January 7, 2009

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Now comes the lean season

On my first day of culinary school, the Basic Skills instructor warned that when we worked in restaurants, we would spend our holidays with co-workers, not our families.

“Get used to turning to the guy beside you on the hot line at midnight … to say ‘Happy New Year,’” Chef Graham said. “Get used to taking your wife out for Valentine’s Day some other day in February … Tell your mom you will be cooking her Mother’s Day feast on some other day of the week … Forget about seeing Churchill Downs on the first weekend in May ever again …”

More prophetic words are rarely spoken. In this way, among many others, restaurant workers are a tribe unto ourselves. Our “weekends” usually fall on Sunday and Monday. Our Monday arrives on your Friday.

Believe it or not, being hard at work with your friends while everyone else is at play becomes part of the charm of restaurant life. We actually get used to celebrating holidays long after everyone else is asleep. We’re used to hoisting a shot of tequila in a post-holiday toast on a Tuesday afternoon, sharing war stories of the crush just past — and we’re used to nursing a hangover at work the next day.

Happily, many of our regulars understand that they couldn’t have this foodie holiday fun without us. Their extra-big tips and special holiday gifts and bonuses do help take the sting out of sautéing that vegetable medley while “Auld Lang Syne” wafts through the service door.

But what happens after the tinsel comes down, when weight-loss programs and workouts begin, when the holiday credit card bills come due and the New Year’s budgets commence?

Frankly, we hospitality workers who cook for and serve you are frightened.

January is always a crap month in our business. This January may be the worst in memory. We have kids and mortgages and car payments and bills coming due, too. We lie awake at night after hours of serving raucous, jolly holiday patrons, worrying what January will bring.

A server friend observes that folks seem to be cutting back on tips but not orders. Instead of giving a 20 percent tip on an entrée and wine, they might order wine, an appetizer and an entrée, then tip only 10 or 15 percent.

My friend’s post on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum drew replies: Some said he should be “grateful for their business” and “glad he’s getting anything at all.” Truly, we are grateful, but grateful doesn’t pay the bills. Many folks don’t realize that servers work for $2.13 an hour, supplementing that pay with only a percentage of tips (minus tax and minus the share of tips they’re required to disburse to bussers, food runners and bartenders).

When regulars cut back to dining out once every two weeks instead of twice a week, there are consequences. Cooks in their favorite restaurant kitchen have their hours cut, sent home early on slow nights. Many of us receive no benefits, and we don’t draw unemployment just because business is slow.

So, diners, remember us fondly in this lean season. We’re afraid some local restaurants are on the edge now and may not make it through the winter. Spend wisely, spend less if you have to, but don’t stiff your server. Do go out as often as you can afford to, even if you choose lighter dishes to shed those holiday pounds.

We’re counting on you to help us make it. Support your local indie eateries over mega-chains. And, speaking as a pastry chef, eat dessert once in a while!

Marsha Lynch is a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She’s now the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou.