earlier this year. Keyser was candid on why they migrated away from their original no-tip policy citing two factors: the staff wasn’t at an acceptable standard and business was not covering the cost differentials for the designated salaries at that point in time.

Essentially, he didn’t have a skilled enough staff to rationalize paying them a set salary. And without a talented enough staff, his business suffered. A legitimate problem and even though abandoning the no-tip policy seemed to be the last resort it appears Casellula has improved according to Keyser. During the event, he mentioned once the no-tip policy was abandoned the quality of resumes Casellula received drastically increased.

Attendees at Monday, December 4, ‘Tipping Point’ wait for the discussion to begin. Photo credit: Steph Dooley.

Now, I can only speculate why that is, but to me, that problem exists because of a lack confluence between staff and customers.

What I mean what I say that is, no matter the restaurant, a customer’s first impression most important. The most vital element is allowing the customer to understand what the restaurant stands for. In a city where the norm is a tipping model, a no-tip policy needs to be defined. Most customers may not understand why the prices are significantly higher and if the issue isn’t explained upfront; if the description and perception of a restaurant’s identity are not properly relayed to the customers than the establishment’s mission will likely be lost in translation.

In a small market like Pittsburgh it’s very likely that a restaurant’s clientele also makes up its hiring pool. So, if the clientele is confused it’s possible the potential hires are also. The industry as a whole does not treat itself with the highest of professional standards and those stigmas are quantified here in Pittsburgh where culinary programs rule the roost, not service staffs.

There’s another element in play here, the popular misconception that serving is a ‘stop-gap’ profession.  For college-aged students, it offers an opportunity for them earn quick, easy money before moving onto real jobs in whatever field they studied in. In addition the nature of a tipping model provides little stability, working night-to-night for tips there’s minimal room for professional growth (in terms of salary). With a no-tip policy a restaurant creates a statement. A statement they’re investing in the profession and the industry. However, that dialogue rarely takes place tableside. Instead, a cultural misrepresentation of serving as a non-viable profession becomes the criterion.

Why does this matter?

If my understanding of restaurants comes from my previous dining experience and that knowledge leaves me to believe that serving isn’t a viable, long-term profession then why would I apply?  If the belief is you cannot make a career out of being a server, why would you stay? The initial perception can be the most damaging.

We eat first. Our comprehension of restaurants comes from being clients. So, if there isn’t an appreciation or transparent allocation that this is a profession that requires a salary-endorsed skillset then why should Keyser or anyone else expect quality help to be rolling into their restaurants? The customers don’t understand and one way or another, most potential hires are former customers.

The industry needs to look at itself before it can go forward.

This talk in Troy Hill could be a catalyst, so let’s talk a little less about food and little more about this industry – as a profession.