Wait a Minute

Let’s rethink the way we compensate waiters.

By Max Rykov

Unless you’ve been living under a large, stale baguette, you’ve probably been made aware of the most significant culinary news in Jefferson County since the opening of Niki’s West: Highlands Bar and Grill has won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America. On top of that, longtime Highlands pastry chef Dolester Miles also won the award for Most Outstanding Pastry Chef in America.

The James Beard Awards are often referred to as the “Oscars of Food,” and until you’ve won one, you’re basically a schmuck. Birmingham has already been well on its way toward culinary “non-schmuck” status for quite some time, with a proliferation of fantastic restaurants, bars, breweries, and food trucks. Praise has been levied upon Birmingham’s food scene from a number of prestigious publications, and we’ll now be getting even more national and international attention.

The quality of the food and drink we serve and enjoy is obviously top notch, but as we continue to grow and no doubt add many more dining and drinking establishments over the next few years, I’d like to consider one particular aspect of the restaurant world, and open the conversation about we can do to make our growth more sustainable.

Based on my own years working in restaurants, and from speaking with multiple bar and restaurant owners, it is clear that we don’t have a large enough pool of front-of-house staff (specifically waiters) to fill all these new places popping up.

What often happens when a new restaurant opens is that several waiters from a restaurant that had opened several months before transfer over, leaving the new restaurant well staffed, but the older one understaffed. And then another new restaurant opens, and the process repeats itself. It’s as if we have a set number of waiters in Birmingham, but a growing number of places to work.

There are a few reasons why this could be. First, in this country, we don’t really treat being a waiter as a career, or as a viable vocation. The general perception of waiters is that they’re just doing it “between things,” or while they’re in school, or working on their true passions on the side. While those scenarios are certainly true in many cases, since working as a waiter usually offers a flexible schedule, we should also consider that the way in which waiters are paid diminishes their worth.

No other profession depends so heavily on tips for income, and that probably won’t change until there are significant reforms in the restaurant industry business model that would see waiters get paid a full-time salary for full-time work. My own preference would be to set up worker-owned co-op business models for restaurants where all staff (back of house and front of house) get paid comparable salaries.

We do, as a society, value cooking as a respectable profession. Chefs are seen as artists. With the rise of food media, many have become celebrities. One of the major differences between the back-of-house and front-of-house art forms (and I absolutely do believe that waiting tables well is an art form) is that there is training—often years of rigorous training—to become a chef. On the other hand, to get a job as a waiter may require a few weeks of training.

Think about how different your experience at a restaurant is when you have an amazing waiter versus just an okay or mediocre waiter. When you have a great waiter, you feel taken care of, you notice the attention to detail, the refined swiftness and dance of providing just what you need a few seconds before you even need to ask. The quality of service you receive by your waiter can make or break your memory of being at a restaurant, and may even impact your decision to ever come back. Think about how differently you tip when you have an outstanding waiter!

Now, imagine if that quality of service was the standard. Imagine if there was rigorous training to work as a waiter, the sort of training you’d expect from a classically trained artist. You’d be glad to pay for the heightened experience. And if good money were (nearly) guaranteed based on quality service, more people would feel comfortable entering into a career as a waiter.

I hope that our local restaurant community could see the potential in investing in a front-of-house training program, perhaps partnering with Wenonah High School’s Hospitality and Tourism Academy. Such a program could lead to a pipeline of young adults filling vacant spots in our restaurants, excelling at their careers, earning good money, and being treated with respect and admiration.

And until we do all that, let’s remember to tip our waiters at least 20…no, make it 30 percent for sharing their craft with us.

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