Fix or Dismantle?

Last Saturday evening, I braved a deluge getting out of San Francisco to wind my way up Highway 29 to attend a lively panel discussion at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa. This was the last in a series of panel discussions hosted by the CIA called Conversations at Copia. I was pumped to hear the panelists and the theme was one that is very close to my heart – equity (lack of it) in the food service space.

The panel moderator was Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods fame) who led the conversation.

The panelists were people I admire deeply, for their authentic voices and their commitment to making a difference for people through food – Traci Des Jardin (Bay Area Chef), Kwame Onwuachi (chef and author, Notes from a Young Black Chef), Brandon Chrostowski (founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, featured in the documentary “Knife Skills” ), Angela Dunleavy-Stowell (CEO of FareStart – a program in Seattle that seeks to transform lives through food, life skills and job training. ) and Alycia Harshfield (California Restaurant Association Foundation – providing scholarship funding for young chefs on the rise).

They began with the question: What is equity? This set the stage for the conversation…If we start with a clear idea of what we’re going for, all on the same page, we can hope to get there. The answer boiled down to this: Equity is when everyone has the same level of opportunity to rise to the best they can be.

As a business owner, bringing equity into the workplace takes something. It has to be intentionally created as a plan or a strategy. The status quo is inequity. People show up with advantages and disadvantages, fueled by how the world relates to them. Those things will create a natural imbalance. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Traci pointed out that if one hired only the most qualified candidates for the job, one might find that the group looks homogeneous. That is, what shows up is the group that already has had all the advantages to end up at her door. She must be willing to mentor others who may not have had all the advantages to make it to her door. She knows that if she really wants equity, she must be willing to address what fuels the inequity. One of those things is lack of opportunity. Programs like EDWINS and FareStart help. Mentorship is key. And those solutions both seem like a fix….

Then came the next question. Andrew asked the panelists, “how do we address the issues of inequity in the food service industry – Fix or dismantle?” Angela Dunleavy-Stowell said “dismantle”. “Too broken” She made the case that the real transformation happens when we totally re-examine what is important and build a system that supports that. I agree. We have to redefine the foundations of our business model,. to align with human values. Create those values to be the leading force of everything we do.

It was then that Angela brought up tipping and the conversation and yes, it is a rabbit hole. For the next ten minutes or so, the conversation flirted at the edge of the hole.

For all the back and forth about this subject, I am a firm believer that tips must be abolished in restaurants in order for us to seriously address the issue of inequity. It represents inequity between the customer and the server, the server and the cook, the owner and the server, and server to server.

Full-disclosure: I have never worked for tips. I always have worked for a wage or a salary. I have been tipped for wedding cakes and such. But I do not have a server mindset.

There are so many reasons why tipping is the source of the problem in food service.

  1. It creates a natural rift between those who customer-face and those who don’t. Servers generally work only 6 hour shifts and the kitchen can typically work 8-12 hours at a time. And servers make more money on average than anyone in the kitchen. In one fine dining establishment I worked, the servers made more than the owner. The Back of the house and the front are naturally at odds; it’s been the case everywhere I’ve worked. I believe this basic reality, that servers make more money for fewer hours, is at the core of the problem.
  2. The servers tip is not based on service, but often based on the menu pricing. Therefore, the higher the prices, the larger the tips. And yet that is the server taking advantage of the fact that they have been hired at that restaurant. Sure they may need to be better at their job to work at a high end restaurant, but really, the customer will tip based on a percentage of the bill. By virtue of working at a restaurant that charges alot of money for it’s menu, the server gets paid more.
  3. While the server can move around to restaurants where customers will pay more for their food and thus tip higher, someone in the kitchen can not expect to make more money just because they are in a fine dining establishment.
  4. It is well documented that servers of color make less than their white counterparts. And so, to eliminate tipping would eliminate one place where inequity can rear it’s nasty head – with the customer.
  5. And finally, tipping creates a power dynamic between the customer and the server that, no matter what the tacit agreement might be, promotes inequity.

Dismantling is far more challenging than a fix. It requires a fundamental shift from all parties involved – business owners, employees, customers, and society as a whole. I, for one, am a stand for the shift.