Leftovers: Question D and the Art of the Meal

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Most restaurant workers never needed online dating options. They never had to swipe left or endure embellished profiles of those looking for love in virtual spaces. They never had to duck outside to smoke by the dumpster while looking for an after-shift playpal. This wasn’t because they used flip phones — they just had to look no further than their very own coworkers. Let’s not forget, the most serious and best career folks worked 40+ hours a week. Most became family, but some grew into something more. 

Before the pandemic, there were non-negotiable expectations from restaurant owners of seven-to-fourteen shifts staffed weekly, a stack of applications for unsung kitchen positions, a live voice taking reservations, and of course, fully stocked stations and accurate wine inventory. Those were just a few necessary pieces for operating success. And if they weren’t in place, there was hell to pay. 

Natalie Haberman-LaddBelieve me, I know only too well an executive chef’s unchecked wrath. 

There was always natural, normal tension between those behind the line and even the boldest of servers. The kitchen was focused on sending out a special with seared seasonal peppers placed just so, accompanied by fresh garnish. The server was hoping they listened and left off the cilantro their customer insisted tasted like a bar of Dial. When that didn’t happen, a quiet battle ensued based on a mutual goal of a great end-user experience. But, ultimately the dish had to be remade, backing up the night for everyone. Or, the server had to secretly wipe off the edge of the plate. Having done the latter with non-life threatening garnish like cilantro was both stressful and risky on many levels.

I could wax on with more examples, and even today I know there are conflicts that stem from the steps between placing an order and serving it. After all, guests are unpredictable and you never know when someone might request an “extra well-done filet mignon but not butterflied.” That alone would give any grill master a spike in blood pressure with the fallout aimed at the messenger.

What I do know for sure is most restaurant people aren’t working 40+ hours a week in close quarters anymore, which is the secret sauce for forming those relationships, family-like or otherwise. I know self-service and paying the check by QR code has weakened the link between a server and her guests. I know the expense and scarcity of favorite ingredients has forced chefs to dummy down their craft. To that point, I was saddened to learn of a restaurant that previously offered linen service switching to paper napkins. Like other changes, it’s part of the owner’s lifeline to keep her business running. 

What I don’t know is if we’ll ever fully go back. For over 25 years, I made it my life’s work to be in the trenches in the  restaurant industry. Prior to that, I put in 10 years in a corporate hospitality marketing gig. That was when making out in the walk-in was commonplace and a chef had no problem screaming at a server to get the F&^# out of the kitchen and never set foot back in. Yet, no one was surprised the two of them were in the walk-in later that same night.

Like most memories, I’m sure I’m forgetting the sharp edges. Admittedly, some things are safer and more politically correct in a good way. But like my paper napkin-embracing friend says, too many are basic survival tactics forever changing the art of the meal. 

The real point? Everyone knows I’m the flakiest of snowflakes. It’s been touted here before, but we won’t be able to afford a full-service dining experience if Question D passes on the November 8 Portland ballot. Yes, I do think increasing the minimum wage is necessary for many retail and service-based workers. But leave the sub-minimum tipped credit wage out of it. We all know our restaurant owners are strapped as it is.

Do people not realize that front-of-house workers, and all other tipped employees already make minimum wage, and most good ones earn beyond it? Even without Question D, if minimum wage isn’t reached with the help of tips, employers automatically make up the difference? That’s the law as it stands today and it isn’t broken. 

So, let’s do the right thing and show our restaurants love by saying NO on Question D.

Natalie Haberman-Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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