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MeyerCare

12.10.2015

Apropos of last week’s rollout of tipless dining at Danny Meyer restaurants, I offer this third-party explanation of benefits and changes to your old plan.

Firstly, all of the establishments affected are of a general type: midscale-to-fine dining one might classify them. They constitute the majority of restaurants qua restaurants in this country, that is, not food generators such as lunch spots or fast food or lower-cost outlets, but restaurants that those with disposable income go to in order to ‘dine out’, restaurants that serve a planned and selected ‘cuisine’, etc.

They are nearly all staffed by the same type of server/bartender: young, transient, many (if not the majority at this point) college educated, full of interests, culinary and otherwise.

They are all currently run on tips.

Service, the fact of one person serving another, with its implicit disparaging relationship—you are here to serve me—always requires a little dissembling. In order to serve well one must serve with a smile, or at least with the neutral face of acquired skill. What is now known as ‘customer service’ is founded on the same tradition that evolved out of Victorian norms of slavery and caste systems. Only now, money has replaced the threat of violence or the stigma of long-held cultural belief.

Where this money comes from is a funny thing. In search of profits, restaurants, unlike other American industry, have created a sort of inverse system: not reliant on outsourced production (rents, raw materials, labor markets), but instead upon outsourced wages. This makes some sense. In order for a successful restaurant to thrive it must acquire top real estate (at top rents), top food/ingredients (moreover as local as possible), and top qualified labor in these high-volume areas (usually big expensive cities). To be able to afford all three the cost of the third is handed over to the responsibility of the customer.

As a personal example: of my total income last year (2014), a whopping 10.8% came from my employer (in 2013 it was 12.2%). The remaining 89% came from the myriad customers flooding my section four nights a week. I didn’t know any of their names, nor any of their backgrounds, nor will I ever see most of them again in my life. They have nearly fully supported my existence for an entire decade.

It’s not too shabby an existence (I’ve always made between $35-$55 an hour on tips alone), but this peculiar system creates a unique work environment. The closest analogy I’ve ever bothered to come up with is that of the casino. A poker player hones his craft and wishes to make some money. What he needs is a table (or set of tables). Good tables, in cities like Las Vegas, can be hard to come by. If you’re stuck playing a $5,000 buy-in while your buddy is at a $10,000 table, you’re in a jealous position. A player’s relationship to a casino, therefore, is key. The casino gives you a seat at the table.

A restaurant gives a server a seat at the table. The higher the prices, or the higher the volume, or, luckily, both, the better the game. There are other concerns for servers than just money, but money is why we are here. To make your way to one of these top spots is the only real struggle for the restaurant server or bartender or busser. The relationships he chooses to cultivate or burn depend almost solely upon this concern. Like poker, it’s a risky game—if you can gain access, you’re set, so long as you keep your seat. But the casino never quite needs you as much as you need the casino. The relationship is one of backhanded gratefulness, on both sides, and a whole lot of resentment.

If one is being paid $5 an hour (the current tipped minimum wage in NYC), one’s responsibility to one’s employer is what is called for at $5 an hour. In front of one’s customers, who are paying much more, one is all smiles, cordial, happy, even thankful. Yet, because a server approaches his customers as a table of rotating players (or, more literally, a series of rotating tables), and because this very fact of rotation does not allow for additional ties on which to base a relationship, any ostensible loyalty never manifests. This produces a situation in which one is working only partially for one’s employer—receiving little pay, yet with a needy relationship—and partially for one’s customers—zero relationship, vastly larger remuneration. Add to this a wariness towards the precarious nature of the transaction itself—instigated by those, mostly from other countries, who don’t tip or who undertip—and instead of being grateful to the people paying one’s wages, one sees them primarily as buyers to be cajoled, fooled, or tricked into paying for both goods and service, oftentimes more than they would otherwise want to.

For the house we reserve a deserved lack of respect. Respect from one’s employer is measured in wages. How much is my labor worth to your business? At the same time, an employer’s care for a server is mostly pretense. They too care only for themselves. It is an incredible luxury, to not have to bear the responsibility of wages. A majority of restaurants do not offer affordable health insurance (until the ACA, almost none did), retirement, salary, or any other form of trust-building program. Just the minimum wage—in 43 states, not even that, but the so-called “tipped minimum wage”, a level of respect that is less than zero, if zero stands for the absolute minimum allowed (in 20 states, including New Jersey, Virginia, Texas and Utah, this is under $2.50 an hour—that’s about the same as those Apple ‘sweatshops’ in China we heard so much about a couple years back).

As you might imagine, this breeds a large amount of contempt. Because a server is not beholden to his place of work, or indeed to its profit margins, it is only by personal sense of self-worth and the occupational hitching of his cart to the bigger train that keeps him from a whole list of antagonistic practices. As it is, there is still plenty of bad faith (I’ve lied to every restaurant I’ve worked in. I’ve stolen from every one too).

As for the tenuous nature of the relationship with one’s customers, this usually provides an outlet for the contempt one holds for one’s employer but cannot voice due to one’s position as employee. Gathered around service stations, talking under our breath, we dig into those seated in the dining room without mercy (or to be honest much in the way of accuracy). Most tellingly, we slander the 10% tipper, because we hate how our employer puts us in as ignoble a situation as to have to rely upon that man or that woman simply to make a decent living—these 10%ers of course being those very foreigners whose economic system of restaurants do not burden them with the task of arbitrarily paying their server’s wages, and who occasionally voice (to this waiter at least) their disgust upon being exposed to such a system.

All this will be done away with by a no-tip system. Like most of the rest of the world, Meyer restaurants will gather employees who actually want to be there, respectful of the job and the establishment, with a trustful relationship holding the group together. The capricious nature of tipped service—its high nights and low nights—will be mitigated, with the result a great lessening of stress and worry for the staff.

On the other hand, servers will make less money. That is the point, or part of it anyway. As it is, our restaurants are full of part-time cutthroats with zero interest in the overall venture. One often hears talk about how the American model nurtures better, more adept staff, while the European salary/high-wage model breeds only complacency and workers who have little incentive to improve. But what tips draw are greedy employees, not good servers.

If American waitstaff are hired on salary, or paid a real wage, there is little chance restaurants will get the caliber of worker they do now for such a tiny price. No more waitstaff with graduate degrees, no more (ok, fewer) aspiring actors. But if wages are ostensibly proposed at around $20-25 an hour, with the added security of benefits and a guaranteed take, this could persuade a crop of career employees, proud of their wage, proud of their job. Change where the money is coming from and you’ll change the attitude. Loyalty will reign, staff will serve the interests of the restaurant as well as their own.

As an extra boon, the Meyer system will spread the wealth around much more than it is now. As in other areas of American capitalism, the person who sells the final product always makes more than the person who builds or assembles it. This is true for restaurants just as it is true for cars, appliances, designer clothing. It’s unfair, and at least in restaurants now it will be more fair.

Earlier this year, the fast-food worker protests reaped a great reward for New York: a raising of the minimum wage. Here we have another victory for the service industry. Welcome to the age of MeyerCare.

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