Earlier this afternoon, WNYC hosted “Out From Behind the Apron,” a forum for restaurant-industry workers and veterans to discuss issues ranging from how new laws are changing the industry to their personal experiences serving the citizenry of New York. Hosted by WNYC’s Kathleen Horan and featuring participants like author and erstwhile bar owner Malachy McCourt, Ed Schoenfeld, and New York State Restaurant Association Director of Operations Andrew Rigie, it was a lively and at times contentious two-hour discussion.
A good part of the discussion centered on the Hospitality Wage Order. Among other things, the law, effective January 1, affects minimum wage, spread of hours, and which workers are included in the restaurant tip pool.
Rigie asserted that the new rules are “so complex” that they’re in part responsible for the recent wave of restaurant lawsuits. Some restaurant owners “don’t know what to do to comply with spread of hours,” a regulation that applies when an employee’s shift exceeds 10 hours from the beginning to the end of the day. “The best thing you can do is give people clarity,” Rigie said, and added that while “there are always going to be a few bad guys,” most restaurant operators want to do the right thing. But Rekha Eanni-Rodriguez, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), disputed this, arguing that “many restaurant owners know what they’re doing,” and that if they don’t, ROC is happy to educate them. “What we care most about is transparency,” she said.
To illustrate her point, Eanni-Rodriguez referred to the ongoing lawsuit filed against Batali-Bastianich Hospitality Group by former Del Posto employees who claim they were stiffed on tips and wages. Referring to what she described as the restaurant’s banquet rules, whereby workers earn approximately $150 for a flat shift without receiving a cut of the restaurant’s 23 percent service charge, she said, “Del Posto should know better … and I don’t think it’s a few bad apples. It’s a pervasive problem in the industry.”
A current Del Posto worker who said he had been at the restaurant “since day one” then asserted that the major issues at the restaurant are not only that “so much money is being stolen during the banquets,” but also “discrimination against Latinos” and other workers of color, and “so many hours not being paid.”
Del Posto, of course, has filed its own lawsuit against ROC-NY charging that the group is using “illegal scare tactics” to disrupt its business. But Jeff Mansfield, an organizer with ROC-NY, dismissed the “Batali restraining orders” as “dirty pool,” and insisted that they were “one step on the road until settlement. We’re definitely moving towards settlement. The workers are unified and know what they want.” His assertion went undisputed since, unsurprisingly, no spokesman for the Batali-Bastianich group was present at the discussion. But the Del Posto worker suggested that, settlement or no settlement, there’s worker solidarity: “We’re all working inside supporting those [the picketers] on the outside.”
Plenty of restaurant workers in the audience voiced their disgust over discrimination in restaurant hiring practices. One African-American waiter observed that “the hospitality industry is a microcosm of America. … If I send my résumé [to a potential employer] electronically, oftentimes they’re surprised to see me walk through the door because my résumé does not suggest my color. [The problem] is not going to go away.” Other workers touched on the subject of discrimination based upon physical attributes — one bartender noted that there are “workhorses and show ponies,” and that the latter — i.e., those with “big breasts or chiseled jaws” who work directly with customers — typically get paid more than the former, who work harder behind the scenes.
One bartender from Eleven Madison Park did sound a note of dissent. “If we want to be taken seriously, we have to realize there are many different kinds of restaurants,” he said. “We need to pick our battles. Places asking for photos are not looking for great service.” He claimed that Eleven Madison Park will hire anyone, regardless of color or accent, but “we haven’t had a single black applicant in four months.” His claims of color-blindness were met with skeptical rumblings — as one audience member noted, he was a white male — and ROC-NY’s Eanni-Rodriguez said that there may very well be opportunities, until “you add race, a funny accent, and being a woman” to the equation.
The subject of tipping was far more straightforward: 20 percent, everyone agreed, was the gold standard. “Tipping,” said Steven Dublanica, author of Waiter Rant and Keep the Change, “is not based on service. The quality of service has as much effect on tipping as if the sun is shining. People don’t tip on service; they don’t have the nerve.”
Tipping, discrimination, and proper wages aside, many of the workers in the room agreed that the biggest factor determining the quality of their job is, well, us. “It should be mandatory that everyone who’s eaten in a restaurant should work in a restaurant,” said one server. “If you’ve spent a couple of days in a restaurant then you know why waiters are the way they are.”
In other words, customers need to have a bit of empathy for the logistical and physical demands of serving. And for God’s sake, read the menu before ordering anything, unlike one customer at a Mexican restaurant who wanted spaghetti and meatballs. That anecdote was recounted by the man who blogs as The Bitchy Waiter. He also offered the following sentiment to New York diners: “We’re generally very nice and happy people, but you make us crazy.”