San Antonio’s restaurant industry faces change

Chef Nico Garza would really like to talk about just one thing: kitchen efficiency – how down-to-the-minute data of prep time and milligrams of ingredients can help a restaurant run optimally.

But his recent experience in opening a new restaurant in the city center leads him instead to talk about wage structures and investor power.

Last spring, Garza helped open the Vietnamese house-style restaurant House of Má, with owner-operators Louis Singh and Eric Treviño of Vietnamese restaurant Singhs, consultant and beverage manager Jeret Peña, and restaurateur and hotelier Chris Hill. He shared a kitchen with Hugman’s Oasis tiki bar, which simultaneously opened in the Witte building on the River Walk.

The restaurant opened on April 30 but closed unceremoniously three weeks later, after a dispute over how staff should be paid. The incident foreshadowed changing dynamics in the restaurant industry, as restaurateurs grapple with high staff turnover, supply chain issues and workers leaving the industry altogether.

The downtown restaurant House of Ma closed its doors just three weeks after opening due to a dispute over staff salaries. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“Do it, take it”, front to back

Garza refined his ideas on cooking efficiency while working as a chef at Singhs for three years. He credits his data-driven approach to helping the restaurant on North St. Mary’s Street survive the pandemic as the kitchen was able to respond nimbly to changes in supply and demand as conditions were changing.

Restaurant employees were also able to overcome the uncertainties of the pandemic thanks in part to the salary structure employed by Singhs: all employees share tips.

Tip sharing is unusual in the restaurant industry, which operates largely using a “do it, take it” system where staff in direct contact with customers or “in front of the house” work for clients. tips in addition to salary, while cooking or “behind the house” staff who do not communicate directly with customers work regular hourly wages.

Garza said he, Singh and Treviño wanted to bring an expanded version of their tip-sharing structure to the combined staff of House of Má and Hugman’s Oasis.

“If everyone stuck with that understanding it would have been great,” Garza said. “I think it could have made a lot of waves” locally, he said, “but maybe more than that, because not only is it quite difficult as it is in the clothing industry. restore, but we’re doing it during a pandemic, too. “

Not everyone stuck to this understanding.

Singh and Treviño did not respond to multiple attempts to reach them for this story, but as Garza recounts, the staff at Hugman’s Oasis bar objected to a small percentage of their tips being distributed to kitchen staff. , and Peña and Hill agreed.

But in an interview with the San Antonio Report, Hill pointed out that current labor law limits tip sharing to front desk staff. The applicable part of the Fair Labor Standards Act reads: “A valid tip pool cannot include employees who do not usually and regularly receive [sic] tips, such as dishwashers, cooks, chefs and janitors.

Citing the law, Hill shut down the tip-sharing system.

The kitchen staff responded by leaving work; their last day of service was May 21. The House of Má website first displayed a “temporarily closed” banner, which became “permanently closed” in early June.

Garza said he sees it as a matter of will, whether or not workers are willing to see all staff as contributing to the success of the company and deserving a share of the rewards – and whether the business side of the operation would be Okay.

Decent salary, tip sharing

Recent headlines have trumpeted a nationwide shortage of workers in the restaurant industry, with record number of dropouts in the last two months. Workers cite low pay, long hours, stressful conditions and no benefits.

Chef Andrew Weissman has stymied the trend in the many restaurants he owns, paying above the required minimum hourly wage, instituting tip-sharing where possible, and offering perks.

“We want to pay people to have a living wage,” Weissman said. “I think that’s where we are as a country right now. … At some point you just have to decide if you’re going to pay the money these people deserve.

At his Mr. Juicy hamburger restaurant on San Pedro Avenue, all employees share tips. Weissman said there was no “front of the house,” and all staff were trained to handle the multiple tasks of taking orders, paying and cooking. “It’s such teamwork. There really is no division between anyone there and it works just fine.

Weissman called it an ethical question. “Everyone pulls their own weight, so everyone should share the tip,” he said. “At Mr. Juicy, everyone shares the fruits of their labor, even the dishwasher.”

Its gastronomic establishment Signature offers an hourly wage for servers well above the national standard of $ 2.13 for tips, as well as paid time off and health benefits to all staff. Weissman said a new restaurant project underway will offer a base rate of $ 18 per hour, reflecting a national trend.

“We know it’s beyond what others start [at], but we… don’t want to have this stress of not having staff, ”Weissman said, due not only to the effects of the pandemic but also to the historically high level industry turnover rate.

Chef Michael Sohocki said his restaurants operate three different pay systems.

Although his Kimura ramen shop and Gwendolyn gourmet restaurant downtown uses the standard ‘do it, take it’ model, hourly wages are above minimum, and a ‘tip’ system is used during peak hours when a host is called in to assist on service and to the flow of customers. In this system, 1% of the total sales during these hours are shared with the host, which slightly reduces the salary of the server.

“The waiters usually scream because they have to tip now, and they’re not used to hearing that,” he said. “We try to explain that it is for the good of the service”, and in the end, everyone benefits.

AT Brick oven pizza Il Forno SASohocki instituted what he calls a “state-of-the-art integrated system.” By paying minimum wage and operating with counter service, Sohocki gains the flexibility to exceed the limits of labor law on tip sharing, and every employee shares the tips.

“It’s egalitarian,” he said. The total amount of tips is divided by the hours worked and distributed among the employees.

Sohocki guarantees a minimum of $ 13 an hour, so if the shared tips don’t reach that amount, he makes up the difference. He said it took significant legal analysis to come up with a system that meets labor standards and works for its employees.

“I am quite sure that we have to divide equally at all times to make this system fair,” he said.

Changes on the horizon

Sohocki is currently undertaking a big change with his restaurant group, closing downtown Kimura and Gwendolyn stores and moving them to the Five Points building on North Flores Street which once housed the 5 Points Local restaurant. Gwendolyn’s name will change to Five Points Food and Wine and offer a more relaxed style of service.

Each will have separate indoor and outdoor dining areas, and Sohocki will add a top-floor bar and lounge called Dash.

Sohocki is in discussions with its bar and restaurant managers on the compensation system to be used for the new locations. Each point of view has valid points, he said, with some employees supporting the traditional system and others seeking to see a change.

“The direction I would like to go in, if that doesn’t produce a full mutiny, is a permanent tip-pool arrangement,” he said, which he acknowledged has both advantages and disadvantages. potential drawbacks. Sharing tips can stifle the competitive nature of servers to excel, but the old way can pit them against each other. By pooling tips whatever the conditions, “hopefully, theoretically, that means everyone is pulling in the same direction,” ensuring customers have positive experiences.

Michael Sohocki owns and operates several restaurants in San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy /

Hill said that even if he ended the alternative salary arrangement at House of Má, the US restaurant industry as a whole may need a change.

“Wouldn’t it be ideal to get rid of the current and popular American tip system and move to a fixed and meaningful salary? It would just be a dream come true, ”he said.

But Americans might not be ready for the “much higher” prices such a move would entail, he said, and the employees who are drawn to the industry because of good pay thanks to tips. might not be willing to accept less money on hand.

Speaking of his long-time Houston Street establishment, Hill said, “A bartender at Esquire Tavern, for example, makes quite a bit of money.”

He said the Esquire kitchen staff had spoken and agreed with them. “I think the salaries in the kitchen are too low. We’re re-evaluating what we pay and are determined to make sure everyone in the Esquire’s kitchen pays him a good paycheck.

Hill said that although current labor laws preclude tip sharing at all levels, a “service charge” system in which a 20% charge is automatically assessed on each invoice might be achievable, but only if workers and diners are ready and willing to embrace change.

Among the possible alternatives, said Hill, “there are models that would definitely be an improvement over what we have. But the short answer is, yes, wouldn’t it be nice to do something else? “

Hill will have that chance when he opens a new restaurant planned for the House of Má spot.

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Cecil N. Messick