Tip Pools Run Dry for the Back of the House

New York City’s tipping laws have dug a gulf between servers’ and cooks’ salaries. But can it be bridged?

tip pool

While servers can walk out with hundreds of dollars in tips at the end of a shift, the majority of kitchen staff get paid a set hourly wage — usually starting at $10 or $12/hour.

There was a time not too long ago when “waiter” was a New York career path — like Wall Streeter or publishing mogul — that could lead to the good life.

In those hazy golden days, so the restaurant legend goes, employees of, say, Le Cirque could be seen gliding around their Michelin-starred restaurant floors by night, and around the city streets in Mercedes by day. Some even retired handsomely to Park Slope on their earnings (or so the Los Angeles Herald reported in 1906).

Though perhaps slight hyperbole, the relationship this illustrates between servers and cooks remains crystal clear, says Christophe Hille, co-owner of the beloved East Village farm-to-table spot, Northern Spy. While servers can walk out with hundreds of dollars in tips at the end of a shift, the majority of kitchen staff get paid a set hourly wage — usually starting at $10 or $12 an hour — no matter how great the restaurant’s night was or how delicious the customers found their food.

This is the way it is, and the way it’s always been. Or, almost. Up until a few years ago, sharing tips or pooling them among staff was illegal in the state of New York. Many restaurants did it anyway but were subject to fines if they were caught. In 2009, however, something big happened: The United States government raised the federal minimum wage from $6.55/hour to $7.25/hour. Whenever that occurs, state wage boards are required to convene to re-evaluate their wage laws and bring them up to speed. However, New York’s wage board had a far bigger mess to contend with: The state’s laws hadn’t been updated since 2005 and included a complex web of five different wage orders that separated out the hospitality and restaurant industries, holding them to different standards.

Commissioner of Labor M. Patricia Smith issued the board one of the largest orders they’d seen, according to attorney to New York State’s Restaurant Association James Versocki, who sat on the board as a public member.

“It was time to re-evaluate some incredibly archaic provisions in wage orders in New York,” Versocki says. “We made a comprehensive overhaul to make these laws work better for both owners and restaurant workers.”

Though fast food workers and other minimum wage workers have made history recently with huge and vocal protests demanding a livable wage, chefs and kitchen staff seem to have remained relatively silent on the issue — at least to their managers.

In 2011, the overhauls were complete, including the law that allowed tips to be shared, but only among “employees who perform, or assist in performing, personal service to patrons at a level that is a principal and regular part of their duties.” That means waiters, bussers, bartenders, food runners and bar backs — not prep cooks or chefs.

To be a chef is a far different career choice than being a waiter, and that unspoken understanding was hammered home the more I spoke to restaurant professionals. Waiters were generally sketched as a group composed of students or artists; people with other careers and aspirations; largely white; often good looking. While some — like Northern Spy’s tight-knit crew, for example — stay at a restaurant for years, many managers expect their waiters to leave for better opportunities when they arise.

Chefs, on the other hand, are seen as hardened passionate and, most importantly, willing to withstand the physical and schedule-related pressures of the job for the chance to do something they love. Many kitchen staff are also nonwhite and living at or below the poverty line, as highlighted by ROC United’s sweeping study of New York City’s restaurant industry. While these sketches are stereotypical, they do frame the imbalances caused by tipping laws and salaries for each position.

Tove Danovich, an Edible writer and veteran restaurant employee, has worked front-of-house positions in various New York restaurants, from SushiSamba to Butter to Rosewater, for the past six years. She says she’s seen these industry-wide biases take shape at almost every place she’s worked.

“There’s a view in the restaurant industry that ‘cooks don’t have the right to complain,’ because cooks know what they’re walking into in terms of pay and physical labor,” she says. “There’s an expectation that they’ll quit right away if they don’t like it or can’t handle it.”

Tom Kearney, who got his first job as a waiter 20 years ago and went on to be the chef and now manager of Farm on Adderley, echoes the sentiment: “What brings people to a career as a chef is very different than what brings people to be waiters. Chefs aren’t necessarily driven to the work by the money. It’s a passion, a desire to learn and be creative and grow. There’s a certain amount of paying your dues.”

Those dues don’t come cheap, either. All the restaurant managers I spoke to admitted that their back-of-house made less than their front-of-house staff; sometimes their salaries were one-third of what waiters left with on a good night. Christophe Hille said that most of the chefs and kitchen staff he knows commute into Manhattan or Brooklyn from the Bronx, since they can’t afford to live any closer on the wages they earn.

Though the issue of tip pools is a real and present one in New York restaurants, there’s a bigger issue gaining momentum: whether or not tipping is really the best pay structure for restaurant workers.

Rosanne Martino, the National Coordinator for COLORS, a micro-chain of restaurants run by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), is incredibly close to the issue of tips and fair pay. ROC has been one of the leaders of the fight to not only raise the minimum wage but abolish the tipped minimum wage for workers, which currently sits at $2.13/hour at the federal level; their COLORS restaurants primarily serve as a showcase for the kinds of “High Road” policies they want to make standard in an industry rife with wage and labor violations.

While New York’s tipped wage is slightly higher than the national wage (currently $5/hour and slated to go up to $7.50/hour by the end of this year) COLORS starts its front-of-house staff at $10/hour. Their kitchen staff, however, start at $13/hour — their chef and sous-chef are salaried, but everyone else is on an hourly rate.

“We would all like to tip our back-of-house, and we’d like to see what that version of the law would look like. But it’s the waiters who control the tip pool. It’s not the managers, so it’s not something [over which] we have any input.”

She also says, however, that she’s heard of at least a couple of restaurants who are actually tipping back of house and fighting it in court, including Umi Sushi and Tapas in West Hartford, Connecticut. “I heard two restaurateurs talking about it at our annual High Road restaurants conference, and they said that this was what their tipped workers wanted to do and they supported that,” says Martino.

George Weld, the owner-chef of egg in Williamsburg, told me over a grilled cheese sandwich that his servers make at least twice what the cooks make. He estimated that his servers walk away with between $25 and $35 an hour, whereas kitchen staff’s salaries start at $12.50 an hour.

“The first six years of my career, I was in the kitchen. I heard the frustration firsthand,” Weld says. “As a manager, I really work to keep tension between front-of-house and back-of-house to a minimum. Servers here work hard, and they’re aware of the situation: that the cooks are in a 130-degree room, on their feet all day.”

He says that the restaurant industry is just like any other white collar industry: “The sales team makes all the money, and everyone else is working their butts off. The cooks say, ‘I wish I could be a server, but I love cooking.’”

“I spend so much time telling the staff they’re one big family,” Picker adds. “But in a sense, the way they’re paid says, you’re not the same family.

Though fast food workers and other minimum wage workers have made history recently with huge and vocal protests demanding a livable wage, chefs and kitchen staff seem to have remained relatively silent on the issue — at least to their managers.

“Are chefs frustrated? Probably every night,” says Steve Picker, owner of Good Restaurant and an active supporter of ROC-NY’s High Road program and Restaurant Week. “But they haven’t started out expecting tips, and they’ve never worked in a place in New York City that does tip their back of house. It’s one thing to be frustrated to see a waiter go home with $250 when you sweat and come in earlier and leave later than they do. It’s another to ask for that to change.”

“I spend so much time telling the staff they’re one big family,” he adds. “But in a sense, the way they’re paid says, ‘you’re not the same family.’ The front of the house is making the money from the job they’re doing, and you’re getting paid to do your work in the back, and it looks to you like it has nothing to do with the customer’s experience.”

Though the issue of tip pools is a real and present one in New York restaurants, there’s a bigger issue gaining momentum: whether or not tipping is really the best pay structure for restaurant workers. Though a couple of restaurants in the New York City area have boldly chosen to forgo tipping, the vast majority are as all-American as ever, looking to the customer to supplement their waiters’ paychecks by adding on 15 to 20 percent at the end of their meal.

“It’s cultural — we are a nation that tips,” Hille says. “Celebrities that tip too little make national news. Tipping is a social convention that needs to end. It’s like gun control or health care. We refuse to rip the Band-Aid off.”

Some restaurateurs, including Hille, worry that would spell catastrophe for their restaurants.

“If you had to pay your whole staff a living wage, you’d see a lot of restaurants fizzling out,” says Kearney.

Others, like Weld, have done the math, and they think it’d be doable, as long as customers were okay with a 20 to 25 percent increase in the cost of their meals.

“It would be a seismic shift for restaurants, but we’re all fighting for survival. We can’t do it if we’re all in our own bubbles,” says Hille. “I wouldn’t want to be the only person fighting this battle, but the whole structure might have to collapse a little bit — so that the marketplace can figure it out.”

For it to crumble, much like cookies or bread, it may have to start in the restaurant kitchens.

Newsletter

Categories

Tags

Talia Ralph

Talia Ralph is a writer, editor and law student currently based in Montreal, where she grew up on bagels and poutine. She is in a committed relationship with red sauce.