Arthur in Maine accepted the challenge of answering my query that began the Mission on the Bay story: “What is it about restaurants that generate so many ethics messes?” I had never considered the reasons he cites, but they are sound. I was thinking about all the various restaurant ethics blow-ups I have posted on in the past, as well as the many I have left undiscussed. I was especially thinking about this one from seven years ago, about an Applebees waitress who posted online a receipt from an obnoxious customer, a pastor to shame her. That controversy prompted two additional posts, here and here. Yet as unethical as the waitress in that episode was, the eavesdropping bartender in Swampscott was worse.
Arthur argues persuasively that the culture of the restaurant business makes it a breeding ground for unethical conduct. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “Scary Tales Of The George Floyd Freakout: The Mission On The Bay Fiasco”:
Jack, your header asks why so many ethics problems arise in restaurants. Having spent some time in the field, I offer the following in answer.
- High end restaurants tend not to have this type of issue. They usually hire highly competent kitchen and front-of-house staff, and management is usually diligent in training and supervision.
The ethical problems are more common in mid-level houses and chains.
- In such houses, staffing is a never-ending challenge, for the simple reason that restaurant work is essentially one of the few fields that actually rewards vagrancy. Servers and kitchen personnel might work a given house for a year or two and move on to something else – either a gig where they think they can make more money, or a different place altogether. Serving and cooking skills are easily transferable; if you leave one location for whatever reason (family, problems with the law, just a desire to see another part of the country, you name it) – it’s pretty easy to find another gig doing exactly the same thing.
In mid-level houses, actual loyalty to the organization tends to be the exception, rather than the rule.
- The nature of restaurant staff. Senior-level positions – chef or sous chef (or kitchen manager) and the front-of-house manager generally require a fair amount of training and experience. These tend to be genuinely skilled positions. But servers and line cooks… candidly, these are mostly semi-skilled positions. The work is fairly physically demanding but really isn’t particularly mentally taxing most of the time. And with regard to service personnel: very few people in the United States actually work as restaurant servers because that’s their chosen field. Yes, you find true professionals in the high-end places. But for pretty much everyone else, it’s a way to pay the bills while waiting for your screenplay to be picked up, or finishing school, or whatever.
And in fairness, there are servers who really don’t have other options available to them based upon their skills and where they live. But for many, the number of hours required to make a decent amount of money are comparatively short.
Now, here’s where things get more interesting. It’s pretty easy to steal and cheat. Less so in the front of the house, because most transactions these days are via credit card, but there’s still enough cash in play that it can be easily skimmed. That can happen right up to ownership, by the way. In the kitchen, it’s surprisingly easy to steal food, or for a kitchen manager who’s worried about his cost of goods to order a cheaper product than what’s claimed on the menu and charge a premium for it. Very few customers will ever know that the “prime” beef they ordered might actually be a fairly low grade of “choice.”
Active stealing from the walk-ins is getting tougher due to improving inventory control software systems – and the fact that many places use computerized systems to relay orders between the front and back of the house also tightens up controls on what actually gets ordered and served (along with helping to track the money). But even so, there remain plenty of ways to cheat. Bartenders may pour free drinks without charging favored customers (or that pretty waitress they’re hoping to bed. The owner of the best house I ever worked in once told me “if you ever buy your own restaurant, hire a born-again Christian as your bar manager.”).
So adding all of these things up, the restaurant world is one that makes it EASY for unethical people to be unethical, to the point of effectively rewarding them for being so.