Are you being served?

If Sir would like his dinner cooked in liquid nitrogen at the table, we can certainly arrange that!

A version of this story originally appeared in Good Living in April 2007, so the figures, references and workplaces of people who’ve since moved to other roles, date from that time. Much of what’s predicted has turned out to be true.

 

I SPENT THREE YEARS as a waiter before increasingly homicidal thoughts towards some customers made me flee into the kitchen. I have no doubt about how hard the job is and try not to have the same affect on today’s waiters. But lately, they’ve been trying my patience.

Just when we should be in the golden age of dining out, it seems that the service is on a downhill slide. My belief, as someone who dines out several times a week, is that there’s a rising tide of gaucheness on the floor. And the old adage is true: you’ll have a better time in a restaurant with good service and bad food than vice versa. Waiting an hour for the menu was a recent record, but I’ve waited similar lengths to order anything, even a drink. I’ve nodded off waiting for the bill. I keep checking in the mirror to be reassured that I don’t have “Ignore me!” tattooed to my forehead.

I watch waiters as they move around the room, eyes on everywhere but on customers struggling to be noticed. And those customers write to me distraught, traumatised, disappointed and outraged.

The desperation to employ anyone to schlep plates has led to waiters straight from a Mr Bean script, which leads to fudged answers that are so outrageous, even a five-year-old would blush. Wild mushrooms are described as “the kind you buy in shops”, then the maitre d’ intervened with a graphic description of foie gras as “stuffing food in a goose until it kills it”. A ravigote (a herb sauce similar to gribiche) isn’t a lemony mayonnaise.

It’s great, so long as you can enjoy the comedy when a waiter describes one dish as “bland” and another as “bizarre”. I didn’t ask what he thought of the chef, but can imagine what the chef would say about him.

Good service is an exacting art. A waiter is a combination of psychologist, logistics expert, spruiker, salesperson, food and wine encyclopaedia and countless other talents in between.

Rockpool’s acclaimed chef, Neil Perry, started out as a waiter, then retired to the kitchen 25 years ago. He believes the role is “40 per cent mechanics and 60 per cent about a sense of generosity and your ability to adapt. You need personality and reflex. Every customer in different headspace and you’ve got to be able to read customers well.”

Perry experienced the staff drought when he opened Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne last year. Recruitment was a challenge.

“I was really surprised we didn’t get at least half a dozen applications from waiters at heavy hitting restaurants,” he said. Instead, they rose through the ranks from cafes and little restaurants. Despite daily briefings and weekend training, it was a rocky start, especially when his Melbourne venture hit full throttle within a week.

“There were lots of mistakes, but that happens,” Perry recounts. “It was Cup week and shit was flying everywhere. We were just trying to get everyone back onto same page. I think it takes about three years for a restaurant to really hit it straps.”

Perry says that since then, the word has gone out that “the tips are right and we’re good people to work for” and more seasoned professionals have signed on.

But that means there’s a hole somewhere else.

 

I’ll be your slave tonight

At the end of 2006 Olivia Wesley-Smith called last orders on an 18-year waiting career.

She took a job in television production, walking away from the passion that had dominated her working life. Two key reasons led to the shift: the pay and a harder demeanour from diners, who increasingly kept their wallets closed at tip time.

“I used to double my wage with tips, but more recently it was just a little bit of cream,” she recalls, The final straw was an growing trend by diners to treat waiters as the downstairs staff in their upstairs lifestyles.

“It seemed like the busier people got, the less social graces they had,” Wesley-Smith says. “I took my job quite seriously and worked hard to have a good knowledge of food and wine. Customers have incredibly high expectations and demand quite a lot, but didn’t appreciate the level of service they were getting.”

It’s a pincer movement that has left a time bomb on the plate. The wait for a waiter is getting longer and everyone is feeling the pressure.

Since an apex of backslapping brilliance during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the restaurant industry has struggled to find staff. From the best fine diner to the corner café, everyone tells a similar tale of constantly being on the hunt for waiters. Along the way, a rift has emerged.

As standards rose over the last decade, diners grew accustomed to good service. We expect it as the norm. At one end of the spectrum, waiters have never been better skilled or more knowledgeable. The arrogance of the early 90s has also evaporated.

Restaurant and Catering Australia (RCA) predicts that at the current growth rates, the hospitality industry needs an additional 20,000 employees over the next five years. The RCA’s most recent survey found that, on average, each of its 7000 restaurant members could all employ an extra person – if only they could be found.

Check the hospitality section of mycareer.com.au and you’ll find around 100 waiting jobs in Sydney, from cafes to Matt Moran’s ARIA. Even the prestige of working at the city’s best isn’t always incentive enough. Craig Hemmings, maitre d’ at Guillaume at Bennelong says he’s always looking for new floor staff to join his team of 30.

A 20-year veteran who still puts in 18-hour days, he’s aware of the pressures. He’s also seen a rise in brusque customers, adding that the older you get as a waiter, the harder you bite your tongue.

“It’s a young person’s game, but at this level, it’s hard to find people with the experience required,” he said.

Hemmings trains staff “the old school way”. They begin by polishing cutlery, graduate to running food and six-to-nine months later; the chance to wait a table may come. That table means tips.

There’s an old waiter’s joke: What’s the difference between a canoe and an Australian? A canoe will tip occasionally.

If it wasn’t for tips, Hemmings doubts he’d have any staff at all.  “Tips are a very important part of front of house. They provide a comparable standard of living and stop waiters taking jobs in another industry.”

Sam Christie from Longrain agrees that tips are “the key to sticking around”.

They can put an extra $400 a week in the wallet, but not every waiter is that lucky. Next time, remember to toss a few coins in the tip jar in front of your favourite barista. 

In London, a growing number of restaurants add a 12.5 per cent service charge (infuriatingly, some still leave room for a gratuity). It’s a similar situation across Europe, but keep in mind that even an average meal can cost as much as dining in a top Sydney restaurant. Plenty of bills hit $1000. Hands up if you’ve left a $100 tip in Sydney.

In the United States, the tip, while not always compulsory, is the closest a waiter comes to a birthright and ranges between 15 and 20 per cent. American waiters are often paid less than AUD$10 an hour. That’s why you can dine at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, in New York, with a waiter for every two customers. Keller introduced a 20 per cent service charge late last year.

While some Sydney restaurateurs see a compulsory tip as the way forward, they’re wary and no-one wants to be trailblazer.

“If you want to get more people into the industry, that’s the way to do it, but don’t think Australian public will take to it, “Craig Hemmings says.

Neil Perry would “like to go there. And more than 10 per cent”.

“It would go a long way to helping attract the right staff. But we’d need to sort out the whole tax thing.”

While the Australian Tax Office insists tips be declared as income, restaurants are currently not liable for additional costs, such as nine per-cent superannuation. The extra paperwork makes restaurateurs nervous, along with the additional costs.

 

The waiter shortage

When Luke Mangan of Glass bistro joined Perry and Melbourne’s Guy Grossi for an industry panel discussing the future last year, it sounded like an episode of Grumpy Old Men. The consensus was pessimistic, fearing the next generation would be diverted by bright lights and instant rewards elsewhere.

Mangan decided to do something about it, and in February launched the Lexus young waiter of the year award to complement the young chef award he founded two years ago. It’s open to waiters under 30 and the generous prize includes trips to the UK and Japan to work.

“We must motivate, innovate and educate,” Mangan says. “Without such awards and standards our industry will not grow.”

RCA CEO John Hart lists number of barriers than need to be jumped.

His association has been working with equally concerned governments in recent years. The taskforces, committees, enquiries, submissions and reports are a never-ending feast.

Upskilling, retention rates and migration are three key concerns

Despite the shortage, the federal Government doesn’t class waiting as skilled for migration purposes. If the late Claude Terrail, who spent half a century presiding over the famed La Tour d’Argent in Paris, wanted to head to Australia to work, his skill as the world’s greatest host would count for nothing.

The RCA is pushing to get trained waiters on the migration list.

At state level, the industry is keen to see apprenticeships reinstated after they were dropped during the 1990s.

Neil Perry backs the move. “It would be a lot better for industry if young people came out of school and were apprentices as waiters, going through the process of learning how to be a real professional.”

Hemmings wants to go a step further. “We need a restaurant school so they come out and could do a section at a one hat standard.”

Robert Goldman, chief executive of RCA NSW,  agrees in a greater emphasis on training. “There needs to be more courses or programs that develop service and sales techniques for the restaurant industry.”

But, he adds, restaurants also need to focus on human resource issues such as career orientation.

“Too often staff are treated like mushrooms and left in a job with little career development planning. This leads to a higher industry attrition rate, which has a very real impact on service.”

The RCA is about to launch an advertising campaign to sell the benefits of a career in hospitality. It will target school leavers, mature age workers and people returning to work, as well as aiming to convince casuals to convert to a full time job.

For once, the waiters will be acting, rather than the other way around.

But RCA CEO John Hart sums up the dilemma with staff costs thus: “Restaurants can’t set up a call centre in India to wait on tables to keep the costs down.”

But this doesn’t make it a waiter’s paradise where you can name your price. The full time award wage peaks at $668.90 per week: just two-thirds of the average weekly wage. Casual waiters – 53 per cent of the total and more than half of those are women – earn between $13.46 and $17.61 per hour.

Just over one quarter of waiters are employed full-time. Restaurateurs say they’d take on more if they’d accept the full-time positions. Sam Christie at Longrain would love it to “maintain consistency with the customers”, but many of his staff prefer part-time roles and “you’ve got to work with them”.

Christie says that while some regard it as a career others are looking for a “top-up job”.

“The funny thing is they’re still doing it 10 to 15 years later and enjoying it.”

RCA NSW chief Robert Goldman can see why a career as a waiter has mixed appeal. “The flexibility of the restaurant industry still makes it attractive to students and the transferability of skills offers backpackers the opportunity to find local employment,” he says. “However they’re not entering the industry as a career, but rather as a job. Any stigma being attached to working in a restaurant has disappeared, but overall salaries are not as high as in competitive industries and working nights and weekends is still regarded as anti-social.”

Hart adds: “Young people don’t see it as a career and older people don’t want to work the hours.”

In the meantime, the lesson for diners is that if good service matters then remember to reward it. Otherwise, that waiter my end up after your job. 

 

A snapshot of  an industry under pressure

The RCA’s bi-annual industry snapshot, which draws on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, says it’s a boom time for new restaurants, but paradoxically, staff numbers have fallen.

* The workforce has shrunk by 20 per cent in three years, employing 50,000 less people.

* A labour shortage has put pressure on wages, making Australian restaurant staff the most expensive in the world. But the RCA warns that with wages hitting 40 per cent of total costs “is not sustainable in the long term”.

* Understaffing has left those still at the coalface working overtime, which is good for a waiter’s hip pocket – if not their sleep patterns – but at a crippling cost to the restaurant. An Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey found that staff turnover rates were at 35 per cent, almost double the level of other industries.

* One in 10 people leave the industry within 12 months.

* The cost of a meal has actually fallen behind the rate of inflation. Dining out is getting cheaper in real terms. Restaurant profits sit at around two per cent.

* The take-home pay for a top Sydney waiter ranges between $600 and $1200 a week. Tips make the difference between a competitive wage and the poverty line.

 

 


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