Phone Breaks vs. Cigarette Breaks

Okay. You tell me what you think.

After I tell you what I think.

Most (all?) restaurants have strict moratoriums on employees checking their cell phones during the shift. Which is totally sensible. How is the guest being served by the waiter looking at text messages (and even responding) during the crush hours? Filling waters, taking orders, clearing plates, running side work could all be accomplished during this 60-120 second interval.

For me, however, cell phone checking does not happen during the crush. When I am working, I am working. If there is even one immediate task to be done, that takes priority. Always (well, almost always).

There are other approaches though. Every waiter has seen another with his head cocked down, hands in an approximate praying posture, tapping a smart phone in the side station during the height of the dinner hour. As usual, these are the exceptions who provide the odious rule to everyone else. There was once a time when Michael’s issued a ban on waiters tasting guests’ wine – even when offered by the guest (I guess it would always be a problem if the guest didn’t offer). All because someone somewhere in the organization got drunk partying with a table and did something stupid. We all know having a sip of the guests’ wine is a very positive moment in the experience (for all of us). It gives us a chance to commend them on their wine (corkage’d or not), and to further reinforce our connection with them. It helps build repeat customers and encourages them to feel like family in the restaurant. And, yes, it increases our tips.

But anyway, the universal rule is no cell phones on the job. What would be analogous? How about having your girlfriend sitting on a stool in the service bar the whole shift? Definitely distracting, having to argue about why you don’t empty the dishwasher, every time you come to pick up a couple of Jack and Cokes. Or worrying that she’s flirting with the younger, better-looking waiter who models part-time when he’s at the well collecting Cabernets.

So, yeah, it makes sense.

But, not surprisingly, I have a different take on it. First, the phone problem mainly concerns those who keep it in their pockets. It’s impossible to resist that buzz on the thigh – like your girlfriend feels every time that younger waiter comes into the service bar – when the phone goes off. You have to at least check it. And there we go onto the slippery slope.

I defeat this problem by not keeping it in my pants (one of the few times you’ll read this as the best solution). I leave my phone on a ledge somewhere. For me, this is in the coffee station (at Michael’s, that is – at Carney’s it’s too small a place and the owner is always roaming around, so you just . . . don’t . . . dare . . . check your phone until she’s lodged in a bar seat with her vodka/soda at the end of the rush ). My phone can do whatever it wants and, if I’m busy, I do not pay it any attention. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. But when everything is under control and I have a few moments to breathe, yes, I can power up the screen and see what has happened while I was wasting my time making a living.

My M.O. (modus operandi in Latin, for mode of operation) at such points in the shift is mostly read-only. Sometimes, though, as we all know, there are longer moments of downtime vs. others. If I have another 2 minutes to spare and need/want to answer a text – and think I can avoid falling under the gaze of a manager – I will tap something out in response.

All’s good, I believe. Of course, corporate honchos do not believe the same thing. We often read that research shows, for instance, that on-the-job internet surfing, texting, whatever, costs businesses 100,000 hours of productivity per annum, which translates to at least $100,000 – considering the actual productivity of most workers I know.

Obviously, this threat did not exist 10 years ago. It needs to be stamped out. Right?

Here’s the thing: waiters slacking during short intervals of downtime is nothing new. It’s as old as the Verbal Tip, or managers banging hostesses, or . . . the smoke break.

Why is the smoke break sacrosanct?

Imagine yourself in the middle of the rush and the manager discovers you sitting in the linen closet, just staring at the ceiling.

‘What the fuck are you doing? The wait’s an hour and a half. And we got hot food on the line!’

‘Nothing much. I was just clearing my head. It’s fucking stressful out there!’

But if the manager finds you standing outside by the dumpsters, staring into the night, burning a cigarette, he’ll say instead, ‘Hey buddy. Let’s go.” Or he might even light up and join you on a quick one.

Likewise, if you’re looking at your phone at a similarly inopportune moment, the manager will give you a withering stare and you might get written up at the end of the shift.

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve never held the smoking break against anyone. Even though smokers have routinely stolen 15-20 minutes of my teamwork productivity every night I work when I do not take smoke breaks. Whatever. That’s the kind of guy I am.

But now there’s an equal opportunity un-employer. The Phone Break. Again, the phone break is almost always less than the time for the cigarette break. It’s just a grab, a look, and maybe, some quick typing. The whole thing is a minute or so, max. Cigarette break takes that long just for the human transport to/from the alley, never mind the actual smoking and bullshitting (there’s always more than one out there enjoying themselves).

I mean, in my 20+ year career, I’ve known few precious souls who insist on the government-mandated breaks. Virtually all waiters just charge through, happily and dutifully, because it’s too busy to actually take 10 minutes or 30 minutes (‘lunch break’) from the imperative business at hand. So, now that there is actually something comparable for non-smokers, to the cigarette break, we are expected to cower, apologize, and perhaps suffer disciplinary action? I say no.

Phone breaks should be accepted as a part of the job by management.

Or else no smoke breaks. And how do you think that will go over?

A New Trend In Verbal Tips?

My last post was a sort of mini-essay about Verbal Tips.

It didn’t start out that way. As I said in the post, verbal tips are such an entrenched aspect of food serving, experienced waiters hardly give it thought anymore. It’s like seeing naked breasts on a Cinemax movie. You’re there on the couch, Cinemax is on, there are the naked breasts . . . you wonder, ‘What’s on HBO?’

It’s like that with verbal tips. You don’t not notice them, but you hardly dwell on it.

The reason I wrote on the subject in the first place was because I thought I had detected a new trend in the verbal tipping subculture.

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

This was a few days ago. It came from an obviously well-to-do gentleman in his 60s. The party ordered well, had good wine, were well-behaved – in general they acted like the veteran pro athlete in the end zone: they’d been there before and didn’t need to show off.

So the old man accepts the check presenter with charge voucher. I thank him again, using my most sincerest Thank You. (For one, this was a great table and they deserve it. For two, this was a great table $$$-wise and I need to impress as much as possible.) And then he says it in a clear, direct voice that underscores he really understands this has been very good service:

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

Well I’d heard this phrase, more or less, two other times in the last couple weeks. In fact, I had gotten poor tips on those other occasions. But I was still comfortable because this guy was . . . he was just the type, the class, of the demeanor of person who was a 20% tipper. Further, some people do adhere to the Ultimate Rule of Verbal Tips (linked again, sorry, but if you’re lazy, check the 2nd to last paragraph). And he definitely seemed like that guy.

Tip? Sorry, Waiternotes. 12%.

So, to cut to the Check Drop, I think the recent poor economy has created a new breed of verbal tippers. People who used to be good tippers are adopting the policy. They can’t shake the good foundations of humanity they (used to) have, so they have created their own catchphrase.

The meaning is slightly different (but the result is the same) from classic verbal tippers. What these guys are saying now is:

‘Thank you for your service. You have been worthy of the 20% gratuity I used to pay. Times are different now, though. I am no longer paying 20%. In recognition of this fact, I am sending you the coded message that it’s not your fault, but you are getting less. (Maybe things will change in the future.)’

So what do you do? Nothing at all.

I can write about it in my blog, however.

Verbal Tips Are Fraud

The concept of the Verbal Tip is understood by any waiter who has been in the business for more than 2 or 3 . . . shifts.

‘You were the best waiter!’

‘Thank you so much! You were really great tonight!’

I truly hope some of these particular diners are reading this, so they can understand we know what they are doing. But then, the kind of diners who pull this shit are definitely not interested in how the waiter feels about things. So why should I expect they would seek out a waiter blog?

Verbal Tips are as intrinsic to food serving as:

  1. Skating on sidework.
  2. Getting free drinks from the bartender (during or after your shift).
  3. Hitting on the hostess or hitting on the bartender (depending on your inclinations).

An exhaustive list? By no means.

The idea here is that every waiter knows about, understands, and has gotten Verbal Tips.

Frankly, Verbal Tips are one of the most reviled ‘features’ of food serving. Bear with me, but the most common refrain from the waiter is something like, ‘Everything was perfect! Nothing went wrong. They were happy. They said they were happy. The food was great. Nothing came out late. We talked . . . and F’n 10-percent!’

The Verbal Tip is fraud. That’s right. Just like Bernard Madoff said he was giving you a solid return in relation to your contribution. In reality he was keeping the money himself. Here’s how it breaks down for Bernie Madoff (and for Verbal Tippers):

  • We give good faith (service or money).
  • He keeps the money.
  • We get the words.

It’s fraud because these people are redefining the interaction of service and tipping. Just like Madoff and his ilk redefine the concept of investment and returns. There is only one definition for tipping. The guest gives the waiter money commensurate with the quality of the job done. Notice there are no commas, or dashes, or parentheses in that sentence. There are no loopholes. This commandment is etched in stone as much as the Employee Manual Moses’ brought down from the mountain.

The Verbal Tipper has defiled this universal law and twisted it into: ‘I will substitute some kind words for a certain amount of money.’

Look, a commendation and a pat on the back is great from your mom or your kindergarten teacher. It’s also nice from your employer, but your boss doesn’t say, ‘Hey, great job today – and by the way, because I just recognized you verbally, I’m reducing your paycheck 10% this week.’

Besides being fraud, Verbal Tipping is ridiculously condescending. Think about the mindset.

‘The real prize for this waiter is not making money and surviving. It is the honor of serving me. If I leave mere money – heck, anyone can do that, and it’s just perfunctory – he won’t appreciate it. I’m going to give him something way more valuable than money. I’m going to let him know that I approve of him.’

Thanks, guy.

Verbal Tippers are also liars (as differentiated from being perpetrators of fraud, a bigger lie). They are liars because they espouse a ‘philosophy’ as quoted above, but the true motivation is not to approve or reward. It is to save money. Everyone knows that waiters make minimum wage (or less!). Are Verbal Tippers also going around ‘rewarding’ and ‘approving of’ the girl running the fitting room at The Gap? How ’bout our favorite, the cashier at the 7-11? I’ve never heard anyone give the old Verbal Tip to the 7-11 guy. Or the dude hawking flowers at the freeway off-ramp? Or the young man selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door?

Verbal Tippers reserve their special reward for only those situations where it can save them from withdrawing money from their wallets.

Let this be the rule from here forth – no, wait. This has always been the rule: A Verbal Tip shall only, and we mean only, be administered as a reinforcement or supplement to the real, actual, concrete money tip that has been given. If the guest feels there has been excellent service, then the statement will be the percentage of tip awarded. If the guest feels he wants to ‘supplement’ the waiter’s tip at this point, then he can go right ahead and commend him verbally for his competence and his personality and his full head of hair. Anything at all. But the Verbal Tip is only to underline what his actual tip has already stated.

Thank you.