December 1, 2010

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Happy Holidays, restaurant workers

This time of year, I hear people musing about how restaurant employees must welcome the holidays, since many restaurants are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. I try to chuckle politely rather than sarcastically, but it’s a challenge.

Sure, many restaurants are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Far fewer take New Year’s off. But what about those days leading up to the holidays? Any quiet times to look forward to there? Surely you jest.

On Thanksgiving Eve, food service workers brace for the annual onslaught. Of course, almost everyone enjoys a home-cooked extravaganza on Thanksgiving, but lots of folks bring their families out to dine the night before. (Dirty the kitchen before tomorrow? Are you joking?) Don’t get me wrong — restaurants welcome the business. But imagine you’re a line cook at a popular eatery. Business is booming, and that’s good, but now it’s 1:30 Thanksgiving morning, and you’re finally mopping the floor, ready to go home and … rest? Sadly, no. You’re more likely going home to catch a quick nap before getting up in a few hours to make Thanksgiving dinner for your own family and friends.

Fear not — the next day’s Friday. But wait: Fridays are like Mondays for cooks and servers. And the day after Thanksgiving is the mother of all such “Mondays”: Black Friday. Ravenous hordes of shoppers who’ve been up since their refreshing post-Thanksgiving nap the day before descend upon restaurants to rest their weary feet. They pile their bags and parcels in the walkways, spread newspaper circulars and coupons on the tables, and plot the next leg of their shopping itineraries. Eating out while shopping doesn’t end with Black Friday, either — it’ll continue for the next month.

Coming up are the holiday work parties. Lots of celebratory lunches and dinners, attended by groups of co-workers who grouse about each other all year, culminating in a frenzy of “Secret Santa” gift-opening and tipsy truth-telling amidst a sea of torn wrapping paper and discarded bows. Sometimes the company picks up the food tab, and that’s a plus, because it means no splitting tabs for a large table. But the company may stop short of comping adult beverages, which means a nightmare of tab-splitting for the server. Let’s hope everyone knows how to tip properly, especially the boss.

Finally, New Year’s Eve is the new black for weddings, didn’t you know? And what comes with a wedding? Bridal showers, rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions … in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and on the day itself. There’s no rest for culinary warriors after the stockings come down from the fireplace. The upside: At least the newlywed husbands aren’t likely to forget the date of their anniversary in coming years.

From now until the end of the year, it’s a sweaty, overworked, sleep-deprived, errand-postponed blur for most industry types. Naturally, there are some perks for servers and owners: increased tips and profits. Cooks, not so much. Hourly wages don’t go up during the holidays, no matter how busy a restaurant is. Knowing that your boss is potentially making a killing is small comfort when you’re wrapping gifts at 4:30 a.m. Christmas morning. So, if you’re so inclined, tip your favorite server a generous amount at least once this holiday season, but also steer a tip toward the kitchen staff. It’ll be a welcome surprise for the cooks — and it’ll keep Jacob Marley away from your bed-curtains on Christmas Eve.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of the Gardiner Point residence hall.