Restaurant Algebra, or The Funny Stuff People Do When Splitting a Tab

Some days in the bar are easy. Some days it’s like every high maintenance person in a ten-block radius decided they needed your help and attention all at once. Yesterday was one of those days.

I had a pretty busy happy hour in the bar, which was fine, though a clogged printer in the kitchen meant that a lot of my food came up late, and it all came out at once, which always makes things exciting. And then there were the two ladies at the bar, one of whom wanted to know all about our absinthe selection, and which ones had wormwood, and then what I could make with it, while the other needed to know which menu items were both gluten-free and did not contain sesame (avoiding sesame oil in a Vietnamese restaurant is not as easy as you might think).

But the real cake-takers were the six-top of ladies in the middle of the room.

Now, as a general rule we do not split tabs at the restaurant, but we do run multiple cards. Most of the time when people split tabs that way, the math is relatively simple. Even splits, or this much on this card, this much on that card. Basic arithmetic. These ladies turned it into algebra.

The six of them gave me five cards, and instructions so convoluted I had to go and get pen and paper to keep it all straight. One menu item went on the first card. The second card was for two menu items and a pot of tea. The rest of the bill was to be split into four parts, two parts of which would go on the third card and one part each on the fourth and fifth.

Is your head spinning yet? Mine did, a little. Just glad I was only moderately busy.

Anyway, in the end it was fine, and by an hour later I was loling and telling the story to my co-workers. And hey, being accomodating is part of the job. It’s just funny sometimes, the things people do, and that even after more years in the Industry than I care to recount I can still be surprised by the twists and turns. One of the ladies even wrote me a nice note on her credit card slip, thanking me for the trouble I went to.

Of course, one of the others failed to leave her signed copy, so if she intended to tip me I didn’t get it. But really, what else could I expect?

No, You May Not Use My Image for Commercial Purposes Without Compensating Me

So an interesting thing happened to me when I went into work yesterday at my new job tending bar at Monsoon.

I came in, put away my bag, chatted a bit with the manager, and started doing the things you do to open a bar. I decided a cup of coffee sounded like a good idea, as it often does at the beginning of a shift, so I went over to the dining room, where the coffee is. I saw one of the daytime servers behind the counter, with a weirded-out look on her face, folding napkins and taking direction from a photographer set up in the middle of the dining room. I thought “Hm. Must be some new promo thing for the restaurant,” and I waited respectfully while the photog snapped away (the coffee was at the far end of the counter). When a free moment popped up, I crossed behind the girl folding napkins to get coffee.

“What’s this all about?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“It’s for Discover,” said the man directing the photo shoot, a fifty-something fellow with unruly hair and glasses and, for lack of a better term, kind of a seedy air about him (I hate to judge people on instinct, but it’s a skill I’ve had to develop to survive almost twenty years behind the bar).

“So, are you paying her?” I asked as I passed him by on my way back out to the bar with my coffee.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You can’t even count the zeroes. There’s a bag full of money outside.” Then he went back to telling the day server, who looked decidedly uncomfortable, what to do, how to hold her head and whatever, and I went back over to the bar. Continue reading “No, You May Not Use My Image for Commercial Purposes Without Compensating Me”

Making Gratuities Gratuitous

Depending on who you ask, tipping as practiced in the contemporary United States is either a crassly exploitative transfer of economic risk from a business to its employees which leaves them vulnerable to wage theft, sexual harassment, and economic uncertainty or a great way to earn a good living working part time for cash in hand — much of which is untaxed — leaving time to pursue any number of artistic or academic endeavors while sleeping in every day and getting paid for being likable.

As someone who spent the bulk of his adult life working front of house in restaurants and bars, I think I can say pretty definitively that both of those things are true. Continue reading “Making Gratuities Gratuitous”

When You Say ‘My Owner’

I don’t know if this is just a Seattle thing, or if people do it other places. Maybe it’s just something that comes up in the kinds of joints I worked in back when I was still bartending. It’s a dumb little thing, but it always bothered me, and in light of a few months outside the Industry, I find it bothers me more and more.

It’s not uncommon, in my experience, to hear Industry folk use the term ‘my owner’ in casual conversation.

Point it out, and you get this moment of exasperation and incredulity. “You know what I mean.” And I do. It’s an easy shorthand, and ‘my boss’ usually refers to your manager. And in most non-corporate houses ‘owner’ is basically a job description, even if that job is mostly to loom over the proceedings, present or not, and express approval or disapproval to keep everyone on their toes. And hey, lots of them are right there in the trenches with you, pulling their weight and more, and I have lots of respect for anyone crazy enough to open a restaurant or a bar as a way to make a living. That takes a kind of dedication and perseverance of which very few people are capable.

But it still bugs me to hear people say that. Because how you say things matters. It matters on a psychological, even a neurological level. To say the words ‘my owner’ makes a physical connection in your brain. You hear yourself say the words, you experience yourself thinking the thought, and it strengthens that physical connection in your brain. Strengthening that connection makes the concept more real. It reifies it, makes it a thing that exists in your world, in however small a way.

Think about the implications for a moment. To concede the possibility of ‘my owner’ concedes the possibility of the loss of personal agency inherent in being someone’s property. Yes, we do this every time we clock in, to a certain extent. Such is the nature of working for other people. But to frame one’s employment in those terms concedes much more than trading your labor and skill-set for negotiated compensation for a set period of time. Continue reading “When You Say ‘My Owner’”

The Resilience of Tipping

Tipping is “confusing, arbitrary, discriminatory, and basically anti-democratic.” So says Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn, in a post on Esquire’s food blog that’s been popping up in my facebook feed since it went up on Friday. The article is basically a dual interview with Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas, two prominent opponents of Seattle’s newly-passed minimum wage increase. The gist is they have no choice but to move to a more European service model, where what’s now a voluntary gratuity is added to the bill and then distributed by the house. Their front of house staff, it’s implied, are going to have to take one for the team.

Dunn suggests, perhaps hyperbolically, that such a move might signal (or cause) a sea change in the way restaurants work in the US.

Dunn is against the institution of tipping, and has many good reasons. Having worked for tips most of my adult life, I’m sympathetic with her arguments. Maybe I’m being sentimental, but I am convinced that tipping will survive Seattle’s wage increase just fine. Because for all its downsides, there are good reasons tipping has evolved its niche in the American economic and cultural landscape, and I think they’ll continue to apply as Seattle’s economy evolves in the coming years.

Let’s start with why we tip. Continue reading “The Resilience of Tipping”