Emerging trends may affect table service.
The National Restaurant Association’s annual chefs’ survey on culinary trends usually yields some insights into dining habits. The forecast for 2016 is no different.
Particularly striking in the survey is the large consensus around chef-driven fast-casual restaurants. The trend makes sense, since it’s akin to two other recent trends:
Fast-casual restaurants not driven by chefs: A “fast-casual” restaurant is like a fast-food place in that it lacks table service, but it has more upscale décor. Typically, you find this at chain places like Chipotle and Panera Bread.
Food trucks: Some food trucks serve “chef-driven” cuisine that reaches toward haute, and some have even won a following. But they’re in the most casual of settings: the street.
So it makes sense that a chef might park the truck on the inside of a fine-dining restaurant, so to speak, and serve people who then go on to find their own seat. No waitstaff needed.
The fast-casual format also dovetails with another topic under discussion at the National Restaurant Association: the elimination of tipping. A prominent New York restaurateur has eliminated tipping in favor of higher food prices and higher wages. And a UC-Berkeley professor has argued that tipping is a social evil with origins in “feudal Europe.” On the other hand, she lauds the Europeans for moving away from tipping decades ago. She argues that tipping compels the waitstaff to endure degrading behavior from customers.
Now, if American diners more fully embrace the fast-casual format, there will be no waitstaff, and therefore virtually no need for tipping, and the professor’s problem will be solved.
But having been a waiter myself in days of yore, I see things differently from the professor. I see the waitstaff almost as a sales force working on commission, but with one great advantage: If you provide outstanding service, your commission gets even bigger.
As a waiter, I had an incentive to sell customers more food and drinks so that the tip would get proportionately bigger. I also had an incentive to give customers a high level of service so they would express their gratitude in the form of an extra big tip. Both of these incentives benefited my employer, since he would make more money that night from the higher sales and in the long-term from repeat customers who appreciated a high level of service. Ultimately, a truly great waiter might make a career of it, go on to one of the grand-dame restaurants in New Orleans and buy himself a cool car with his handsome tips.
Sure, occasionally some Rolex-wearing jerk would treat me like his serf, but it’s not like he “degraded” me. In fact, I would always give those types a big smile and thank you at the end of the meal. Maybe some small part of his heart would melt and he would realize what a jerk he was. (Well, probably not.) At any rate, psychologically, I won in the end.
I suppose I could have thought of myself as a victim, but this was back in the early 1990s and people didn’t revel in victimhood as much in those days. And, by the way, the vast majority of customers want to befriend their waiters. After all, the waiters control the food supply.
But it seems to me that any salesperson is potentially subject to this so-called “degrading behavior” from a customer, whether you sell food or vacuum cleaners. In America, the customer is (almost) always right. That’s the way we do business.
By contrast, I have been the customer at restaurants abroad where the tip is a built-in percentage of the bill or zero. And guess what? Being a customer in those places is a far inferior experience to the prompt, courteous service we enjoy here in New Orleans. There may be more rude waiters in Europe than rude customers in the United States. In other words, under the incentive-based approach under which waitstaff operate here, the customer wins, too.
Good luck finding good service if those incentives disappear. And without good service from waitstaff, customers will be more and more drawn to those chef-driven, fast-casual places. Waitstaff may have to find new careers, but at least the outrageous injustice of tipping will be wiped from the earth.
Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.