This is the time of the year when we start enjoying a little better weather, and start getting our life back to normal. February is an unusual month, shorter than average with the main things being Superbowl and of course Valentine’s. I’m not going to get in the middle of which is the more significant event (Denver I hope), but personally, I’m getting ready for Valentine’s…sure beats sleeping on the garage floor.
And with Valentines just around the corner, here are a few suggestions.
Make sure you made that reservation for your significant other yesterday, if not earlier. Valentine’s Day is the single biggest day of the year for the restaurant industry. Please don’t wait till the last minute. The date this year falls on a Friday, but there is nothing that says it has to be celebrated that day. With our busy schedules, it’s sometimes easier to schedule a special dinner a few days before or after the actual date. Make sure to indicate the reservation is for Valentine’s to take advantage of any special offerings from the restaurant. And since we covered romance as it relates to wine last year ( please go to Explore’s web-site and scroll to the 2/2013 issue), I thought it might be fun to give you an inside look at the restaurant world from the other side…wait staff, bartenders, managers, etc….even some owners. I took a very informal poll amongst my F&B (Food and Beverage) friends and received a wide array of topics to consider. In working up the outline for this article, I considered many of the topics to come up with a few points for the consumer side to consider the next time they go out…enhancing the dining experience.
First…a restaurant is a business. It’s not a clubhouse, unless you’re the owner. Then you get to stay as long as you’d like. Ownerships set the hours of operation and related policies. The restaurant industry is very glamorous from the outside…great food and spirits being served with great service in a great atmosphere. The reality is 7 days a week, with hours ranging from 7:00 AM till 3-4:00 AM, some operating almost 365 days a year. Only 1 in 3 new restaurants survive to their 5th anniversary. Profitability is negligible…36% food and beverage cost, 32% labor cost, and 28% operating costs…leaving 4% profit on average. For most consumers, their work world consists of 9-5, generally 5 days a week, with weekends off and long weekends for most of the major holidays. Closing down consists of turning off the lights or their computer, and they’re on their way home 5 minutes later. Reality in the restaurant world is much different. Their day generally starts much earlier and runs much later, 10-15 hour days the norm, not counting double shifts. Closing down starts only when the last customers have left. Then it’s a process of breaking everything down to clean, then restocking for the opening shift. Then, they get to drive home to their families. Working weekends and holidays are pretty much the norm. If they are lucky they have an occasional weekend off. Try working every holiday, with maybe Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year’s Day off. Anyone know what a turnaround is? All it consists of is closing the operation (sometimes it’s as late as 3 or 4 AM), then turning around and opening the next morning….this can be a little tiring 3-4 times a week. Am I trying to paint a bleak picture of this industry? Absolutely not. All I’m trying to do is help make the consumer more aware of what goes on behind the scenes, and appreciate all that work. Everyone seems to think the restaurant business is an easy one…after all, you just cook food and serve it…what could be simpler? My goal is to help us all appreciate the tremendous amount of work and dedication that makes it possible to serve that many customers a great meal in a very short amount of time. All they ask is for you to use common sense and courtesy as much as possible.
And the 800 pound gorilla in the room is of course the topic of tipping. The perception from the outside is lots of cash being left on tables, waiters driving luxury vehicles, and working only 15 to 20 hours a week. The reality again is most different. The current minimum wage for foodservice workers in Texas is $7.25 an hour. Current law allows restaurants to include estimated tips to be added to their hourly rate to bring it up to the minimum wage rate. So on a very quiet shift with little to no customers, a waiter could be making only $2.13 an hour theoretically. In addition, most operations have a tip pool that waitstaff contribute to (tip-out) for their support staff of busboys, back waiters, bartenders, etc… a slowly diminishing piece of the pie. Here are a few suggestions. First is the most basic…tip for good service. The opposite is also very true…minimal or no tip for mediocre or poor service. Second is how much to tip. The accepted industry average is the traditional 15%, while most people in the industry tip 20-25%.Lastly, cash is most appreciated. Then, there were two interesting suggestions from my poll. First was pre-tipping…putting down a tip at the start of the meal to insure good service. The second was leaving something for the line cooks (normally never tipped or acknowledged). This came from a restaurant with an open or display kitchen that looked out on the dining room. The patron stopped by the line at the end of his meal to thank the chefs for a memorably perfect meal, and left a small token of his appreciation for the culinary team….any guess on how good his meal was on his return visits? Either of these ideas a requirement?…absolutely not, but what a nice surprise. It demonstrates a commitment to be an integral part of the dining experience. All of us have a favorite regular person that we go to for goods and service…it’s our favorite mechanic, hairdresser, checker at the HEB, etc…why not a favorite waiter. Cultivate that relationship. Nothing better than being recognized by name, birthdays and anniversaries remembered, favorite beverage ready as you’re seated, and dietary concerns communicated to the kitchen. The biggest compliment for a waiter is to be asked for by name…people wanting to sit in his section. Just remember it takes two to make it a working relationship.
Lastly, there is the consumer’s Bill of Rights. This is what the consumer should expect when they go out to eat. Coincidently, it’s the same expectation from the restaurant side of things…that is excellent food, beverages, and service done as consistently as possible in a clean, safe environment. Great restaurants and their staff want you happy as you walk out the door…they want that repeat customer. Also in that grouping is the right to criticize lapses in food and service and also the right to make informed suggestions on improving the performance of the establishment. Great restaurants welcome that feedback, and their waitstaff are a great conduit. Thanks to you folks, there is dietary information on menus, non smoking environments, an almost infinite variety of culinary influences, better trained waitstaff, and of course my favorite…better house wine, wine lists, and wines BTG (by the glass).
The future looks very bright for the industry. Make yourselves part of the equation by supporting your favorite restaurants, and developing the relationship with your favorite waitstaff. So much great food and wine to share!