A tipping point for restaurant labour? Perhaps.
This post of mine first appeared on BuzzFeed. It is herein brined & reposted.
The slow, circuitous ritual of restaurant labour progress.
The rituals of the restaurant realm make for slow, circuitous routes to labour progress. Yet out of 700,000 restaurants, the thirteen of USHG wield potent, disproportionate influence. The power is due not to their size, rather Danny Meyer’s long-heralded savvy & knack for leveraging myths to effect sustainable progress.
Danny Meyer’s endorsement is, for the restaurant labour lobby, like the New Hampshire primary vote .
Perhaps it’s my allergy to political pundits, perhaps my Canadian faux-naïveté. Yet after decades of patient descriptions from American friends, I still fail to understand the esoteric underpinnings of the Electoral College system. To this day, I shake my Canadian head with wonder at how, in a 52-state nation of 350 million, everyone could possibly be so damn obsessed with New Hampshire.
Until this month.
Because, you see, to foodie minds such as mine, the penny can drop in equally esoteric ways.
When resto legend Danny Meyer ended tipping at his thirteen Union Square Hospitality outlets, and news & hyperbole rippled quickly outward to mainstreamonlookers & pundits alike, I realized that reform in the North American restaurant industry is something like the College: neither linear nor logical; not quite representative, and infinitely bound up in myth and ritual.
For casual diners or onlookers, the frenzy over these thirteen restaurants — among an estimated 700,00 — would seem equally out of whack. Like a Canadian gazing with wonder at an Iowa primary from North of the border, the action is disproportionate to the effect.
Survey says: …. no-tip restaurants nothing new
Furthermore, empirical evidence has long shown that tipped employees are twice as likely to live in poverty. No-tip, stable wages have long had professional approval, as evidenced by years of debate. And countless other no-tip restos have tested — and proven — the long-term benefits of the model. So why did it take one lone wolf to, truly, tip the scales for the industry at large & the mainstream media buzz alike?
After all, thirteen restaurants are hardly a drop in the bucket, despite their level of critical acclaim. What’s more, as reported in Civil Eats, ThinkProgress & HuffPo, several equally high-profile establishments have already hopped onto the no-tip wave as far back as 2011.
Restaurant “progress” not linear, it’s ritualistic
Disproportion is indemic to the restaurant industry, built on (often unnamed) traditions, and like the Electoral College system, “wins” and “progress” are circuitous, bound in ritual, never linear.
As an industry, the restaurant realm is near-unparalleled in its ability to cling not only to arcane practices, yet also defunct labour practices. Key issues of sustainable labour, such as stable wage, harassment-free work zones & unionization show that the resto realm lags least a decade compared with cognate sectors (service, hospitality, entertainment).
In the slow-as-molasses resto realm, it’s only in the past few years, sparked by social media uproar and weighty figures such as NYT food critic Pete Wells, that they’re being seriously broached.
This obstinance to accept policy considered, rather empirically, robust, useful & progressive elsewhere is complicated by the rapid rise of so-called “foodie” culture, an sort of armchair adventure narrative built upon the rise of food media, and its ensuing fetishization of restaurant kitchen culture.
Tradition & trend: when it comes to resto solvency, unparalleled blend
The weight of someone like Meyers, though opaque, cannot be understated. In his case, it’s not about the number (thirteen) or the cities (NYC), or even his lynx-like Food Network judging appearances. It’s about his long-exalted knack—chefs and restauranteurs deem it miraculous—between food culture, culinary artistry and sheercorporate savvy. Many chefs and restauranteurs have the first two — and of these, most are far better known. Yet few have all three-— much less for several decades.
Meyers wields a Koch-style influence over restaurant trends — he has only has to glance in one direction and days later, industry feet are making a beeline.
It’s not that he began the no-tip debate, or even represents its majority stakeholders. To be sure, buzz was starting to swell, yet contained mostly to industry sites or foodie beats at, say Eater or Food Republic.
The Primary is just the First (step)
Just like in politics, however, winning the most prime time debate or the most populous states do not guarantee a win. They’re part of the slow wave which, once exponential like the tide, need only a single heavyweight (often only superficially known in the public eye) to tip things over at a moment’s notice.
Make no mistake: tipping won’t disappear overnight. Yet it’s no longer a shadow issue. It’s on the table for good, with the proper amount of weight on its side.
It remains to be seen if other resto labour issues—long-shrouded by the industry’s mythical hold on the public—will meet the same fate.