Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Many Problems of the Restaurant Industry Part 2: The Current Economic Model of the Restaurant

Or How Good People Become Dickensian Villains

This can be a fairly controversial topic. I believe that although there are many just plain ignorant and evil restaurant/bar owners out there; there are also people who start out as good folks with a dream to make good food and drink who slowly turn into the soulless restaurant overlords that we all love to hate. The thing here is what changes them is the established model of the restaurant industry. It starts far away from the restaurant doors and slowly builds to a tidal wave. These starry eyed new restauranteurs may have all the best intentions in the world, but eventually the wave catches up and they must decide whether they will drop those good intentions and hop on the wave in order to survive as a business or let the wave consume them and their silly ideas of a good workplace and quality ingredients. This topic will end up as a series of posts detailing this unstoppable "wave" that I'm talking about. Below is a summary of it.

The Supply (and its middlemen): Food Purveyors, Liquor Companies, and Miscellaneous Wholesalers.
The Demand: The perceived value of food and service, PR Firms, seasonal business, fad's and celebrity.
Hidden Costs: Thievery, Waste, Breakage (Q-Factor), Fines, Licensing, Repairs, Equipment.
Overhead: Rent, Utilities, Dry Goods, Repairs and Maintenance, Taxes, Insurance etc

Other fun things: The talent pool, competition, customers and mediocrity.

By the end you will wonder how anyone could possibly be so batshit crazy to even try and open a restaurant. BUT there is an answer for some it is an inescapable passion and a dream, for some naive people it looks like an easy cash cow and for the evil bastards out there it is a way to power in their petty little world. The first group of people are the only ones that matter to me, and I want to see them succeed.

First we will talk about something that screws many restaurants before they are even conceived, The Supply.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Many Problems of the Restaurant Industry Part 1: Labor

Please note at the bottom of the page I have added a few links to several coop restaurant businesses and associations. I am still looking them over myself.
Here I will start listing the problems the restaurant industry currently faces. Problems I hope to work out the answer to on this site. I am writing it out in more of a shorthand format but I may flesh it out later. Labor is the single biggest problem area but there are others you may not initially consider.

1. Kitchen Staff are underpaid, work 60+ hour weeks without overtime, get no benefits, sick days, or paid vacation. Work in dangerous work environment, most restaurants do not bother to get serious about making sure their kitchen is safe for its workers. (Most likely because they cannot afford it). Kitchen staff are commonly expected to come in early OFF THE CLOCK in order to get their prep done. Staying late off the clock is also commonly expected. Most chefs would love to pay their cooks for these hours, but the simple fact is most times the restaurant doesn't have the money. In a later post we will discuss the economics of the restaurant industry as it is, and why the above happens.
2. Waitstaff are (in most states) paid much less than minimum wage with no guarantee that their tips will make up the difference. Some work 60+ hour weeks without overtime(but this is less of a problem in FOH), get no benefits, sick days or paid vacation. Also commonly have restaurant owners and salaried managers skim tips off the top. Let it be said though in a hopping busy restaurants some waiters easily make over $60k/yr or more up into six figures, while the kitchen still gets paid the same. (This is where it can become unfair, the whole team should reap the benefits of a crazy busy restaurant right down to the dishwasher. As it is the more successful the restaurant/bar the shittier things get for the BOH(more work, same pay) and the better it gets for the FOH(more work, more pay).)
3. Potential new employees are commonly made to work for days at a time without pay before being hired. (This is called trailing or staging) Legally, they are supposed to be paid at least minimum wage during this trial period. This practice has seen some decline recently though.
4. Salaried Managers and Kitchen Management are commonly paid fairly trivial salaries. Often if you break down a chef's salary by the amount of hours he/she puts in you will find that technically the linecooks make more or almost as much per hour (of course they probably aren't getting overtime pay.) It is quite common to find FOH managers who make far less money than their main waiters. Its no wonder then that they start to steal everything they can get their hands on including the waiter's tips. I've known many waiters who are violently opposed to ever getting promoted to manager because they know they will make less money and take more shit from the owners on top of it.
5. Kitchen staff are generally expected to drop $30000 to $60000 on culinary school just to get their foot in the door at a quality restaurant with noteworthy chefs. Once in the door these bright eyed wannabe Emerils can look forward to low to no pay while dealing with $600/month high interest payments on the fat student loans they took out. Culinary schools do nothing to inform their prospective students of this situation. This issue also brings up another severe inequality in the business between the front of the house and the back of the house. While kitchen staff pay big money to go to culinary school and generally have serious goals for their future in the business; the front of the house is mostly staffed by artists, college dropouts and actors with no proper training in wine and beverage knowledge or service and who generally just view waiting tables and bartending as a source for an easy buck. Why isn't there some sort of expensive vocational school for them? It would weed out the people who don't care. I really dislike people who don't care, but that is not the topic at hand. Also I am not sure this one belongs under labor. I might move it later.
6. Few restaurants actually have proper employee handbooks that details all of a workers rights as well the restaurants policies and rules of employment. I think there is one handbook floating around that every restaurant manager/owner has copy and pasted from and it is a bad handbook let me tell ya.
7. Fewer still have strong training programs especially in the FOH. People need proper training if they are going to excel.
8. There is a distinct culture of racial and other types of profiling in the restaurant industry. Why is it that (with the exception of ethnic restaurants) minorities are always put into what are perceived as the least desirable jobs in the restaurant? Granted someone working as a waiter in America should be able to speak fluent english, but I've met many Mexicans who speak fluent english and know the art of waitering better than most of the lackluster white waiters around and yet they have been working as bussers for 20 years.
9. TIPS. Tips need to go. They reinforce the perception that a waiter is a servant to be rewarded like a dog with a doggie treat for a good job. That is not the job of the customer. And waiters are not servants. You can define service industry and "waiter" all you want, the simple matter of the fact is that no human should be the servant of another. The waiter should be a professional who creates an experience for a diner not a slave schlepping food and drink to and fro. AND the restaurant should be rewarding the waiter for a job well done. Further tipping is what allows restaurant owners to get away with paying waiters nothing and on the other hand tipping is also what allows waiters to make much more than the kitchen staff at a busy restaurant which is unfair.

Thats all I got for now I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Please feel free to give me things to add on the list. Or feel free to dispute anything on the list.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

This is a link to an article on Eater.

Let me be clear, Eater is the Jerry Springer equivalent of food sites. However this article is very interesting. It starts off by interviewing some chefs talking about how it is hard to find good help these days. You have to read the comments at the bottom. The discussion quickly dissolves into people arguing about labor laws and work ethic. I am on the fence. I believe a good cook will stay and work as long as it takes to get the job done, but I also think that they should be compensated for it. It also touches on how many kids are flooding the industry with pipe dreams of being the next Emeril, with no work ethic and a $50k debt from culinary school. This is one of the problems I will discuss in the next post.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

First Post

I have worked in restaurants for many years. I love it. There is a certain type of freedom that you get by being in this industry, a kind of living on the fringe of society type feel. Yes there are many good times to be had serving and cooking food. And why not? The prime goal of the business is to get your customers to pay you in exchange for good food and entertainment, and of course to try and turn a profit or make a living from it.
BUT as most people know there is a dark side to the restaurant industry. The whole industry is built from the foundations on the exploitation of its workers and other shady practices. There are a few exceptional small restaurants and restaurant groups to whom this may not apply, but I assure you if I dug deep enough into their closets that even these ideal businesses have some dirt.
I have researched it and found some groups trying to make things better for those who work in the industry but ultimately they are simply patching holes in a much bigger problem. For the restaurant industry to truly catch up with others that have made progress by leaps and bounds since the industrial revolution, the restaurant industry needs to undergo its own revolution.
I believe that the best way to fix the restaurant industry is to destroy the current system that rewards restaurant owners for treating cooks as slaves/indentured servants and paying servers $5 a hour with no benefits, sick days or vacation. And then it must be rebuilt from the ground up as a cooperative based industry, there are few other business types that rely so heavily on everyone working as a tight knit team. I think the teamwork based nature of how restaurants and bars operate predisposes them to be ideal candidates for cooperative style operations.
This blog will document my research and ideas for making this revolution a reality. It will also serve as a place for people to debate (POLITELY!) as to what is the best way to make the restaurant industry a fair and just one.
I'd also like to say here that I am not a hippie and by no means am I advocating some silly restaurant communes where everyone is equal bla bla bla. A restaurant cannot operate like that. Just as it is a team based system it also innately a hierarchical system and could not possibly function any other way in my opinion.

In my next post I will go into more detail as to exactly what is wrong with the industry. After all we must identify the problems before we can fix them.