Servers Get Rich in SF, Cooks Left Behind

Sep 03 at 11am

A recent article on SFGate’s Inside Scoop reports that roughly 40% of restaurant workers nationwide are living in, or near, poverty. I've worked in the restaurant industry as a server, bartender, manager, busser, dishwasher, pizza cook, food runner, and every other conceivable restaurant position besides chef, for the past 14 years in various cities, and I have no problem believing that stat (and it's difficult to argue with information from the Economic Policy Institute). But as someone who is currently working as a server at an eatery in the Mission, I can also say that San Francisco is one of the best cities to work in a restaurant.

Restaurant workers in this city generally make more than the national average, and some do really, really well. That is, as long as we're talking about those who work front-of-the-house (waiters, runners, bartenders, and support staff). Find an "industry bar" on a Monday night and you'll see what I mean. Hundred dollar bills everywhere.

But there is a huge income disparity amongst us restaurant workers. Bussers, dishwashers, prep cooks, and all other entry-level, hourly restaurant employees make minimum wage, or $10.74 an hour (hopefully, that will soon be $15/hr). Working 40 hours a week, these back-of-the-house workers (if they’re on the books) bring in $1784 a month without tips. If that person makes a share of the tips (I’ll talk more about this later), they can potentially take home $100–$500 more a month, depending on their position, bringing their total income to about $1900–$2300 per month before taxes. This is not a lot of money, and as well all know, living in San Francisco on this kind of income is difficult. As for the rest of the back of the house: line cooks make a little more than entry-level hourly employees, the sous-chef more, and executive chefs are usually salaried (read: work insane hours that make their "hourly" wage insanely low).

On the other hand, front-of-the-house staff can make a killing in San Francisco. At a popular restaurant in the Mission for example, I can work five nights a week, six to eight hours a night, and easily make an average of $250 in tips an evening, sometimes more, on top of my hourly wage. That means I take home $5000 a month in tips (5 days a week x 4 weeks x $250 per night), bringing my monthly income to $6784 – that's $81,000 a year before taxes. In San Francisco, customers also pay my health insurance. Remember our dishwasher/prep cook/entry-level guy? He's making $23,000 a year with tips, before taxes. If the lead line cook comes into the equation, he's making maybe $30,000 a year. That extra $50,000 per year just ran your food to the wrong table and now you have to make it again. Fucking servers. 

Overall, the back-of-house works longer hours than front, and make possible everything that the server takes from the kitchen to the table, but are paid less. WAY LESS. On the other hand, servers provide a special element that many chefs, cooks, and dishwashers have no interest in providing – dealing with the customers professionally despite rudeness. Servers in this town are usually required to know far more than the average waitstaff. Things like when Jimmy Nardello peppers are in season, where they came from, what farms provide meat to the restaurant, and whether or not gluten/dairy/animal by-products are in the food. San Franciscans ask these kinds of questions every night. I won't start the debate on "Who works harder – servers or cooks?" – that has fueled so many post-shift fights and arguments in my career. Both work hard, in very different ways. 

But here’s what I will argue, what the Inside Scoop article misses and what restaurant owners should consider, especially considering the so-called "cook shortage:" the total amount of money exchanged in the average restaurant on a given night is staggering and it should be shared more equally. If every person in San Francisco (800,000 of us) eats one $15 meal at a restaurant in a week, we as a city spend $12,000,000 a week going out. If we tip our servers 20%, we're talking about $2,400,000 a week. That money could, and should, be distributed more fairly amongst workers, especially to the people who are behind the scenes making the food and doing all the stuff, like washing dishes, that makes going out to eat worth the cost.

As much as servers tend to hate the idea of "pooled" houses, I don't think they all object to the rest of their co-workers making a living wage. In my experience the word "team" comes into play a lot more often this way, and there are far less arguments between servers and cooks. While not every position in a restaurant deserves the same pay, the gap doesn't need to be quite as wide. We ­­– the people who feed and serve San Francisco – should all be able to afford to live in this city.

Image via Thinkstock

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