14 October 2015 Yesterday Danny Meyer, head of Union Square Hospitality and the most respected restaurateur in New York, perhaps the US, made a seminal announcement; that his many revered restaurants would successively stop optional service charges and, to benefit all members of the team, would be applying a standard service charge. I feel that being in New York when this was announced was the equivalent for restaurant correspondent Nick of my being in Hong Kong when it was announced in 2008 that wine duties were being abandoned. For that reason, as today’s Throwback Thursday, we are republishing Nick’s article from earlier this year on this topic.
11 April 2015 In the top-right-hand corner of the menu at Camino in Oakland, California, is a sign that symbolises the stirrings of what will, I believe, prove to be a significant improvement in the way we all enjoy restaurants across the United States. Ultimately, this will benefit everyone: customers, restaurateurs, chefs and even the equally important but often overlooked kitchen porters.
The sign reads ‘YE$ our price$ now include $ervice so we can pay all our employee$ a living wage’. It is next to a briefer sign that reads ‘No More Tips’.
This is the courageous initiative of Russell Moore, Camino’s chef and founder, who at the beginning of this year and with the support of his staff and a few other local restaurateurs, abandoned the long-running American practice of leaving the service charge to the discretion of the customer and switched to the French practice of adding a fixed charge, in this instance 20%. This decision has been reasonably well received by his staff (Moore admitted that those who left as a result had probably stayed too long) and even more so by his customers.
For any visitor to the US this removes at a stroke one of the most embarrassing aspects of settling the bill – quite how big a tip to leave for the staff. I am no longer the mental arithmetic whizz I once was, so working out the final percentage, after a glass or two of wine, has not infrequently brought the meal to a confusing end. And I always found that the reminders at the bottom of the bill that calculate the amounts equating to 18, 20 or 25% of the total to be somewhat condescending.
Moore’s initiative should also lead to an overall improvement in service standards. I have never agreed with those who hold that service standards in the US are as high as they appear because the customer directly controls the amount of the service charge. This amount goes solely to the person who serves your table while the overall level of service in any restaurant depends on an intricate team effort of bar staff, busboys, cooks and managers. Although the waiting staff may choose to share some of their tips with the rest of the team, it will only be when everyone is fully and fairly rewarded that best practice all round will be enjoyed.
Moore’s initiative, taking the 20% service charge and redistributing this among all his staff, both in the restaurant and in the kitchen that has hitherto invariably been excluded, aims to deliver just that.
Although this is unquestionably a long overdue move into the 21st century for US restaurants, it could not be taking place in a more unlikely setting. The longer we sat in Camino the more I came to think of it as a medieval banqueting hall, one Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel would have relished.
The large, open dining room comprises four long rows of dark wooden tables with four enormous circular chandeliers above. At the far end is an open kitchen with a covered wooden oven in one corner and an open grill centre stage with half a dozen large, round black pans hanging next to the chimney.
Here Moore cooks, ably assisted by a colleague who from time to time takes a small cherry or almond log, sourced from nearby orchards, and throws it on to the brazier, causing sparks to fly up the chimney. Camino would certainly make a highly suitable setting for Wolf Hall.
But instead of Thomas Cromwell, a smiling waitress called Luthien appeared (her parents were big Tolkien fans) and handed us a menu that requires attention because it has been so fastidiously edited. There are only half a dozen starters and three main courses alongside a list of exclusively organic or biodynamic wines and an appetite-whetting cocktail list.
Colour and freshness in the first courses came via a vegetarian combination of citrus, cauliflower and preserved lime and a meatier one of crisp pig skin with a salad of fennel, radishes and grilled turnip. And while the vegetarian main course of roast artichokes, squash, lentils, yoghurt and turmeric was not as exciting as its long description suggested, Moore’s delivery of four slices of pink duck breast next to a slow-cooked duck leg with spelt, oranges, endive and spring onions was exemplary. And it was the inexpensive spelt, boiled and then cooked over the open fire before being coated in the duck jus to give it a nutty flavour, that was the ingredient that lifted the whole dish to far more than the sum of its parts.
In making this fundamental change to his service-charge policy, Moore is attempting to create a more solid financial foundation, not just for his staff but for his restaurant too.
According to chef Greg Higgins, who for the past 21 years has taken the reputation of Portland, Oregon, to such culinary heights at Higgins Restaurant & Bar, this issue faces all chefs and restaurateurs as they grapple with the challenge of adapting to a national minimum wage that is currently $10 per hour but is set to rise to $15 by 2018.
Chefs in the US face not a shortage of customers nor of artisanal suppliers but, like their UK counterparts, a dearth of young cooks. They will certainly be attracted by this fairer distribution of the service charge.
Camino 3917 Grand Avenue, Oakland, California; tel +1 510 547 5035
Higgins Restaurant & Bar 1239 Southwest Broadway, Portland, Oregon; tel +1 503 222 9070
The photo above is taken from the Camino website.