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Sep 13, 2021

Restaurant Workers Are On The Run (And Not To Get Your Order)

Some thoughts on the threatened eatery industry

By Ed Goldman

Since I know how to ask people if they’re enjoying their meals when their mouths are full—and can also ignore people trying to get my attention— I’m thinking this might be a good time for me to get a job as a restaurant waiter.

I mean look at the numbers, provided by the National Restaurant Association (motto: “We Can’t Seem to Find Your Reservation/Could It Be Under Another Name?”): At the end of last year, there were 12.5 million employees in the eatery industry, “down 3.1 million from expected levels.” 

Edgy Cartoon

Insanity Fare

Everyone—from bussers, waiters and hosts to short-order cooks, chefs and managers—has been defenestrating from these establishments, especially those with windows. 

(For younger readers: ridiculous as it may seem, the word “defenestrate” actually means to leave a building via a window—and it usually implies the person has left via the window on a nonvoluntary basis, as in “was thrown outta.” This would have been a cool word to have in the vocabulary unit of high school but instead we got duds like “eleemosynary” and “tepid.” Even “outta” would have been fun.) 

Abysmal pay has been given as the overarching reason for the escapees (though after being on one’s feet all day, I think overarching itself would be cited as one of the problems).

In some states, the minimum wage is something like 65 cents an hour and free leftover hash-brown potatoes at week’s end. (Okay. Not really. In Georgia and Idaho, it’s $7.25.) Even in states where it’s come “up” to $15, I’ve yet to figure out how anyone can actually live on that, unless they’re in a rent-free apartment, drive a paid-for/flaw-free late-model car and, at no extra charge, have groceries delivered to them every day, school clothes every fall and enjoy gratis health, dental and optical coverage year ’round. 

Most restaurants can’t afford to pay benefits to their employees. Even the $15-an-hour wage cuts it close for the owners in an industry where margins are thinner than a slice of vehemently pounded veal.

I’m not sure what the answer is. 

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Bigger restaurants, and many in European cities, consider restaurant jobs careers, and find a way to not only pay accordingly but also to discourage customers from leaving tips—although, considering the costs of meals at some of these places, I have to presume that the equivalent of fairly generous tips are factored into the tab.

Some dining emporia have even instituted ESOPs, which were as popular as the sound-alike fables a few decades ago. Based on Japanese “work circles,” employee stock ownership plans saw staff members truly (in)vested in the success of their workplace. I don’t think the idea caught on with too many restaurants in the United States, probably because the industry has always suffered from high employee turnover. (Even employees who weren’t high tended to leave, I’m told.)

Anyway, I think I’ll find my niche in a high-end restaurant job. It’ll accommodate both my night-owlishness and general owlishness, to wit:

  1. I am just as capable of mis-memorizing the day’s “specials” and orders I puckishly decline to write down as many waiters who’ve served me.
  1. I am more than able to recommend the most expensive and possibly least complementary wine to pair with your dinner. I can even do passable French and Italian accents to make the inappropriate wines sound authentic.
  2. I also know how to call the taste of a particular wine “authentic,” even though that’s as silly as the word “defenestrate.”

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).