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The restaurant industry's image problem

peter romeo blog

Obviously, one of restaurateurs’ must-reads in January must have been that slim self-help volume, “Charlie Sheen’s Guide to Reputation Management.” Little else explains why an industry with an entrenched standing as the galaxy’s worst place to work would stumble into not one, but two crises of perception.

Granted, one is a tarring by association. A few lizard-caliber creeps slithered out from under their rocks and let their reptilian brains lead them into behavior that has no place in unscaled civilization. These were the men who gured their success as businessmen and chefs entitled them to prey on female employees, guests and peers. There were just a few of them, but big names like Mario Batali and John Besh, who stepped down from their companies in the face of sexual harassment allegations, con- firmed suspicions that restaurants are places where sexual predators can realize their dreams.

Truth be told, there’s reason for those suspicions, as anyone in the business knows. For too long, damnable behavior was tolerated, or at least overlooked. But still, the whole business was tarnished by fewer than a half-dozen lowlifes.

The other condemnation is a different matter, a result of patently mis- understood intentions. Profess you want to help the lowest-paid among us raise their living standards, and you could end up being drafted for a congressional seat. But suggest that a gross misallocation of wealth in restaurants be corrected, and you might as well read Sheen’s other book, “5 Ways to Outrun a Mob.”

The match set to tinder was the Department of Labor’s suggestion that guests’ tips be shareable under law with back-of-house staff members. Restoring the legality of tip pooling would instantly give dishwashers and vegetable peelers a nice bump in pay.

The proposal to reinstate a practice that was legal until 2011 was greeted like a plan to ban baseball. The storm of outrage wasn’t triggered by restaurants’ refusal to simply dig into their pockets for higher back-of- house pay—an objection that would have been understandable, albeit somewhat misguided. What horried outspoken members of the public was the possibility restaurant proprietors could skim money from the tip pool before it was allocated.

Restaurateurs weren’t accused of being greedy. They were portrayed as crooks you should never, ever trust.

The outcry was so intense that DOL extended the comment period on its tip pooling proposal by another month, or double the usual time for citizens to air concerns about pending rule changes. That comment period was still underway at press time.

What hadn’t even started was a publicity e ort to defend the indus- try’s motivations and tell another part of the story. Unless they’ve worked as servers, most people don’t realize how much money a waiter can make. Yes, it’s hard work—but someone can pocket $50 or $65 an hour. An income tax rate of 21% for corporations in De- cember’s reform package was viewed as a giveaway. The rules and realities allow many servers to report about half that amount of their tip income to the IRS, and those are the scrupu- lous ones.

The reality is that guests tip based on their meal and experience—the contribution of everyone in the restaurant, from the person respon- sible for a clean plate to whoever washed the lettuce.

It’s only right that the gratuity be shared. Yet that story isn’t heard, largely because it’s not being told.

Restaurants are afraid they’ll look like money grubbers if they ask servers to share the wealth, instead of giving up pro ts to pay back-of-house workers more than the business can a ord.

That’s all right. Survival is cool. It’s why Sheen still has a career. Now’s the time for the industry to get on the soapbox and do some tongue- wagging of its own. Loudly.

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